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'No matter what'

Josh Horton puts his criminal past behind
him by pursuing a future in law.

Josh Horton woke up in jail again. The stale reek of urine swirled around him. Confusion cast a fearful shadow. Usually he could rely on receipts and other pocket scraps to map what he’d done before blacking out. But Fulton County jailers had stripped him naked. The 24-year-old Alpharetta native wore only a paper gown. His racing heartbeat pounded like thunder in his head.

This thing he did, it must have been bad. They’d put him in solitary confinement. He closed his eyes, willing his drug-spiked mind to recall the specifics of how he wound up here. He’d been chasing booze with Xanax and Percocet outside a townhome he shared with his wife, he knew that much. He’d been staggering about in that pliant haze of liquor, benzos and painkillers — a numbing cocktail that so often made his evenings feel less like reality and more like dreams.

He ran a hand through filthy hair and touched beard stubble. How long had he been here? Josh shook his head. Moments passed as slippery recollections slowly came into focus. Each was an ill-fitting puzzle piece of a total nightmare.

It was coming back to him now. During the transfer ride over hours earlier from the jail in Alpharetta — his hands and ankles shackled to the van’s floorboard — he’d overheard officers in the front seat talking.

More felonies than we can count, one of the cops had said.

He remembered a handgun, a 9mm, and spent shells plinking on the porch — punctuating the rapid clap of gunfire — as he emptied the clip. A team of law enforcement officers creeping up the hill as he slumped beside his truck. In the early morning hours of May 7, 2008, when police told Josh to reach for the sky, he’d reached instead for the beer can in his truck: the action of a man who wanted to die. His gun had been in the bushes.

His head ached with one of the worst hangovers he’d ever had, and the nauseating realization of what he’d done settled deep in his gut. He felt a crushing weight of guilt. As he sat alone, staring at the cement walls of his jail cell, Josh Horton wanted to kill himself more than ever.

A week later, he shuffled into a Fulton County Magistrate courtroom wearing a jumpsuit, shackled to other men. Nerves raw from withdrawal, he listened to the judge, incredulous. He’d tallied quite the list of charges from his wild evening in Alpharetta: 13 counts of reckless conduct; 13 counts of discharge of a firearm near a public highway; terroristic acts; discharge while under the influence. All of it was compounded by the fact that he was already in possession of and firing a weapon. The number 13 preceding each charge represented the number of bullet casings police found outside his apartment following his arrest.

Despite his confusion during the bond hearing, to this day Josh recalls with clarity the judge’s words and puzzling ruling.

“She looked at me, and she said, ‘I see something in you, son. I’m going to throw out all the felonies.’”

According to Josh, the bailiff then turned to him and said: You’re the luckiest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen in my life.

At the time he didn’t fully appreciate the bullet he’d dodged. He ended up pleading guilty to only one charge: a misdemeanor count for discharge of a firearm in public.

“I don’t know why the judge did that,” said Josh. “It was just one of those acts I look back on now, and I think it’s a miracle where God chose to remain anonymous. I look back … and, I see all of these moments where there was something like divine intervention in my life, and I don’t even question it anymore.”


2

The magic elixir

Josh was born the summer of 1983 at Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs, the son of Joe and Sharon Horton. They’d met on the job at Peachford Hospital, a mental health and drug treatment center, where he was director of maintenance and she was an administrative assistant.

The first two weeks of Josh’s life was spent living with his maternal grandparents, Ronald and Lois Verlander in Dunwoody.

Joe had just been offered a job running a souvenir shop in Panama City Beach, Fla. — the kind selling airbrushed T-shirts, keepsake shot glasses and surfboard key chains — so the family was in the midst of relocating.

Six weeks later, Josh was living with his parents in an apartment in Florida when his father went out fishing in a boat and never came back.

The Verlanders welcomed their newly widowed daughter and their infant grandson back into their Dunwoody home.

Lois remembers Josh as a happy child.

“He was always smiling. He had a great personality. Josh had (his father’s) smile. He shared the jolly personality that his daddy had. They were both full of life.”

But growing up without a father left a hole in Josh’s world.

“I feel like I know him, but I don’t know him,” he said. “I’ve heard all these stories, and I’ve heard how much people cared for my father … it makes me wish that I knew him.”

Sharon had a tough time dealing with the loss. Josh can recall on more than one occasion walking into a room of their home and seeing her slouched in tears by the record player as she listened to Hank Williams Jr. records — one of his father’s favorite musicians. She wasn’t the only one who couldn’t let go.

Joe Horton was a “magnetic personality,” Josh said. “Most of my family still talks about the impact he had on them to this day, and it’s been 30 some-odd years.”

When Josh was 2, he and his mother moved to their own house in Alpharetta. When he was 8, Sharon remarried and two half-siblings eventually followed.

By age 13, Josh was a big brother and something of a jock who loved playing football and baseball. One evening, when he was hanging out with one of his friends, the boys split a six-pack of beer his friend’s father bought for them. After his friend fell asleep, Josh continued to drink.

“I went to his dad’s liquor cabinet and polished off a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and woke up in my own vomit,” Josh said. “Most normal people would do that and say, ‘This sucks. I don’t ever want to do it again.’ But, not me. I was like, ‘When do I get to do this again?’ I knew I was an alcoholic from the get-go.”

It was no mystery to Josh why he took so quickly to booze. He’d spent his whole life surrounded by people who drank. Every social event was accompanied by alcoholic beverages — funerals, weddings, birthdays, and even most weeknights. He also has an extensive family history of alcoholism, including some kin who died as a result.

While Josh seemed happy to many — often sporting his father’s trademark smile — on the inside, he was anything but. He felt like an outsider. He wasn’t comfortable in his own skin. He felt as if others had been given a sort of handbook on how to live their lives and be content, and he’d missed out somehow.

“The first time I got drunk, that’s when I knew I’d found the magic elixir, and it seemed to cure all pain I’d been feeling for the first 13 years of my life.”

When he was 16, Josh dropped out of school, left home and received his first DUI.

Over the next decade Josh would cultivate a serious drug habit and accumulate quite the record.

Between 2000 to 2008, he racked up multiple counts of charges for marijuana possession, minor in possession of alcohol, fake ID, DUI, public drunkenness, simple battery and probation violation.

Eventually he got to where he would wake up in the morning and down several cans of high-gravity beer “just to stop the shaking.”

In 2006, Josh met a woman at a bar and three weeks later they flew to Las Vegas and got married. Alcoholism played a big part in the relationship and the divorce that followed in 2009, he said.

There were times when he tried to get sober, but it was often for the wrong reasons — usually to avoid jail time. “But it would never stick,” he said. “I could always stop drinking for a little bit, but I could never stay stopped because I wasn’t addressing the alcoholism. I was trying to keep the consequences at bay, and that only lasts so long.”

Around 2007, Josh began attending an alcoholism and addiction recovery group in Roswell. A local man named David Gansereit befriended Josh. Much like the Fulton County Magistrate Judge who would soon dismiss dozens of felonies from Josh’s record, David saw something special in Josh.


3

Living on borrowed time

On the evening of May 6, 2008, Josh was angry and hellbent on drinking. Following an argument over the phone with a friend of his soon-to-be ex-wife, Josh drove to the townhome they shared in Alpharetta. Upon finding her not there, he sat on a curb in front of his residence and started drinking beer — polishing off more than a 12-pack — and popping pills like Tic-Tacs.

He remembers getting the 9mm Smith & Wesson out and firing it into the lawn, thinking it was his yard and he could fire the gun wherever he damn well pleased.

According to an incident report filed by the Alpharetta Police Department, police were called to the Gates at Steeplechase Townhomes around 12:30 a.m. May 7. At least seven officers responded with Bushmaster patrol rifles drawn and aimed.

One officer reported that Josh tossed his weapon but did not comply with the officers’ commands as they approached him. Josh lingered by his truck, not putting his hands up. An officer grabbed him from behind, wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him.

“The miracle is that they didn’t shoot me,” Josh said. “For whatever reason they decided not to. I get told a lot that I’m living on borrowed time, and that fuels me, I think, because I know I probably should not be here.”

Due to the seriousness of his charges and his symptoms from drug withdrawal, Fulton County jailers kept him in solitary confinement for a week

“It was scary,” Josh said. “They were telling me I did things I didn’t remember doing. It’s one thing to forget where your car is; it’s another thing to wake up and have the rest of your life potentially gone because you made a very bad decision.”

If the Fulton County Magistrate Judge hadn’t “seen something” in Josh, he has no doubt he’d be in jail today with many years still to serve.


4

Out of the shadows

Although his felony counts were tossed out, a single misdemeanor kept Josh jailed awaiting for someone to put up bail money to get him out.

David Gansereit was that person.

Around midnight, David got a phone call. Josh had been released. He drove to Fulton County Jail in the early morning hours, circling the block a few times to find the entrance when he saw Josh “stumbling out of the shadows … wild eyed and wild haired and kind of dirty. Pretty much what you’d expect from someone coming out of jail.”

Josh was overjoyed to see his friend, but he wasn’t out of jail for long. His latest brush with the law had put him in violation of his probation for a previous charge. His next stop was Forsyth County Jail.

He spent a couple weeks there and was released to a halfway house in Atlanta where he lived for six months. Upon release, he took a job “chasing storms” as a tree removal services salesman. About four months later he started drinking again, picking up where he’d left off.

Josh spent the next couple of years essentially homeless, couch surfing with friends. He had a few more brushes with the law. By the summer of 2011, he was running out of options. That’s when he decided to return to a familiar refuge, his grandmother’s home in Dunwoody.

During his whole troubled life, his grandmother had been the one person who Josh says never gave up on him.

“It was always a safe haven for me.”


In November 2011, for whatever reason, Josh had finally had enough. He awoke that morning from a drinking binge burdened by the knowledge he had a court date with Cobb County in the coming weeks for a DUI charge. He knew he’d almost certainly serve time, if only a week or two.

He’d been thinking about something his grandmother once told him: A ship never makes a meaningful voyage when it stays close to home.

He knew she owned a house in Fulton, Miss., that had belonged to her late parents. No one had lived in it for 15 years. Desperate to get away from what he called “all the negativity and bad influences in life,” Josh had begun to see it as another possible refuge. There was also a community college nearby.

On that fateful morning, Josh found a tube of red lipstick and wrote “No Matter What” on a mirror inside his grandmother’s home. It was a phrase borrowed from his grandfather that had stuck with him over the years, a personal slogan Josh interpreted to mean “an attitude that perseverance is going to win out … to just keep going no matter what circumstances look like.”

With the Cobb County court date looming, Josh drove to Fulton, Miss., with nothing more than a garbage bag full of clothes and a television set. He stayed there for a few weeks and enrolled in classes at Itawamba Community College in anticipation of returning after doing his time in Cobb County.

When he returned to the Cobb County courtroom in December, the judge asked Josh what he wanted to do with his life.

I want to go to law school, Josh said.

The judge smirked in response.

It was Josh’s firsthand experience inside the criminal justice system that got him interested.

“Being exposed to the system the way I was … I got to see what happens behind those walls and what the courtroom looks like if you’re poor. Especially with substance use disorders, if you’re poor you go to prison; if you’re rich, you go to treatment.

“It fueled a passion for me.”


5

No Matter What

One Tuesday last month, in Oxford, Miss., Josh awakens at 5 a.m., blinking his way to consciousness. An early riser by nature, he makes a pot of coffee and strokes his 3-year-old Rottweiler, Athena, as they greet the day together. His home is “the cheapest place (he) could find in Oxford,” a small brick duplex near campus.

On his nightstand is a stack of law books, as well as a book on Tao meditation and several titles by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Paintings and prints of lions (he’s a Leo and feels an affinity for the beast) adorn the walls inside his duplex. After breakfast, he drives his car, a 1999 Ford Contour a friend sold him for $400, to campus.

Sitting in class, Josh, now 33, is noticeably older than most of his colleagues. Perched on the edge of his seat, listening, taking notes on his laptop, he also looks a little more purposeful. In less than a year, he’s scheduled to graduate from the University of Mississippi School of Law as a juris doctor candidate.

Since doing that week in the Cobb County jail in 2011, he’s maintained a clean criminal record — with the exception of a 2012 public drunk charge in Fulton, Miss., where he was attending community college. Old habits clung hard as he tried to quit drinking on his own but relapsed.

Josh later found another recovery group in the area and says he’s been sober since Jan. 26, 2013, the same year he graduated community college and enrolled in the undergraduate sociology program at Ole Miss.

He looks back at these moments from his past when he could have died or been sentenced to a life in jail for his bad decisions, and he sees God. There’s a metaphor he likes about lamplighters who used to illuminate the streets of England before electricity.

“They would go around the streets at dusk and they would light the lamps,” Josh said. “You couldn’t always see the lamplighter himself, but you could see where he’d been, and that’s kind of what my recovery has been like. I can’t see God, but I can see where he’s been.”

Josh was raised in the church but never used to consider himself religious. Now, in recovery, he considers himself a believer.

“My relationship with God changed as a result of getting sober.”

In May 2015, Josh graduated magna cum laude from the Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss. While visiting family and friends in Georgia, he stopped by Psycho Tattoo in Marietta and got some ink: The words “No Matter What” over his ribs, near his heart.

Last June, Josh started Southern Recovery Advocacy, a non-profit that helps support those in recovery and eradicate the stigma surrounding it.

“We’ve got to stop treating people like criminals,” Josh said. “We’re compounding the problem instead of making it better.”

He knows all too well “the insanity of alcoholism” and drug abuse and hopes to help transform what he calls “this system of cages” into a “system of care.”

As an individual with experience on both sides of the law, he was appointed last January to the Governor’s Opioid and Heroin Study Task Force, under the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

After graduation, he plans to continue helping those who struggle with addiction.

“The more I try to pay it forward, the more I get,” Josh said.

While he’s put his dark past behind him, Josh has no illusions about how his past transgressions could very well limit his future. It’s possible prospective employers will focus on his addictions and criminal record instead of the remarkable strides he’s made changing the trajectory of his life.

“If that happens, I know I’ll have other opportunities,” he said. “I’ll still have a law degree when I graduate. Whether or not they let me practice law, that’s up to them, but I know I’ve done my part … and I can rest easy knowing that.”

If practicing law doesn’t work out, Josh says he’ll pursue a career in the recovery community, in public office or as an advocate for policy reform.

“I want to keep paying it forward, because there’s a reason I made it out of all this. I’ve got to figure out what that reason is, and I’m going to do it no matter what.”

Behind the story

CONTRIBUTED BY STEVE SCHAEFER


ABOUT THE STORY

This week’s Personal Journey explores the devastating ways alcoholism can derail a young life and the herculean effort it takes to get sober. For Josh Horton, who has been to brink of hell and lived to tell the tale, redemption takes an unexpected twist.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE WRITER

Frank Reddy is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications. A native of Gainesville, his debut novel, “Eyes on the Island,” was published in 2016 by Fiction Advocate.