In 2013, my younger sister, Sarah, died of an overdose in the bathroom of her boyfriend’s home. Her body wasn’t found for four days.
I told her once if she died, it would ruin my life. “I know,” she said.
Despite our five-year age difference, Sarah and I became addicts around the same time, when she was a teenager and I was turning twenty. I found alcohol and eventually cocaine while she gravitated to opiates, first pills and then heroin. When I was twenty-four, I hit my bottom and went to AA to get sober. When Sarah was twenty-four, she died.
As children, Sarah and I relied on each other for protection and fun and solace. When I left for college, just as Sarah hit puberty, she had to fend for herself in regards to our emotionally abusive stepfather and our narcissist father. We became untethered and for the first time there was dark space between us. As we both struggled with addiction, that chasm widened. I was critical and she was manipulative. I lied and she stole. We were a pair of addicts who didn’t know how to love each other anymore.
The rumors that Sarah had been murdered started with a Facebook post, gossip floating around the internet that she was killed with a hot shot—an intentionally lethal dose. In the months following her death, I would learn that she had died of unusually high meth overdose (a drug she had said she hated), that she had sold a gun that was connected to a series of high-profile homicides and that one of the men charged in connection to those crimes had been the last person with her the morning she died. When my pleas to police went unanswered, I decided to investigate her suspicious death myself.The rumors that Sarah had been murdered started with a Facebook post, gossip floating around the internet that she was killed with a hot shot—an intentionally lethal dose.
I began with her body. I was the second person to hold her when she was born and now I would be the one to research what happened to her when she died. Her official cause of death was anoxia, cause of anoxia was pulmonary edema, cause of pulmonary edema was the toxic effects of methamphetamine. This means that her lungs filled with liquid, her brain shut down due to lack of oxygen and she likely hallucinated in her final moments. What the internet couldn’t tell me, I filled in with my nightmares. What were her last thoughts? Was she scared? Did she leave the world knowing she was loved? Depending on the day, my imagined answers to those questions shifted wildly. My obsessive speculations brought me no closer to catharsis so I sought answers in the court system.
With no roadmap to follow, I stumbled through the process which turned out to be lengthy, confusing and expensive. I started with a call to the coroner’s office hoping to connect with a medical examiner, a kind woman named Lucy, who had been the one to inform me of my sister’s toxicology report. She was on leave, I was informed, but they could send me a coroner’s report. I wasn’t even sure what that was but I said yes and gave them my address. While I waited for its arrival, I turned my attention to the other murders, the one’s adjacent to my sister’s death.
I subscribed to a newspaper local to where Sarah had been living to start my research. I read articles and watch video clips of trial hearings. There were two men arrested in connection with those crimes. One of the men, Dale, plead out and went to prison and the other, Ray, who could afford a defense attorney, went to trial. During this trial, Sarah was talked about, there is a brief mention of her online. It was fragments of a puzzle I didn’t know the shape of. I decided that in order to understand the complete picture, I needed to track down court documents and transcripts.
I have a murder binder. I thought it would contain my grief. Instead, it has become another haunted object that reminds me of the ways I think I have failed her. I imagine her beside me whispering, not enough, not enough.
It is expensive to investigate a death. To obtain copies of trial documents and transcripts, I had to pay around .50 a page, totaling more than $1000. I was in grad school at the time, living off of student loans and being a teaching assistant. I was lucky, my MFA program had research funding available and I was able to get a good portion covered by my school. The other half I pulled together from student loans and emptying my checking account. Within a few weeks, 1700 pages, neatly bound into six volumes and weighing close to twenty-five pounds arrived at my door.
The trial transcript was equal parts dry (technical witnesses discussing how cell tower coverage works), disturbing (testimony of a person coming across a body part), and emotional (Sarah’s name, any mention of her). Trial transcripts are strange because it only captures dialogue. There were moments where certain attorneys would ask for their client’s emotional state to go on record. “May the record show that Dale is weeping on the stand and visibly distraught.”
While reading, I had moments when I cried out, pressed my hands on the page as if my touch could make the words disappear. My dog was startled by my outbursts. I ranted to my now spouse, Josh, as he made me cup after cup of coffee to fuel my reading. I took fastidious notes, designated colored tabs for different parts I wanted to keep track of. I called my stepmom and told her, haltingly, of the first time Sarah’s name appeared during the trial. I read over certain sections obsessively, imagining myself in the courtroom watching the witness on the stand.
The last time I saw Sarah, I did not hug her goodbye. It was at a failed intervention, a desperate attempt to convince her to choose sobriety. We were both angry, the only thing we had in common anymore was that we both felt betrayed. I did not know I would never feel the weight of her small frame against my chest again.
I made calls to friends of my sister to figure out her personal connection to Dale and Ray. I found out that my sister and Dale had met in sobriety and then stayed close with each other after they’d both returned to using. Sarah and Ray would get high together sometimes, I was told. At some point, my sister sold or lent an old shotgun to Dale. This was the gun that was used during the course of the multiple homicides.The last thing I ever said to Sarah was over text “Happy Birthday.” I regret that period, the cold punctuation, the finality of it all.
Based on text messages on Sarah’s phone and one angry phone call made to Ray, a friend of my sister’s had confirmed with him that he was with Sarah the morning of her death. He said he had taken Sarah to get drugs and then dropped her back at her house. He had errands to run and when he came back to get high with her, the door was locked and she didn’t answer the door when he knocked. This was his version of events.
The last thing I ever said to Sarah was over text “Happy Birthday.” I regret that period, the cold punctuation, the finality of it all.
The coroner’s report arrived. Josh and I stopped by the mailbox after a later dinner and there it was, in a large white envelope. It was almost ten and our dog needed to go out for a walk. Josh put on her harness and gently told me to wait to read it, that we could look at it in the morning together. The minute he left the apartment, I opened it. It contained a narrative, written by Lucy, about the night Sarah’s body was discovered. Sarah died on the bathroom floor, her feet still perched on the sink. She was wearing black-and-gray-striped leggings, soft gray socks, layered blue and black tank tops. They pulled fluids from Sarah’s vitreous humor and heart to run the toxicology.
When Josh returned, ten minutes later, I was hysterical. The horror of the details had cracked open my grief. I learned there were things I didn’t need to know. I thought knowing would fix the pain but I was wrong. There are also things I will never know, questions that will remain unanswered, lingering thoughts that will continue to haunt me. I don’t know which is worse- knowing or not knowing.
There is another version of the day she died, one that lives in my murder binder.
I could not save her. No investigation can change that.