By Joe’s sister, Jennifer
One year ago today, my brother, Joe came home from prison. It had been a little over two years, and it wasn’t the first time he’d done time. I look back and can’t help but shake my head. I replay that day in my head often. We spoke of this day on the phone, through letters and visits. We spent so much time looking forward to this day. We made so many plans together.
My brother’s drug use put our family through a hell I could have never imagined, but it wasn’t until Joe started using heroin that I began to understand what it meant to grieve for someone who was still alive. If you’ve loved someone with a substance use disorder, you may know what it’s like, to feel as if even before their hearts stop beating and their bodies turn cold, we are losing them. As his sister, it tore at every fiber of my being.
The truth is, in the last 6 years or so I felt much closer to my brother when he was in prison than when he was out. While he was in, I knew he was more likely to be sober and clearheaded. We had the best conversations and laughed like there was no tomorrow. We never gave up hope, and I know he tried to get and stay clean. It was exhausting, it broke my heart, and yet I forgave him every time. Underneath it all, I knew that he’d been using in an attempt to cover deep pain.
When Joe was released, he was on house arrest with an ankle monitor, staying at a halfway house called Cornerstone Recovering Community. That same night we discussed what could happen if he relapsed. He was motivated to do the right thing- get a job, his own place, the works. On March 22, 2019, I arranged for a Narcan training and opioid epidemic education seminar at my school, where I was studying for my masters. Joe and I discussed plans to join together to share his and Jimmy’s stories with others, to try to do some good in this world.
It was only 3 days later, just 27 days after his release...felt like any other night, laying on the couch relaxing as I came across a post on Facebook at about 10:45pm. His roommate at Cornerstone tagged him and wrote: “Damn RIP I just talked to you.” I remember calling him immediately...no answer. I called my mom next. Almost 8 1/2 years after she told me over the phone that Jimmy (24) had died, I had to call her to tell her about Joey. My mother had now lost both of her sons. Both of my brothers were gone. I called my sister. And then, I screamed. I screamed and screamed, as we raced to my mother’s home and then to Cornerstone.
I called them and I begged them not to take him away. They gave me no information, but promised he’d still be there when we arrived. When we did, I saw my brother’s lifeless body laying on the porch of a house only a few doors down from Cornerstone. I’d heard about this house before and so had our mom. He’d told us it was a trap house. Upon hearing this, I told him I wanted to look into other options..from the first night he spent at Cornerstone. He declined, told me that it was okay and he “knew what to do.”
I think I’ll always tell myself that I could’ve done more, especially in my line of work...located other options for treatment, discussed the idea of him getting the Vivitrol shot. Just days before his death we video chatted, and I watched as his eyes filled with tears and he said: “I’m trying so hard to do better and get it right this time.” I know he was being truthful, and yet here he was. The scene of his death had been tampered with, and it was clear to see, based off of the placement of his body as well as his phone being stolen off of his body after his passing. The doors to the so-called trap house were locked, lights were off, and the Chicago Police Department told us they had no right to enter the home as I stared at my brother on their porch.
To make a long story short: Whoever sold my brother what he thought was heroin threw him onto the porch of the home after he overdosed and stole his phone, all to hide evidence. The detective working this case agreed, based on how he was found. There was no investigation despite my repeated calls to the detective on this case, as well as his agreement that this was concealed evidence. He even agreed to obtain Joe’s phone records (which never happened). Then, it was radio silence. CPD and Cornerstone refused to investigate, other than speaking to residents of Cornerstone. That was it. The Illinois Department of Corrections’ only response was the simple click of a button: removing my brother and his information from their database. We did not hear from his parole officer, who Joe told me “put the anklet on, told me not to catch any cases and said he wouldn’t drug test me unless I screwed up.”
Of course I warned Joe about fentanyl, I warned him that overdose deaths happened very often after someone had clean time, especially in cases of those being released from prison. Before obtaining the toxicology report, I repeatedly told myself “His body couldn’t handle what he’d been used to.” Seeing the amount of fentanyl listed on that report was revolting.
I’m not going to lie and say I’m not angry anymore. It’s hard to not feel angry and let down by the Illinois Department of Corrections, Cornerstone staff and residents, the CPD detectives involved in the case, the individuals he was with that night who cared more about stealing a cellphone (full of memories, photos and evidence of where he obtained the poison that took his life) than a human life. Some days it really is hard to wake up, get out of bed and face the reality of my brother being gone. I still have flashbacks of that night.
Joey was my best friend, my buddy, a sour patch kid and a teddy bear on the inside. A couple days after his passing, I received a screenshot from someone Joe was speaking about me with. He referred to me as his baby. To this day a lump appears in my throat when I think about it. In prison, he had nothing but time to reflect on his past and think about his future. He had so many dreams. He was there for me from the moment I came into this world. I thought we’d have more time. I could’ve never imagined that before he turned 29 I’d be reading his eulogy. I work very hard to hold his memory close and to believe that his death was not in vain. I will fight for the rest of my life to make sure his story is told because he mattered and he still does.
On March 25, 2019, my brother, 28 year old Joseph Luebke, was one of five in one day in Cook County - death by fentanyl toxicity. 27 days out of prison on house arrest with an ankle monitor. No one can convince me that fentanyl dealers are not murderers, especially when you consider the circumstances surrounding my brother’s death. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- lightning struck my family twice and you would be naive to think it couldn’t happen to you. In the blink of an eye, as fast as it takes to make a $10 exchange. My brother wanted to share his story, to make a difference, and I know I’m just about the only one left who can make that happen.
I am not ashamed of my brother. The way his life ended will not overshadow the beauty he brought into this world and it will not taint his memory. The same goes for our brother Jimmy. I will continue to speak out to humanize addiction, and I hope those of you reading this will do the same. The opioid epidemic is a domestic threat more insidious than that of mass shooters and terrorist groups. It is wiping out an entire generation and yet we sit here arguing about whether it is a disease or a choice. Common sense tells us the first time is a choice, and once the disease manifests in the brain, the mental and physical compulsions are unspeakable. In my heart I believe that once we learn as a society to experience and process emotions and trauma more effectively, we will be so much closer to truly addressing the underlying cause.
Life can feel overwhelming and excruciating without Joey’s presence. To say I miss him terribly would be an understatement. Above all else, I miss him, I love him and I forgive him.