Disappeared in Death 

Homeless and mentally ill, Joshua Pawlik was unconscious right before four Oakland police officers killed him in March. His family and friends are seeking answers.

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It was evident to his family and friends that his mental illness was worsening and expressing itself as schizoaffective disorder. More troubling was that his drug use was morphing from self-medication into a full-blown addiction that worsened his overall ability to cope.

It was around this time that Pawlik had an extremely manic episode and, for the first and only time in his life, he threatened his family by picking up a kitchen knife and shouting, "I'll stab you!" Kelly and her husband, Pawlik's stepfather, Jeff, called the police. They said it wasn't that they felt endangered so much as they were at the end of their rope with his drug use and delusions, which had become highly disruptive to their lives. Kelly said they hoped that by putting Pawlik into the juvenile justice system the authorities might actually give him the treatment and medication he needed. Treatment was something Pawlik's working-class parents couldn't afford on their own.

Looking back, Kelly thinks it was a mistake to assume the police and courts could address her son's mental health issues. Instead, the authorities branded him a potential criminal.

Adding to Pawlik's troubles, his best friend died a couple years later. Pawlik's family and friends believe that the tragic experience set back any chance he had of stabilizing.

It was a warm June afternoon in 2003 when Pawlik, Jeffrey Albury, and several others went down to Riverside Drive along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg. The Rappahannock is a popular swimming attraction, but summer rains had turned the waterway dangerous. Against others' advice, Albury got in. He was sucked under by a strong current. Pawlik scrambled to the water's edge and saw Albury come up once for a gasp of air, his arms desperately reaching, but he was dragged down again and pummeled by rocks. His body was found three days later far downriver.

"We definitely noticed a major, traumatic downslide after that," Kelly said about her son. "He felt somewhat responsible. He felt he should have stopped him from going in, or jumped in after him."

Haunted by his friend's death, Pawlik's mental illness become more acute. And his drug use intensified. Years dragged on and he floundered untreated like many Americans who can't afford health care. His behavior became more erratic, and then, for the first time, he stole money — a lot of it.

In 2008, Pawlik was working at a local shopping mall when an elderly woman showed up with several thousand dollars in cash asking to purchase gift certificates. Pawlik accepted her money and, after the woman left thinking she had completed the transaction, he disappeared for several days with the cash.

Pawlik called his mother four days later, apologizing. He said he'd never seen so much money in his life and he "just flipped" and decided to use it to travel to Tennessee to visit a former girlfriend. When he returned, he was charged with larceny and ordered to pay restitution. He also stayed in jail for a short period.

As his drug use became more frequent, Pawlik moved out of his mother's home and in with a friend nicknamed Cubby. Cubby was a heroin user who was dying from HIV and his propensity to overdose. He and Pawlik would score drugs and stay inside getting high for days. Pawlik also acted as Cubby's caretaker. But he increasingly burned bridges, lost jobs, alienated friends, and spiraled downward.

It got to a point where he couldn't work in the small town of Fredericksburg anymore, and after Cubby died, Pawlik had nowhere to go. He showed up one night asking to sleep on his mother's couch, but Kelly, heartbroken, turned him away.

Desperate and without the money needed to put him in a drug and mental health treatment program, Pawlik's family thought that getting him out of Fredericksburg might help. On July 4, 2011, they bought him a bus ticket to Albuquerque, a city that Pawlik said might be a good place to start fresh. He had some friends there, too. And his parents helped him pay for a cheap hostel for several months. He left with a tape recorder his stepfather gave him and promised to record what would become a podcast.

But it didn't work out. Pawlik struggled in the rough, unfamiliar desert city. He couldn't find work. He ran out of money. Briefly, he was homeless. Two male acquaintances ended up offering him housing, but they had a falling out and Pawlik left suddenly, leaving many of his belongings behind. His family believes he may have been sexually exploited. And Albuquerque wasn't somewhere he could escape drugs. In fact, the city has been swamped with methamphetamine and heroin for decades. Pawlik tried committing suicide twice while his family agonized over what to do next.

One day, out of the blue, Pawlik called his mother and said things were going to be okay. He was on a bus heading to California. But it wasn't a Greyhound bus; rather, it was a converted school bus, and he was riding with a motley group of people he called a "bunch of rainbows" headed to work in the cannabis fields of the Green Triangle. A few weeks later, he called again and said he was in San Francisco living with hippies and punks in Golden Gate Park.


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