On September 28, the day after her daughter died, Marianne Woessner walked into the row house at 648 Dover St., in the shadow of Camden Yards and the University of Maryland Medical Center.
"It was a God-awful mess," says Woessner, who had flown up from her home in North Carolina to see the house where her oldest child, Dr. Carrie John, died after injecting buprenorphine—a heroin substitute often called "bupe"—into her arm. John and her fiancé, Dr. Clinton McCracken, were post-doctoral research fellows at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and both had studied pharmacology, physiology, and addiction. Both were considered brilliant, promising young scholars, at the forefront of their fields.
"There were clothes everywhere, bongs of all shapes and sizes, prescription medicine all over the place," Woessner recalls. "The police showed me where the marijuana was growing, where the needles and syringes were. I was like, 'I don't recognize this place.' I didn't recognize the person they were talking about. It just wasn't my daughter."
Twenty-four hours earlier, McCracken and John had soaked a 2 mg bupe pill in water and filtered it before preparing two syringes, each with a 1 mg dose of the drug. John injected her needle first and immediately began to have trouble breathing. After a few minutes of trying to help her calm her breathing, McCracken called 911. He never had the chance to inject his dose. Carrie was taken to the emergency room and was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:49 p.m.
Police and emergency room doctors assumed John died of an overdose, but McCracken—who knew these drugs as well as anyone—told them they were wrong. "He said no one ever got hurt using those drugs," according to the police report. "It must have been a batch of pills that were bad." Weeks later, an autopsy proved he was right: John had died of an allergic reaction to something in the pills, which were not buprenorphine. The couple had bought bogus narcotics.
As details of the couple's covert life came out in the days after John's death, friends and family grew ever more perplexed.
McCracken told police he and John had ordered 20 bupe pills for $2 each from an online pharmacy in the Philippines called New Mikee Online Pharmacy and that the couple had ordered morphine, OxyContin, and other drugs from the pharmacy in the past. Typically, he said, the drugs were hidden in stuffed animals or other toys and marked as wedding presents.
When police searched the couple's Dover Street house, they discovered "huge gardens" of marijuana in several areas, along with grow lamps, fans, and ventilation systems. "Bags with pills were located in various areas to include the refrigerator, purses, and countertops," the police report reads. "Found inside of the large mason jars were several hundred bundles of suspected marijuana. A partial express mail package from EMS was found that was sent from the Philippines with a postage date of 18 September 2009 with the item described as a wedding gift. The item weighed 80 grams in total."
John's death came just when it seemed the couple's illegal activities were catching up to them. In the backpack that McCracken was wearing in the hospital, police found letters from the U.S. Customs and Border Agency investigating shipping of narcotics and false manifests.
Woessner, a nurse midwife, returned to North Carolina soon after touring her daughter's house, still trying to piece together the circumstances that led to her death. "I am just devastated by all of this," she says. "I never expected this to happen to my daughter."
Carrie's parents noticed her abnormal intelligence at an early age. At three years old, she could read. When she was four, she was doing multiplication and her mother found a kindergarten that would take her. "She just continued to be super, super-smart," says Woessner. "Way beyond anything that we ever figured out."
John developed an advanced emotional maturity, too. She was only 18 months older than her sister Jennifer, but served as a second mother figure. "She used to French braid my hair for dance recitals and softball practice," says Jennifer. "She was extremely nurturing." Years later, when Jennifer was still living with her parents and having a rough time, Carrie invited her to come live with her for a couple months. "She took care of me."
Unlike some intellectually gifted kids, Carrie was also well-rounded. She played clarinet in the high school band and varsity softball—a passion that continued through this year, when she played in a local league. "Everything that she did, she did well," says Woessner.
Carrie graduated from high school at 16 and went to Cornell, then to Wake Forest University, where she earned a doctorate in pharmacology and physiology. As a graduate student, she studied the effects of cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines on mice, and potential treatments for addiction. She earned an endless string of awards for her research, including one from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2003.
While at Wake Forest, John met Clinton McCracken, who colleagues and friends describe as "scary smart." The pair instantly became close friends and soon began dating.
"There relationship was one where everyone thought they were made for each other," says Rob Bioletti, who grew up with McCracken in Edmonton, Alberta, and remains one of his closest friends. "They were the type of couple that seemed to communicate without words."
In the Spring of 2006, John and McCracken finished their doctorates at Wake Forest. McCracken began doing research at the University of Pittsburgh, while John accepted a fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and moved into the two-bedroom row house on Dover Street.
John quickly adapted to Baltimore, becoming immersed in her research, but also finding time to play in the softball league and go on neighborhood walks with the local Citizens on Patrol group.
"She was reliable, fun, got along with all kinds of groups," says Sharon Reuter, a leader of Citizens on Patrol who became friends with John. "Honestly, if you had said to me, 'Somebody in this neighborhood is going to die [from drugs], who do you think it is going to be?' She'd be last on the list. The whole thing was like, 'Are you kidding me?'"
For three years, John and McCracken maintained a long-distance relationship. One weekend she would drive up to Pittsburgh to see him, and the next, he would come to Baltimore. Despite the distance, the relationship remained strong. In 2007, John hosted Thanksgiving in her row house, inviting her parents, McCracken's parents, her sister and other family members—nine people in all. Two months later, during one of the couple's weekends together, McCracken proposed.
"I was the first person she called," says John's sister Jennifer. "She was so excited. I was going to be her maid of honor. She told me to start looking at dresses."
But John decided she didn't want to get married until the couple had lived together for a year. And she confided in Jennifer that she had concerns about starting a family with McCracken, who was outspoken about being a marijuana smoker and advocate of legalization.
"She was like, there's no way I'm having children with Clint unless he stops smoking pot," Jennifer recalls. "I know, in my sister's head, she was in control then. I think, when Clint moved in, she lost a little control."
In May of this year, McCracken landed a job at the University of Maryland and finally moved into the Dover Street row house with John. "She was definitely excited for him to move in," Reuter recalls. "The long-distance relationship was not easy."
But friends and family began to notice changes soon after McCracken moved in. John stopped walking with Citizens on Patrol. She complained to her mother that she was having trouble finding room for all of McCracken's stuff. And as the summer wore on, she was less frequently in touch with her family.
"The phone calls got less and less, especially in September," says Woessner. "I called her a couple times, I e-mailed her a couple times, I didn't get a response back for like nine days. That wasn't like her. She e-mailed and said, 'Sorry, the phones were off and the computer had a virus.' That was the last contact I had with her. It was September 18." Nine days later, Carrie John was dead.
The night before John died, she and McCracken drove up to Philadelphia for a party thrown by their old friend Sara Jane Ward.
Ward met John and McCracken when the three of them were graduate students at Wake Forest. They all became good friends, and Ward was, for a time, McCracken's lab partner. "He was intimidatingly smart," recalls Ward, who is now an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Like John, Ward studies addiction by testing the behaviors of rodents.
Ward says there are three kinds of people who decide to study drug addiction. There are those who are interested in treating addiction, who see it as an important public health issue. She puts herself in that category. Then, there are those who fall into the research because they like the techniques or a particular lab.
"And then, there are definitely people who are just fascinated by drugs and their effects," she says. "Whether or not those people are interested in trying the drugs or not, there will always be a set of people who are just intrigued about how drugs affect the brain."
Ward had always considered John and McCracken to be in the second category. "Both of them went into graduate school not necessarily intent on studying drug abuse," she says. Now, she wonders if studying drugs and being around them piqued their curiosity and led to dangerous behavior.
"It was surprising for me, not necessarily that friends of mine experimented with drugs, but that it was that class of drugs," she says. "Most people in the field would certainly put opiates way up there on the list of the most addictive and dangerous, as far as a risk of overdose."
Ward says she didn't notice anything out of the ordinary about the couple at her party. They recounted old stories and she talked to Carrie about coming to Baltimore to do some research with her. But after hearing the details of the police report, she says it's clear there was a major problem.
"Ordering a narcotic from an online pharmacy from another country is pretty extreme behavior," she says. "That, to me, is the strongest indication that this was something more than having fun with drugs."
Many of John's friends and family have concluded that McCracken, in particular, had grown fascinated with drugs and had come to think he could control their effects, and that things got out of control when he came to Baltimore.
"When he moved, I think he moved all his little paraphenalia with him," says Woessner. "At that point, I think her life started spiraling downward."
During the last month of John's life, Woessner speculates, the couple began to retreat further because they were afraid of being prosecuted for their illegal drug imports. "In retrospect, they knew the Feds were onto them," she says. "I can only think that he's probably been doing it for a long time, so when he moved to Baltimore, he continued to do it. She probably knew about it and didn't have a problem with it. Or if she did, she kept it to herself."
Since John's death, many have speculated that a drug test might've saved her life. "I thought that when you work with illegal drugs, and you're granted permission from the government to play with those things, that somebody would drug test you," says Woessner. "I don't know if that's going to change as a result of this."
Ward says many labs do test for drugs, but they often test technicians and other lower level employees, not research fellows. "If a university has a policy to drug test, they should test everybody," she says.
There is a perception among university administrators, the public, and researchers themselves that scientists who study these drugs would never abuse them, but there are many documented cases of scientists who do.
"Since this story came out, I've gotten several e-mails from [researchers] who said they did the same thing," says Woessner. "It's kinda like a game: How high can you get before you're ready to die, and then you just reverse it. Carrie and Clint are not the only people that have ever done this."
Several weeks after Carrie John's death, a massive mound of trash is piled up outside 648 Dover Street.
There's a queen-sized mattress and box spring, fans, a DVD player, an old microwave, a pair of crutches—evidence of a hastily emptied house.
In the aftermath of John's death and the search of the couple's house, McCracken was charged with 14 drug-related counts—including manufacturing maijuana and possession with intent to distribute—but nothing directly tied to her death.
"We're thrilled that the drug charges have nothing to do with her death," says McCracken's attorney, David Irwin. "It was clear to us that he was trying to save her, not in any way trying to hurt her."
Released on bail, McCracken spent several days sifting through his and John's possessions, discarding a dumpster load or two, but keeping some particular mementos.
"He sent me some things he thought were important, like a box of her jewelry," says Carrie's sister Jennifer. "I've been wearing some of it and I treat it like gold."
John's mother and sister have both been in touch with McCracken since her death, and, while both say they are angry with him, neither of them blame him for her death.
"I came to the conclusion very early on that he did not kill my daughter," says Woessner. "So, I still love him, but I do not like what he did. I'm very angry. He knows that."
McCracken himself couldn't comment for this story because of the impending charges, but Irwin says he's really struggling. "He still trying to get over the loss of Carrie," he says. "It sounds silly to think that these felony charges that could send him to jail for a long time are not his major worry, but they're not."
McCracken's trial is set to begin March 25. His lawyer says he could face several years in jail, but is hoping for leniency in light of his client's clean record and exemplary personal references. "He's one of the nicest kids," says Irwin. "Unfortunately, they thought they knew what they were doing."
No one is sure whether or not McCracken will ever be able to return to his research or work in academia again. Ward thinks he will have a better chance if he returns to his native Canada.
"The most overwhelming feeling I had when I heard about the whole thing was just feeling so terrible for him," she says. "I just can't even imagine what he's going through now or what he's going to be going through for years, as he tries to sort everything out and get his life back on track."
Woessner has returned to her work as a midwife full time and, with the tremendous support of friends and family, is working through the stages of her loss. One of the things that makes it hardest, she says, is that the answer to the mystery is so simple.
"Two brilliant people did a very stupid thing," she says. "The moral is, this could have been anybody's child."