Dealer Takes All: Inside One of Seattle's Biggest Opioid Busts

It took a multistate sting to bring down the opioid king of Capitol Hill. But not before his product stole a life. The story of two men, their elusive dreams, and one deadly drug.

By Levi Pulkkinen March 26, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Seattle Met composite image, Shutterstock By DedMityay

It builds from an owlish bob, James Wilson’s silly dance. The head circles. The shoulders shimmy. The arms, hands, and fingers extend to grab the beat. He cracks a smile and the dimples push through his blond-on-brown beard. This life, the dance seems to say, this moment is for joy and friends and fun.

It cracked up his crew at a murder mystery party in the winter of 2017. His costume was that of a sportsman in black shorts and a royal blue pullover unzipped to his sternum. His friend Alice España came as Tara Misu, glamorous mistress. His fiance, a man he’d met the year before at Seattle’s Pride Festival, had slid into a clerical collar and priest shirt for the farce.

Murder mystery night was a break from the norm, a chance for friends from each of their worlds to blend before Wilson and his fiance launched their shared life. Wilson’s people were a tight collection of service industry types. Gay men. A couple of drag performers. España says she was the lesbian. They had carved out a place for themselves on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The costumed whodunit was beyond goofy, but they stuck to the script, hit their lines. And then Wilson had to start bopping.

“James just caught an eye, and started dancing,” España recalls. “Everyone was just like, ‘What are we doing?’”

Born into a large Mormon family, Wilson had followed a boyfriend west out of Montana, and a decade ago landed in the Seattle suburb of Lake Stevens and a community of friends who filled his life. A dream soon drew him from the suburbs into the city. It was love, really. Wilson loved hair, his own most of all. Anyone could see why. Thick, bouncy, and long, Wilson’s mane was the sort that gets tied with a ribbon on the cover of a romance novel. “It was hair like Jesus,” España says. “He’d always be brushing it, just sitting in his apartment brushing his hair.”

James Wilson found a career, love, and community when he moved to the Seattle area from Montana.

And so Wilson set to learning hair. He enrolled at the Gary Manuel Aveda Institute and got himself a chair at the school’s salon in Pioneer Square. By the spring of 2017, Wilson was on his way to realizing his life’s ambition—owning a salon—and to marrying the man he loved.

The 29-year-old and his friends played on the Hill, dancing and drinking. They caught a drag show most Fridays. “He liked to have fun,” España says. “He liked to party, but he wasn’t [a substance] abuser in any sense. He liked to spice things up every now and then, like a lot of people do.”

Some of them indulged in drugs, but cocaine was as serious as Wilson got, or meant to get. Fentanyl—the potent, unpredictable designer drug that can stand in for heroin and dress up coke—wasn’t the spice he was looking for, not any night, not the March night he walked into Purr, a Capitol Hill bar he frequented. But fentanyl was central to another man’s life, someone with whom Wilson’s fate would tangle inextricably. 

• • • • 

In his dreams, Gregory Smith runs. His pursuer is a monster who will not fatigue. The chase is unflagging. He will be overtaken. He wakes afraid. Bad dreams have been with him since he was a boy in Leavenworth, raised in a family of self-described country people outside the touristy, faux-Bavarian town in central Washington. He first ran a chainsaw at age eight. Time on his grandpa’s 40-acre property in the shadow of the Cascades meant tractors, horses, and shooting. He camped and worked the orchards.

His father’s rage and, born of financial necessity, his mother’s neglect shaped his childhood. As his paternal aunt put it in a letter, Smith “was born into poverty and domestic violence.” She said Smith’s father, her brother, abused his family physically and emotionally. His mother, Sue, was a teenager when she gave birth. Smith recalls his father kicking his mother out of a car in motion. Smith’s old man began a slow fade from his life not long after.

There is this moment of clarity Smith remembers. School scared him and bored him. He wasn’t popular or comfortable, didn’t connect with the teachers or most of his classmates. But in elementary school a counselor asked him what he wanted to do in his life. He told her he wanted to make a difference. Maybe he’d be a cop or a firefighter, or maybe he’d work as a therapist.

“Whatever it was, I wanted to help,” he would explain years later. “That’s all I knew.”

Sue Smith describes her son as a boy who “held onto the sadness,” until it made him wild. He went into counseling as early as age seven, had his first panic attack at age 13. He cut himself to break the anxiety. He was prescribed Zoloft and other antidepressant medications. He didn’t like those. He really liked marijuana.

“Weed calmed me down, made me stable,” Smith later recalled. “I got high and spent the majority of time with my peers, peers like me. Kids from broken homes who spent their days self-medicating and finding that missing piece in each other’s companionship, though nothing truly fills that void.”

In 2002, he was working at the Stevens Pass ski area 35 miles west of his hometown when, at 18, he decided to move to Seattle, where his girlfriend was attending the University of Washington. Like James Wilson, Smith, then 18, arrived in Seattle as a rural boy on the run. But where Wilson’s religious family suffocated him, Smith’s relations either tormented him or passed him by. Both were drawn here by their aspirations, and love.

On Capitol Hill, with its artists, its acceptance, its revelry, Smith found a counterpoint to his countrified upbringing, and he embraced it. His girlfriend broke off their relationship three years later as she prepared to move to California. He couldn’t bring himself to leave Seattle.

Love had given Smith purpose. Without it, he drifted. He smoked his way through the breakup. A friend started selling cocaine, and Smith began a daily coke habit that he sustained for years, eventually using it just to stay awake. He lost his job at Pike Place Market and a great deal of weight.

Working as a handyman fixing up apartments, he met some rich kids strung out on oxycodone, a prescription painkiller that introduced millions of Americans to opioids during its 2000s heyday. They traded oxy for cocaine, and oxycodone became Smith’s drug of choice.

He worked and used, got skinny and sick. When he ran out of money, his mother and sister paid his rent and bought him groceries. When funds got even tighter, he switched from oxy to heroin. The drug was cheap and using was easier than quitting, even as it ravaged his body. Then he found fentanyl.

A synthetic opioid many times more potent than heroin, fentanyl and several chemically similar drugs provide a cheap, accessible replacement for heroin and an enhancer to low-quality cocaine. The powder is easy to hide, and easy to sell. A dusting is enough for a fix. A little more—just two milligrams in common varieties of the drug—is a fatal dose. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 28,466 Americans were killed by fentanyl and the drug’s close cousins in 2017.

A potentially fatal dose of fentanyl.

Image: Courtesy DEA

Much of the talk that surrounds fentanyl evokes, for skeptics at least, the war on drugs’ worst public relations excesses. Assertions that touching fentanyl can kill or that the drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin ring like drug warrior sound bites. Stories of new, dangerous formulations pouring out of China into the heartland suit the politics of the moment.

Caleb Banta-Green, a drug epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, cautions against what he describes as “scare tactics” that demonize drug users and undercut public health–oriented responses to the problem. At the same time, he describes the threat as real.

“All it takes is that one shipment getting across the border all going to one city, and all of the sudden your overdose rate has doubled in a week,” Banta-Green says. “That potential really is there, because the demand is there and the market is so volatile.”

In that deadly vice, Gregory Smith saw salvation.

He’d been dealing drugs professionally for at least two years, filling orders for $800, $900, $1,000. But a bit of Googling in mid-2016 proved elevating. That summer Smith connected with chemical makers in mainland China and Hong Kong ready to mail him fentanyl-like compounds. Chinese labs change up formulas to stay ahead of drug laws there. And the fentanyl variant Smith’s suppliers were exporting, acrylfentanyl, wasn’t restricted in the United States until July 2017.

With a Chinese source, Smith’s business took off in what special assistant U.S. attorney Joseph Silvio, a Seattle-based prosecutor with Homeland Security Investigations, described as “an extraordinarily profitable and exceptionally damaging” direction.

Smith was the vanguard for a new iteration in the drug trade, one without capos or cartels, just overseas suppliers delivering low-cost, high-power narcotics by mail. His overseas connections, so easy to come by, made Smith, as Silvio described him, the primary opioid dealer working Capitol Hill. He made money, life-changing money. He poured most of it into his family to, as he put it, “treat my wife as the queen she is and my daughter as the princess she is.”

Smith met his wife right after he caught a minor drug rap in 2006. The charges didn’t amount to much, but the relationship did. They were inseparable as they bounced between motel rooms and apartments.

Their daughter arrived six years ago after a difficult birth. Terrified, Smith cried as their daughter entered the world, and, in his broken way, treasured her ever after.

They made their home in the south-of-Seattle suburb of Burien, in a four-bedroom house above the Duwamish River. Smith grew vegetables, hung bird feeders, and planted flowers. Daughter and dad made pizza topped with candy sprinkles and Prego sauce, and roasted marshmallows over a fire pit Smith dug.

Riding the illogic of addiction, he felt he was a better father while using. “When you are able to manage a habit like I was, it’s like having a beer after work,” Smith later said. “I had an infinite supply and getting clean would force me to stop my daily life for who knows how long.... I can’t be a dad and husband if I’m struggling through detox and rehab.”

• • • • 

WasabiSauced was born in December 2016. Christina Arias birthed her at her Beacon Hill apartment.

Arias, then 32, was something of a dabbler.

Raised in Bellevue, she graduated from Sammamish’s spendy, somewhat exclusive Eastside Catholic School before matriculating to Pacific Lutheran University, where her parents footed most of the bill. Her search for professional purpose led her to nursing school and, after a stint as a certified nursing assistant, to learn to code. Technology suited Arias.

She started using during an abusive relationship. She left the man but was stuck with a raging heroin addiction. She shifted to fentanyl to cut costs, then started dealing in late 2016 to support her habit. WasabiSauced was her avatar on AlphaBay, then the world’s largest online black market.

AlphaBay’s growth, like online black markets before it and since, depended on two technologies—The Onion Router, or Tor, and blockchain currencies like Bitcoin. Tor is a secured corner of the internet accessed through specialized browsers. The network is structured so users’ identities remain obscured unless they give them away. Inside, users tend to pay using blockchain currencies, digital money rarely regulated by any government.

“It’s just growing, and it grows every day,” says Brad Bench, special agent-in-charge for Homeland Security Investigation’s Seattle office. “The technology advances as more and more people become familiar with the Tor network and the dark web, and the anonymity they think it provides.”

Picture Amazon.com or eBay stocked with guns, drugs, and counterfeit credit cards. When a buyer selected an item, AlphaBay notified the vendor and held the appropriate amount of cryptocurrency from the buyer’s account. The money was released when the package was received.

“This is the drug trafficking of the twenty-first century,” says Silvio, the federal prosecutor attached to Homeland Security. “You’ve got people who can sit behind their computer in what they perceive to be anonymity and people that wouldn’t otherwise be involved in the drug trade…they find themselves involved in this.”

The first major takedown of a Tor-based black market came in the fall of 2013, when investigators seized Silk Road and arrested the two-year-old site’s founder, Ross Ulbricht. Drugs were the Silk Road’s bread and butter. Ulbricht, a Texan with a master’s from Penn State, is serving concurrent life sentences.

Alexandre Cazes was waiting in the wings. A failing tech entrepreneur, Cazes launched AlphaBay in December 2014. More than $1 billion flowed through the market, generating tens of millions of dollars a year in commissions for Cazes, before police raided his Bangkok mansion in July 2017.

After AlphaBay’s demise Arias resurrected WasabiSauced on Dream Market, a competitor that has held the top spot since AlphaBay shuttered.

To succeed on the dark web, Arias needed a solid source for fentanyl. She had one in Gregory Smith, who by early 2017 had become a one-man drug trafficking organization. At home, he cut the drugs, blending fentanyl down with sugar substitutes and other innocuous powders. There was little science to it. Smith then sold to Arias, who resold the powders and other drugs on the dark net.

Smith cultivated 50 to 75 very regular customers. Some were other dealers. Many were users. They paid in cash, Bitcoin, and check. Investigators recovered one check cut by parents trying to pay for their child’s drug treatment. “Counseling fee” was inked in the memo line.

Twice a day, at 2pm and 10pm, Smith or a lieutenant would make what Smith called an “ascent” to Capitol Hill. “They would just sit in a car and they’d do deal after deal after deal,” Silvio says.

“I even dressed nicely and presented myself in a professional fashion so people didn’t feel embarrassed doing what they were doing,” Smith would later recall. “Most of them were people in the community, people with secrets. Just like me.”

Smith saw himself as part of a shared struggle, a fellow traveler with other people who lost their jobs and esteem because of their opioid dependence: “They weren’t bad people, they weren’t scumbags. They were mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, no different than anyone. Your neighbors, your kids’ teachers.… They deserved a normal life. They deserved to keep their dignity and respect.”

Arias was one of the dozen or so dealers moving product for Smith. Kyle McClure, also a user-turned-dealer, was another—a lieutenant in the lucrative, low-headcount operation. Together, Arias and McClure would doom Smith. He wouldn’t suffer alone, though.

Because, surely as it sells, fentanyl kills.

James Wilson was not an addict. He hit cocaine occasionally, like 1.5 million other Americans each month. He never meant to touch fentanyl. In the end, he didn’t get to choose.

On March 25, 2017 he and his friends were out on Capitol Hill and ended up at Purr. McClure, who would be listed on police reports as a server at the bar, was an acquaintance. A dealer of some experience, if little talent, McClure had been arrested that fall after nodding off behind the wheel in the middle of East Olive Way. He was asleep in the running car, which was littered with pill bottles, when police arrived. Asked to recite the alphabet, McClure crapped out at the letter “G.” This was Smith’s right-hand man.

There is a mystery about the night Wilson and company entered Purr, one that was not seriously investigated at the time and will, barring a crisis of conscience or evidentiary miracle, endure.

Some of those close to Wilson claim he was drugged by McClure, others say he bought cocaine and was instead provided fentanyl. McClure contended someone stole baggies of powder from his stash.

What is clear is that Wilson dropped to Purr’s floor just before midnight. When police arrived, he was blue, his pupils locked in pinpoints. Officers knew an opioid overdose when they saw one. Narcan—a fast-acting drug that reverses some overdoses—had Wilson breathing again. He was awake by the time his ambulance rolled into Harborview Medical Center, blocks away on First Hill.

As fentanyl overdoses go, it was a happy ending. Drugs in the fentanyl family are the driving force behind the national spike in overdose deaths. They are the third large wave in America’s opioid crisis set in motion with the painkiller bonanza of the early 2000s and carried forward by heroin’s surge beginning around 2010. Centers for Disease Control statistics show pill and heroin deaths plateauing; deaths linked to synthetics are climbing.

For reasons unclear, fentanyl has not hit the Seattle area as hard as some other parts of the country. On the East Coast and the Upper Midwest, fentanyl has dramatically driven up the overdose mortality rate, even in cities that to a degree resemble booming Seattle, like New York and Boston. Guesses as to why the Pacific Northwest has been comparatively spared include the dominance of black heroin from Mexico on the West Coast; East Coast heroin tends to be white heroin sourced from Asia.

“Fundamentally, there’s no reason it couldn’t take off in the same way here,” said Banta-Green of UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. “I don’t mean to be alarmist, but this could go bad quickly.”

When the reprieve might lapse is anyone’s guess. It won’t matter a bit to Wilson. The young man who traded small-town intolerance for city dreams died on the floor of his East John Street apartment.

On April 5, 2017—a week and a half after his near-miss at Purr—he’d been out celebrating one of life’s small joys, a friend’s promotion. Arriving home to The Weatherford Apartments at about 9pm, Wilson and a friend sniffed a line each of what they thought was cocaine off the luxury apartment’s granite counter. His friend nodded off. Wilson collapsed.

Wilson’s fiance arrived 15 minutes later to find their friend snoring on the couch and Wilson unresponsive on the kitchen floor. He held Wilson as Seattle Fire Department paramedics rushed to the apartment. Wilson died in his arms.

An autopsy showed Wilson suffered “acute intoxication with probable fentanyl derivative” combined with alcohol. Acrylfentanyl was in his system. Drug Enforcement Administration techs would later determine that the powder Wilson snorted contained acrylfentanyl mixed with cocaine.

Texting Smith three days after Wilson died, McClure copped to his connection to the death while laying down excuses. “Greg [one] of them died Thursday night,” he wrote in a string of text messages to Smith. “It’s a long story but I feel responsible. Nobody I sell to, but I’ll explain when I see you, it’s a long story. I’m clean and clear but it’s just crazy. I’m 99% sure they stole shit out of my bag.”

Smith brushed off Wilson’s death and told McClure to do the same. In a message he texted back to his lieutenant, Smith called Wilson and his friends “scummy junklike people” and told McClure he was blameless.

The day before McClure let loose his incriminating, self-serving texts, a friend of Wilson’s called Seattle Police and told an officer that McClure had been dealing laced cocaine and may have intentionally drugged Wilson at Purr. She offered police names of other customers and warned that McClure was dealing out of the bar every weekend.

Seattle Police waited months to seriously investigate Wilson’s death. Records show the incident was flagged for review by the department’s homicide and intelligence units, but that it wasn’t assigned to a detective until late September 2017. By then, a key piece of evidence—surveillance video from Purr—had been deleted.

Prosecutors say it is clear Smith imported and sold the fentanyl that killed Wilson. Investigators suspect, but cannot prove, that several other fatal fentanyl overdoses involved drugs imported by Smith.

The rookie officer who responded to Wilson’s apartment did recover one consequential piece of evidence, a little ziplock baggie marked with black spades.

• • • • 

Gregory Smith grew up poor in rural Washington but became a millionaire selling fentanyl in Seattle.

Image: Courtesy DEA

If they felt any remorse for Wilson’s death, McClure and Smith didn’t outwardly show it. They carried on, undeterred. So did Arias.

Arias’s customers included undercover investigators in Pittsburgh. Fentanyl arriving by mail was taking an outsized toll on western Pennsylvania. A dealer derailed could mean a life saved.

Pittsburgh-based agents with a Postal Inspection Service-FBI task force went stinging. It was a classic street narcotics operation—the controlled buy—played out through the mail. Undercovers bought from AlphaBay dealers whose merchandise had been discovered at overdose scenes and drug busts. Surveillance agents built cases.

A postal inspector watched as Arias popped into post offices in Bellevue and Seattle to mail Smith’s fentanyl around the country. Investigators there had been separately tipped to her business and were watching her mailings. Some were bound for Pittsburgh.

Arias was wasting away, skeletal. She would nod off at her parents’ kitchen counter, and wake claiming she was clean. “We could see this change in her, but you just think, Well, are you eating enough? What is going on?” Manuel Arias said during his daughter’s sentencing hearing in July. “And, of course, the lies and the denial and everything comes through, and you still, as a parent, early on think, Well, that can’t be happening. That can’t be true. It’s the boyfriend’s fault. She’s not involved.”

Arias’s career as a drug dealer ended August 2, 2017. Police and postal inspectors in Seattle arrested her on a federal indictment issued by a Pennsylvania grand jury. All told, she had shipped two ounces of fentanyl, selling $50,000 worth over eight months. She caught a break, an 18-month sentence, on charges that usually carry a three-year prison term.

Her arrest threw open a window on Smith’s ring. Agents set up surveillance on Smith’s home hours after searching Arias’s apartment. When he was seen pulling out onto Des Moines Memorial Way South in a white Lexus, agents tried to follow but broke the tail when Smith accelerated away. As it turned out, Smith had a Hawaiian vacation to prep for.

He had booked rooms at the Grand Wailea on Maui for himself and his extended family. He asked McClure to take care of the business during the week he was ensconced at the plush Waldorf Astoria–run resort. McClure sold $25,000 of Smith’s product in a week.

Investigators watched Smith from afar, tracking his movements through his phone. When Hawaiian Airlines Flight 30 lifted off from Maui with Smith aboard on the evening of August 13, they sprang their trap.

Agents went for McClure first, arresting him at his north Seattle home while Smith was in the air. McClure told investigators they would find “every drug you can imagine” inside. Investigators seized everything from Adderall to Xanax as prosecutors brought charges that net McClure a two-year prison term.

FBI agents trained to operate in chemically hazardous environments forced their way into Smith’s home. They disabled his internet-accessible surveillance cameras and went to work cataloging Smith’s guns, gold, and drugs.

At midnight, a postal inspector stopped Smith as he and his family, blurry-eyed after the six-hour flight, stepped off the jetway at Sea-Tac. The inspector separated Smith from his baggage and walked him into an interview room. Smith, who’d been carrying $6,700 in cash and a handful of fentanyl gel capsules, spilled immediately. His phone danced with incoming calls and texts while he talked to investigators.

“In a period of 45 minutes, they’re receiving phone call after phone call after phone call, text message after text message after text message, ‘Where are you guys? We need our fix,’” Silvio says.

At his home, the big take was nearly four-and-a-half pounds of fentanyl, enough to poison a million people. Seventeen guns were strewn around the house. Three handguns and a rifle lay near Smith’s bed. Two more handguns rested on top of the refrigerator. Agents discovered Smith had a safe deposit box at a Seattle bank and a storage unit. They were clearing out the eight-by-five-foot storage unit the next morning when Smith’s wife arrived, and quickly left.

All told, agents seized $893,800 in cash from Smith, as well as one-and-a-quarter pounds of gold and 16 pounds of silver with a combined value of about $31,000. His bank and cryptocurrency accounts held another $46,900.

Smith’s treasures were dusted in poison. The money had to be washed before it could be counted. Evidence views with his defense attorney were done with rubber gloves, face masks, and overdose medications on hand.

Speaking to his wife from federal detention, Smith was nonchalant about losing it all. “Well, you know I work hard,” he told her. “I mean fuck I made that money, like, in a couple of months so it’s not like I can bitch that much. It’s not like I spent my whole life working for it.”

Agents searching Smith’s home also found what would have been unremarkable detritus, clear plastic baggies marked with black spades. They matched exactly to the baggie found at Wilson’s apartment the night he died.

Drugs, money, and firearms seized at Gregory Smith’s home in August 2017.

Image: Courtesy DEA 

“My dad is Gregory Smith. He has been gone over a year and I miss him very much. He is the best dad ever. He plays with me and gives me everything. I miss playing at the park with him and playing Star Wars. Jumping on the bed we have pillow fights. I want him to come home.”

Smith’s daughter, who wrote that note to the court, will not get her wish, at least not in the way she’d want. Smith, now 34, cost hundreds of people a piece of themselves. His drugs cost Wilson’s fiance and friends the man they loved. He also cost his own daughter a father.

He’s losing it, little by little. Smith brought his night terrors into incarceration. Locked in with the cell block’s clang and echo, he stays up until early in the morning, sleeping when quiet finally falls. His wife describes him as deeply depressed. Separation from their daughter, she says, is “killing him.” Sobriety, the first of his adult life, has freed emotions long buried.

“I have too many regrets to write down,” Smith wrote recently through a prison email system. “My heart has been torn out, and to know I didn’t only cause these issues for my own family but I supported these kind of problems in other families is so hard to live with. And the whole time I truly believed I was helping.”

During a sentencing hearing in November 2018, his elbows rested on the defense table, his shoulders sagged from jail’s exhaustions, Smith listened to Silvio detail his crimes. His eyes, red above stubbled cheeks puffed from the tears and sleepless nights. He was going to lose his home, his money, miss his six-year-old daughter’s childhood.

Seated perpendicular to U.S. district judge Robert Lasnik at the federal courthouse in Seattle, Smith, dressed in draping khaki jail scrubs, shrunk into the shell favored by new prisoners accustomed to living in a larger world. Then, turning to look across the waist-high wood-over-ornamental metal bar to apologize to family in the gallery, an ember flared.

His eyes brightened. His chin lifted. It was the look of the man who in a matter of months became Capitol Hill’s top provider of designer drugs. There was the fire that made a self-described addict raised in violence and rural poverty into a millionaire, who built a second, parallel life where he was a provider, a father, and a husband. He might have stepped into that other life, but a pessimist would say it couldn’t have lasted, that the path he traveled could only end in tragedy. In death. And prison can feel a little like dying.

“This can’t be it,” Smith told the court. “There has to be something more than being a drug-dealing drug addict who went to prison and ruined peoples’ lives.”

He told Lasnik what he told me, that he believed he was providing a service while giving his daughter all that he lacked growing up. He said he had the best of intentions. Perched behind the rich wooden bench on the dais, Lasnik took Smith’s measure as he handed down a 12-year sentence.

“There are a million things in life that we look back on and say, ‘What if?’ and ‘If only?’” Lasnik told the hushed courtroom as Smith’s family struggled haltingly for composure. “Ultimately we’re all trying the best we can to do the best we can for our families, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But no matter how difficult, you can’t do what Gregory Smith did here. You cannot compartmentalize and say, ‘I’m going to be a nice drug dealer and give people the drugs they need in a safe way so they can be functioning addicts like I’m a functioning addict.’ That’s not the way the world works.” 

• • • • 

James Wilson (bearded on the right) and friends, including Alice España (white shirt on left).

Alice España, now 27, finds her friend hiding in Fernet-Branca. She and James Wilson had this routine, Fernet Friday. Each Friday evening, he’d pop in to her apartment to sip the inky Italian liqueur and unpack the week. He’d cut loose about difficult clients who he styled. She would unload her little burdens.

“Everything was always fine with James,” España said. “He was like, ‘Life is hard, but that’s OK. I’m having a bad day, but that’s OK. Tomorrow will be better.’”

Wilson knew the cupboard that held the bottle, and often beat España to it. They would go out later with the crew, but those moments were theirs. “Every time I drink Fernet, I think of him,” España says over coffee at a Ravenna cafe. “James was the one who held us all together. He was the heart of our group.”

After he died, Wilson’s friends gathered at Cal Anderson Park at the center of Capitol Hill and launched lanterns, sent skyward by small flames like hot air balloons. The cops showed up to tell them to knock it off.

Denied life by blighted poison from a barroom dealer via a kingpin convinced of his own goodness, Wilson lost the freedom he’d gone so far to secure. His body was returned to Montana for an open casket funeral. Those in Seattle who knew him say he didn’t want any of it, that his family was able to force the issue because Wilson’s fiance was not yet his husband. If he’d had it his way, they say, his ashes would’ve joined Puget Sound and Montana’s Flathead Lake, a little bit of him loose in the world forever.

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