Sara Jane Ward, a research scientist at Temple University and… (Baltimore Sun photo by Scott…)
Only in hindsight did it strike anyone as odd: Carrie John never seemed to invite friends and neighbors into her Ridgely's Delight rowhouse. Instead, she would meet friends out, or people would watch from the corner to make sure she got in after a night at the bar.
"None of us ever went inside," said a friend, Julie Della-Maria.
The reason might have been the "huge gardens" of marijuana and assorted pills that police found on the day John, a 29-year-old drug abuse researcher, died after injecting what she thought was a narcotic.
John's death Sept. 27 yanked the curtain off a secret life of drug use that she and her fiance, Clinton McCracken, hid from friends, family and colleagues at the University of Maryland, where both worked as pharmacologists doing brain research.
John's apparent lack of hospitality may have had a benign explanation. But those who knew the couple have been searching back for any hints that might have tipped them off. Maybe they could have saved her life and kept his from imploding.
"You feel you didn't know anything," said Della-Maria, who last saw them just a week earlier eating cheeseburgers at the Camden Pub. "All of us are almost responsible for what happened."
An autopsy recently revealed that John had no drugs in her system and died from an unknown allergic reaction to something in her syringe, made worse by her asthma. Still, police said the couple clearly had meant to get high on the opiate buprenorphine, and McCracken told police that in the past they had used morphine and OxyContin from the Philippines.
Why, given the obvious perils, would they use opiates when they knew exactly how the drugs affect the brain? And why risk injecting themselves with drugs bought online? The federal government says online drug marts are part of a global network peddling dangerously unreliable goods.
When did these two start using opiates? And how did they hide it behind the drawn blinds of their Dover Street house? McCracken was open about his pot-smoking, but friends thought that was it.
A few hints have emerged. McCracken told police and John's mother that they felt they could control the drugs, which he had been buying for two or three years. In an interview, his lawyer, David Irwin, said they "weren't drug addicts. It was a recreational, relaxation thing for them." He also called them "too smart for their own good."
As academic researchers, McCracken and John had to know they were unlikely to be tested for drugs by the School of Medicine. While nothing suggests that they obtained drugs from their labs, John's mother thinks periodic testing could have revealed their drug use and led them to treatment. After all, she said, her daughter experimented with rats using cocaine. Experts say it is not rare for medical professionals to use illicit drugs - or for people to conceal their use for years.
People close to John say her involvement was wholly unexpected.
"I couldn't believe this happened to my daughter," said Marianne Woessner, a nurse-midwife who treats drug addicts in North Carolina.
Woessner had not seen her daughter since Christmas but spoke to her every week or two. In their last conversation, she said, John sounded "wonderful, wonderful. Did she sound like a drug abuser? No. I just don't know. I'm still mulling that in my head."
Drug abuse experts say users often function well for long periods.
"The problem is, eventually it does become a problem," said Michael Gimbel, former director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse. "You have to leave work early or you steal something from work or you overdose and you die."
But in this case, Gimbel said, "it's hard to believe" there weren't red flags, given the nature of the drug use. "That's very unusual," he said. "They really must have been hiding it pretty good."
Della-Maria didn't notice a single sign of their drug use, and so, she said ruefully, "there was no option of helping."
Irwin acknowledged that McCracken grew marijuana - one of 14 counts against him, carrying up to five years in prison. Irwin called his client a "regular" marijuana user who got mixed up in intravenous drug use. McCracken told police he did not get to inject himself before John began having trouble breathing, and that he called 911.
But Irwin denied allegations that his Canadian-born client intended to distribute marijuana or prescription drugs. McCracken's arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 9 in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Whatever happens in court, McCracken's world has come crashing down. He no longer works at Maryland; his fiancee is dead. "He's a sad guy right now," Irwin said.
Just a day before John's death, the couple appeared to be thriving. They drove to Pennsylvania to attend a party thrown by a graduate school friend.