STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

How a 19-year-old, street-level drug dealer got locked up for life.

Eugene Atkins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for selling heroin that led to a young man's death.
courtesy of the Atkins family
Eugene Atkins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for selling heroin that led to a young man's death.

 This is the second part in our documentary, The Hidden Epidemic. You can hear the full documentary on Michigan Radio on Thursday, July 16th at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Part one is here.

On October 27th, 1986, President Reagan signed a new law to fight drug use in America. Buried within that law were new penalties for those convicted of selling drugs. The premise behind these penalties was to get the most serious drug offenders off the streets, and send a message that dealing drugs in America is a crime that does not pay.

Eugene Atkins never got that message.
“One thing about Gene, he always grew up a little faster than the rest of us,” says his friend Joseph Russau.

Russau grew up just around the corner from "Gene" Atkins, near the Eastown area of Grand Rapids.

This is the area teenagers from the suburb of Grandville started coming to in the fall of 2004 to get their heroin fix. Many of them arrived here already addicted, and for a few months until he was caught, Eugene Atkins was the dealer who helped them feed that addiction.

Russau says this was a tough place to grow up, but it was also tight knit.

“Everybody knew everybody, like Cheers man,” Russau says. “Everybody knew everybody's name and where they came from, and everybody knew everyone’s parents at that time.”

“Yeah, everyone was happy,” says Gene’s mom, Felicia Sims. “All the neighborhood kids, they seemed like they were brothers and sisters. They did everything together. They went to school together. On the weekends, they’d all be in the park early in the morning with their pajamas on, playing in the park.”

Sims told me Eugene was a good kid. He loved animals. He was a class clown. He liked cars.

"If you were out here, at that time, you sold something. You at least tried to."

When he was a teenager, he held down a job working in the cafeteria at a hospital. It made him some money. But his mom noticed he bought some things he shouldn’t have been able to afford. She knew where that extra money came from, and she tried to get him to stop.

“Sometimes he would kind of stay away because he knew I’d get on him all the time,” she says. “But just, you know, sometimes kids think they know better than their parents do.”

But, to his friends, there wasn’t anything unusual about Gene selling drugs.

“Everybody did it around here,” says Russau. “Everybody sold something once upon in their life, their childhood. If you were out here, at that time, you sold something. You at least tried to. You tried it.”

I was able to talk to Eugene [in prison] on a three-way phone call with his sister, Tanisha. He told me he was in a crowded dormitory, I could hear people talking in the background.

He told me he got into selling drugs when he was in eighth grade, basically because people in his neighborhood kept coming up to him and asking to buy.

“When you’re around it all day, and you pretty much ain’t got nothing to do, or nothing in your pockets,” he says, “and somebody will walks up to you and asks you for something, and you could’ve easily made a couple dollars – it’s that easy. So you’re going to figure out how you can not miss out on a couple dollars next time. You don’t really think about no consequences, nothing like that.”

For Eugene Atkins, though, the consequences were severe.

He’s serving his time at Hazelton penitentiary, in the mountains of West Virginia, a 500 mile drive from where he grew up.

The difference at Hazelton between Atkins and the cartel kingpin is the kingpin is scheduled to be released at some point. Atkins is serving life, without parole.

Hazelton gets some of the most violent criminals in America, and, in the world.

One of Hazelton’s most famous inmates is a drug kingpin connected to the Cali drug cartel in Columbia. Joaquin Valencia-Trujillo was accused of running a multi-billion dollar drug operation, sending 100 tons of cocaine into the United States every year for about a decade.

The difference at Hazelton between Atkins and the cartel kingpin is the kingpin is scheduled to be released at some point. Atkins is serving life, without parole.

He’s serving that sentence not just for being a drug dealer. He’s serving a life sentence because a jury found that the drugs he sold took a life, the life of 17-year-old Matthew McKinney.

McKinney died on December 15th, 2004. But when I visited his mother at the home where he used to live, Matt was all around.

“It’s better for me if I have him around,” Mary DeBoer told me. “Whatever rooms I’m in a lot, I have lots of pictures of him, just to keep him with me.”

In one room, a quilt hangs in memory of Matt. There’s a picture of him standing near water, wearing board shorts and smiling. There’s a swath of white and baby blue fabric from an old North Carolina basketball jersey, Matt’s favorite team.

In another room, Mary shows me a piece of paper, with a poem her son wrote to her, a poem she discovered in his room after he was already gone.

She reads it out loud to me. It ends:

Best believe with all your heart After all is said and done, I’m ready for a new startAnd no matter what I say or do Just know this I will always love you. Your son, Matthew.

A tragic death, a legal response

Matthew McKinney was not a heavy heroin user. It’s possible he only tried the drug a few times.

On December 14th, 2004, he snuck out of his parent’s house, hopped in the car with his friend Chris Perrin, and went to get high.

Call records on Perrin’s phone would show a number of calls to Eugene Atkins that night.
Perrin would later testify in court that Matt shot up around 10 p.m., right before getting a call from his mother reminding him that his curfew was up. Matt told his mother he’d be home in minutes.

Minutes later, he was passed out, his sleeve still rolled up.

Chris Perrin kept driving. He stopped at Meijer and flirted with a girl inside. He drove to his mom’s house to call his aunt for her birthday. He had a long argument with his girlfriend, and talked it over with his mom.

And the entire time, Matthew McKinney was passed out alone in the car. He had no coat. It was 19 degrees outside that night.

Perrin would say that he checked on Matt a few times. He heard Matt snoring, a sign of a person struggling to breath during an overdose. At one point, Chris tried to move his friend, to get him inside, but he said Matt was too heavy.

Sometime around 2:30 a.m. Perrin and his mother went down to the parked car and put blankets over Matt.

Less than 5 hours later, Matt was found dead.

At first, investigators focused on the role of Chris Perrin in his death.

“We initially entered into an agreement with Eugene Atkins to have him cooperate against Chris Perrin,” says assistant U.S. Attorney Ray Beckering, “Who was with Matt McKinney at the time, and who was originally interviewed by law enforcement and was not truthful with law enforcement.”

Beckering says Perrin could have been charged for lying. He actually was charged for lying. But he only served two years for it.

As for the rest, it’s not exactly illegal to leave an unconscious person in a freezing cold car all night.

... if you have a prior conviction for selling drugs, like Eugene Atkins did, the minimum sentence is life in prison.

But, there is a special section in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that outlines the penalties for anyone convicted of selling drugs that result in serious injury or death. The minimum sentence is 20 years in prison. But if you have a prior conviction for selling drugs, like Eugene Atkins did, the minimum sentence is life in prison.

The U.S. Attorney’s office offered Atkins a deal that would have avoided that mandatory life sentence. Eugene Atkins took that deal, and plead guilty. At first.

“I really pretty much took it out of fear,” he says. “Because my lawyer kept telling me, ‘You’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison. You’re going to go in there in front of that jury. Most of them is going to be white people that don’t understand, and they ain’t even going to be trying to really decipher the facts. And they’re going to convict you, and then you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison.’”

Atkins knew he was guilty of selling heroin. But he didn’t believe he was the one who sold the heroin that killed Matt McKinney. He still doesn’t believe it. He says the more he thought about that plea deal, the worse he felt about it. So he took it back.

He wrote a letter to the judge in the case. He begged that his guilty plea be thrown out. He asked for a new lawyer and a trial.

He did this because he believed, he still believes, that even though he dealt heroin regularly to kids in Grandville, he wasn’t the one who dealt the heroin that killed Matthew McKinney.

“Yeah, from day one, he said that,” says his friend Joseph Russau. “He said our other friend sold it to him. From day one, he said that, yep.”  

Russau told me, after Atkins was arrested, there was a lot of talk in the neighborhood about this other friend.

This friend’s name came up at Eugene’s trial. I’m only going to use his first name, because I haven’t found any hard evidence to suggest he had anything to do with the death of Matthew McKinney.

The other friend’s name is Ryan. After Gene went to prison, Russau says he and other friends from the neighborhood talked to Ryan about his role in the case a lot. It weighed on Ryan.

“He got depressed over it. He was messed up a little bit,” says Russau.

“Because you think he knew?” I ask.

“Well, yeah, it was a lot of people putting pressure on him to do that. And he wasn’t going for it.”

“Because he said that he didn’t do it?”

“Nah, nah. Because he didn’t want to go to jail. He thought he was going to go to jail for it. And he seen the charges Gene was facing. He was scared. He was like, ‘Noooo.’ He wasn’t going for it.”

This was a side of the story I hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t in the more than 700 pages of court transcripts from Eugene’s trial. It wasn’t in any news stories I could find. I pressed Russau for more.

“So, hang on,” I say, “Does Ryan say to you that he was the one who gave drugs to that kid that night?”

“Well,” Russau says.

“What’s the story you’ve heard? I know you weren’t there, but what’s the story you heard?”

He pauses.

“Nah, I really don’t want to get all into that one,” he says. “I really don’t. That’s deep.”

“Tell me why you don’t want to get into it,” I continue. “After all these years, you believe your friend Gene didn’t sell those drugs that killed that kid.”

“Yeah,” he says, finally. “You gotta remember, these are people I love, and a lot of things with it. Some things is just not to be told. You need to get that information from that person. I’d rather them tell it than I tell it. It’s that serious.”

The people investigating the death of Matthew McKinney never interviewed Ryan. They never collected his phone records to see where he was the night Matt died.

I sent a letter to Ryan in June, asking if he’d talk with me. He’s in state prison now, serving a sentence for assault. I never heard back.  

I asked Ray Beckering, the prosecutor, about this side of the story. He told me investigators had the phone records for Eugene, for Matt and for Matt’s friend, Chris Perrin from that night. There were no calls to Ryan. Only to Eugene. So, to the idea that Eugene Atkins wasn’t responsible for Matt McKinney’s death:

“All I can say is the phone records establish differently,” Beckering told me. “The witnesses, eye-witnesses establish differently. And the jury certainly found differently.”

"I'm losing my son too."

When a jury found Eugene Atkins guilty of dealing the heroin that killed Matt McKinney, Matt’s mom Mary DeBoer felt, for a little while, a small sense of relief.

... she'd been trying everything she could to get people to pay attention to the problem of drug addiction in Grandville.

The verdict came more than a year after her son’s death. Since then, she’d been trying everything she could to get people to pay attention to the problem of drug addiction in Grandville. Here, finally, was something she could say that was done about it.

"It was a relief that there was justice, and that Matt got justice," DeBoer says. "And that this kid wouldn’t be on the streets hurting anybody else any more. But at the same time, it was very painful because, you know, I look across the courtroom, and here’s this mom who’s also losing her son now."

Felicia Sims was that other mom.

“It was hard,” Sims says. “Because, you know, I could feel her pain. But at the same time, you know, I’m feeling like, you know, I’m losing my son too, because he’s fixin to go. I mean, if he did it, fine, because I’ve always taught my kids right from wrong. If he did it, and he had to be convicted of it, fine. But he didn’t do it. So don’t take my kid for something he didn’t do.”

Still, Mary DeBoer believes the evidence against Eugene Atkins. She believes he’s responsible for her son’s death. When I told her Gene’s side of things, more than anything, she seemed hurt, that he hasn’t admitted it.

But the way she felt years ago, she doesn’t feel that way anymore. She no longer thinks Eugene Atkins should spend the rest of his life in prison.

“I would like to give his mom a chance to have her son back for a little bit,” she says. “I really would.”

“Do you think that’s possible?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

"His demons were bigger than he was."

There was one other person who could say for sure what happened that night: Chris Perrin. He was the one who drove the car to go buy the drugs. He was with Matt when Matt used the drugs. He’s the one who left Matt alone in the car, in the cold for hours, while Matt overdosed.

Chris Perrin was the main witness in the trial against Eugene Atkins.

But Chris can’t tell us anything now about what happened that night in 2004.

Chris died this year. His family told me it was a heroin overdose.

“He would have nightmares,” says Chris’ former girlfriend, Amanda. “And then he’d wake up, like either crying or sweating, or just somehow bothered by it in whatever way. And tell me that he had a dream about Matt, and then he really wouldn’t want to elaborate on it any further. But it happened a lot.”

Amanda isn’t just an old girlfriend. She’s the mother of two of Chris’s three kids. We sat in the shade at Heritage Park in Grandville, while the kids played on the playground.

Amanda told me Chris loved Matt, and it weighed on Chris that nearly everyone he knew blamed him for the death of his friend. That he blamed himself for not doing more to help Matt. And that he never overcame his own addiction.

“I always have, and I always will feel like Chris is my soul mate,” she says. “Even through everything, all the pain that he caused me, and all the hurt and all that stuff, he had a heart of gold, and he was an amazing person - when he was sober."

“But his demons were bigger than he was. And his addiction took his life. Took him away from his kids. Took him away from us. And it just consumed him.”

Of the kids in Grandville who started using heroin around 2004, at least four are now dead. Some have told me the numbers are much higher. And, among those who are still alive, many are still battling addiction.

No one’s addiction ended when Eugene Atkins went to prison.

The opiate epidemic that's taken the lives of Chris Perrin, Matt McKinney and thousands of others in Michigan has been dealt with as a criminal issue, when it's been dealt with at all.

I asked Amanda if she felt like anything could have been done to help Chris, to save his life.

“I feel like if it would have been dealt with when he was younger, it would have been a totally different story,” she said. “If it would have been dealt with better at the beginning of his addiction, rather than just being brushed under the rug all the time.”

She told me she’s lost other friends to the same addiction. It’s a pattern she sees.

“If their families didn’t just try to brush it under the rug, or people that they loved, or even prisons, or rehab facilities …”

“Schools …” I interject.

“… yeah schools, everything. If they didn’t just brush this stuff underneath the rug, and they talked about it, and they put it out there …”

But that hasn’t been the approach now for at least a decade.

The opiate epidemic that’s taken the lives of Chris Perrin, Matt McKinney and thousands of others in Michigan has been dealt with as a criminal issue, when it’s been dealt with at all.

That approach wasn’t enough to stop the problem.

But, more than a decade into this crisis, new approaches are emerging.

We’ll hear about some of those approaches tomorrow. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.