03.28.11

A Mommy Blogger Seeks Justice for Her Son

Last year, Katie Granju's son, just 18, died of a drug overdose. Now she's using her blog—and the army of moms who hang on her every word—to bring him justice. By K. Emily Bond

If there’s anyone whose bad side you don’t want to be on, it’s a grieving mother devastated by the death of her son, furious that justice isn’t being served, and in possession of an extremely popular blog.

Katie Granju is that woman. The Knoxville, Tennesee-based author of the mommy blog Mamapundit, as well as the bestselling book Attachment Parenting, she was also, for years, secretly the mother of a drug-abusing teenager. Her son Henry had spent several years in and out of rehab, struggling with an addiction that, on April 27, landed him in the ICU, and a little more than a month later, ended his short life at the tender age of 18.

“Before I saw it happen to my own son, I thought an overdose death meant you drifted off to sleep,” Granju told The Daily Beast. “It was the most horrible, painful death that went on and on and on. He spent [a month] in the hospital slowly coming to the realization that his brain damage was killing him.”

Granju mourned publicly on her blog as her hundreds of thousands of readers hung on her every word. Now, nearly a year later, her grief has turned to anger as those who were allegedly party to her son’s death are still walking free. Tennessee law and federal statute deem deaths resulting from the distribution of illegal drugs as homicide. Granju wants the dealers her son was involved with prosecuted under those laws—and she’s rallying her enormous audience of moms behind her cause.

This month, she launched a public campaign targeting not only the people she believes are responsible, but also the investigators who she insists are not doing enough to bring them to justice. On March 7, she posted an eight-part manifesto on her blog titled, “ It’s Time to Go Fully Public With What Really Happened to My Son, Henry Granju.” The posts document in extensive detail the circumstances of her son’s addiction, his death, and the subsequent investigation, and include dozens of photos of Henry, including several of him clinging to life in his hospital bed. And Granju pulls no punches in its harsh criticism of the Knox County investigation, which she calls “callous and inept.”

Her dogged willingness to keep the case in the spotlight has rankled authorities—which has only strengthened her resolve.

Her dogged willingness to keep the case in the spotlight has rankled authorities—which has only strengthened her resolve. The friction began on August 18 of last year, when Granju met with the Knox County District Attorney’s Office to discuss the criminal investigation into Henry’s death. Following the meeting, she wrote on her blog that while she understood that “this isn’t their only case,” she emphasized, “If for any reason… we do not ultimately feel that authorities have pursued the case as thoroughly as possible, Henry’s father and I will need all the support we can get as we would then take a more proactive role in lobbying for a more complete investigation and potential prosecution.”

Two days later, in an email dated August 21, a Knox County assistant district attorney wrote, “Tell Ms. Katie to shut up.” The writer added in the same email, obtained by The Daily Beast and reported in other media, that “someone should tell her to focus on the remaining children she still has at home. I imagine they are pretty weary of Henry"s [sic] issues at this point.”

If the email put salt in Granju’s wound, it put even more fire in her belly.

The Knox County Sheriff's Office maintains that a full narcotics probe is ongoing. As such, 911 tapes, transcripts, and police reports remain tucked out of the public domain. Ten months after his death, however, key witnesses with information linking Henry’s perpetrators to the narcotics that killed him have yet to be formally interviewed by Knox County authorities. For instance, a 20-year-old friend of Henry’s who, after receiving a phone call from another friend alerting her to a panicked phone call she’d just received about Henry, called and pleaded with the couple who allegedly dealt Henry drugs to call 911.

“They didn’t want to call the police because they had the methadone,” the woman, who would prefer to remain anonymous in the press, told The Daily Beast.

The other witness, an adult family member of Henry’s girlfriend, said she received a call from the couple some three hours before. She also pleaded with them to call 911. That witness says she can provide investigators with testimony that the couple are known drug traffickers who smuggle methadone across Georgia state lines. This witness also says the couple refused to call 911 and, come to think of it, seemed rather ticked off that the kid had the audacity to OD in their trailer in the first place.

For the past month, Granju has been writing installments on JusticeforHenry.com, a separate blog she set up to outline, in courtroom detail, every molecule of evidence she has garnered thus far from experts, medical records, phone records, autopsy results, media coverage, and friends and acquaintances of Henry's. She has asked for support, legal and medical advice, as well as media coverage, which she has received, no doubt due to her social network of thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

As evidenced in the email from the assistant DA, her activities are not always appreciated by the powers that be in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“They think she’s a real pain in the ass,” says Betty Bean, a reporter who’s been covering the Knoxville political and criminal investigation scene for more than two decades. “The DA and Sheriff's Office like their victims to be grateful and she’s not.”

One possible reason for that ire is Granju’s massive social-media influence. But another may be the perception that Henry, a known addict, amounts to another name in a statistical slosh pile of prescription-drug deaths. Tennessee leads the nation in controlled-substance prescriptions per capita, and the state’s overdose rate is 26 percent above the national average. Among the top 10 prescription drugs listed on death certificates, methadone is chief among them.  

“I don’t think that they take overdoses as seriously as they should,” says Bean. “To them, it’s a discrete incident, almost like a suicide."

John Gill, special counsel for the Knox County District Attorney's Office, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast: “It has been somewhat frustrating that the media has seemed to accept everything from a grieving mother without law-enforcement experience as an accurate assessment of the law… My office and the Knox Co. Sheriff's Department has conducted an exhaustive investigation and have pursued all possible outcomes under the facts and the law. At some point all the info about the case will be public record.”

Henry Granju spent the majority of his teen years addicted to opiate painkillers and other drugs, an addiction that started with early experimentation (he was 14 when he first smoked marijuana) and ended in very dangerous, grownup circumstances. The days leading up to Henry’s hospitalization had been desperate ones, and his family openly acknowledges that he was an addict engaging in criminal activities, drifting from sofa to sofa, high most of the time, selling drugs to support his habit.

On the morning of April 27, 2010, he was found in the home of an older couple who, while claiming he was hitherto unknown to them, picked him up in a convenience store parking lot the night before and drove him to their home. By the time paramedics arrived, Henry was close to death, frothing at the mouth, aspirating on his own vomit and, according to his Ms. Granju and other family members, “beaten all to hell.” His admitting medical records support this claim, stating that Henry had “raccoon eyes,” “bruising and bilateral auditory bleeding,” and “Battle’s Sign,” a condition that results from a fracture at the base of the skull.

According to the Sheriff’s Office and the medical examiner’s autopsy, it was not those physical injuries that caused his death, a conclusion that the Granjus do not dispute. At issue are the circumstances surrounding the lethal dose of methadone given, an illegal 80 mg dosage.

Also at issue, despite the Knox County DA's claim to the contrary, are a series of glaring missteps in what ostensibly remains an open 10-month investigation. First lapse: Henry, who was the obvious victim of a physical assault, died without ever having his injuries photographed or being interviewed by the police. Moreover, as the subject of an active drug investigation and criminal inquiry, full toxicology tests were never run and, according to the Knox County Medical Examiner, his initial hospital blood sample was thrown out after one week because investigators did not request it.

Several other key players had not been interviewed until up to a month after Henry died. These include Henry’s girlfriend, who could corroborate a pre-existing relationship with the couple, the witnesses that pleaded with the couple to call paramedics, and many more that came forward to help Katie piece together the 36 hours leading up to Henry’s hospitalization.

In seeking comment for this story, The Daily Beast reached the lead investigator by phone and asked if he’d ever met Katie Granju. He responded, “No, I have not.” When asked to confirm that he’d never met Henry, he promptly hung up.

In perhaps the most stunning and, as far as Katie’s concerned, hurtful misstep of all, investigators from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office have still not met with a single member of the Granju family at all.

“I know what their best efforts look like,” Katie says. “That discrepancy is what makes it all the more painful to me. My son’s death is not worth it to them. That hurts.”

The family has since lawyered up and plans to file a wrongful death suit against the couple that allegedly provided the drugs to Henry. They’re also looking into filing suit against Knox County authorities for violating Henry's civil rights by failing to conduct a thorough and competent criminal investigation.

“It’s very painful to write these things down,” Granju says. “I’m not a detective. I’m not an advocate. I’m just a heartbroken parent. As a taxpayer and mother, I should be protected from having to talk about this. There was no other option left to us.”

Whether the move to blog all of this information will help her cause or harm it remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is that what would have otherwise been just another teen overdose is now viral.

K. Emily Bond is a freelance writer who has worked for O, The Oprah Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Village Voice. She's also written for iVillage, The New York Observer, BUST, NewYorkMagazine.com and the Huffington Post. She is the author of the travel and mommy blog Díga(Mama) and half the brains behind My BlackBerry Moment, which she created with her husband.