Investigating the Drugs-Related Death of Henry Granju

With a high-profile appearance on cable news and a social media blitz, mother Katie Granju pushes for overdose cases to be treated as potential homicides

Justice Delayed? Candles and notes from a vigil on March 12 in memory of Henry Granju. His mother says his overdose death has not been sufficiently investigated.

Justice Delayed? Candles and notes from a vigil on March 12 in memory of Henry Granju. His mother says his overdose death has not been sufficiently investigated.

Katie Allison Granju is a social media pioneer. Between her day job as social media manager for Scripps Networks and her two well-read “mommy blogs,” it couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that she would take to the blogosphere to work through her grief after her 18-year-old son Henry died of a drug overdose last May 21. Local law enforcement officials, however, seem flummoxed and offended by her use of social media to martial a full-frontal assault on a justice system that she says has routinely failed to conduct thorough investigations of drug overdose cases, not just her son’s.

“We are a high-intensity drug trafficking area, and Henry’s case needs to be the leading edge for other investigations,” Granju (a former Metro Pulse contributor) says. “Our county is losing more people to overdose deaths than car accidents. When I’m advocating for Henry, I’m advocating for other overdose victims—especially Amber Blizard, a beautiful 19-year-old girl who overdosed the same night as Henry. All overdose cases need to be treated as potential homicides instead of as discrete, private medical events. Knox County is not using best investigative practices. This is not how the FBI or the DEA says they should do it.”

With the first anniversary of Henry’s admission to the hospital approaching, his family is unrelenting in their efforts. They participated in a “Justice for Henry” march to the courthouse earlier this month and Granju keeps on digging for evidence. In the last few weeks, she has taken her pleas to the local media, and beyond: She appeared on the CNN network HLN, receiving a sympathetic hearing from host Jane Velez-Mitchell, and she says the popular website The Daily Beast is working on a story, too.

But John Gill, special counsel to District Attorney General Randy Nichols, and officially designated handler of the media, still sounds doubtful: “We’ve got one attorney who has spent almost half his time on this case. We have done everything that we possibly could, and we’re still trying to track things out. I know Ms. Granju is not going to be happy if somebody can’t be charged, but sometimes it’s just not possible. Frequently you ‘know’ when somebody did something, but you have to have legally sufficient proof to go forward. And that’s what we are trying to find.”

Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones isn’t talking about Henry Granju anymore. (Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Martha Dooley says that all queries about the case are to be directed to the attorney general’s office.) This is probably a good plan, since his previous policy of simultaneously saying too much and not enough about the case has bought him the kind of attention that keeps sheriffs up at night.

Perhaps he didn’t intend to seem retaliatory when he made the highly unusual move of releasing the results of a preliminary autopsy without notice to the family on the day of Henry’s memorial service. Maybe he didn’t mean to sound combative when he said “No matter if you blog or don’t blog or if you complain on us or don’t complain on us, you’ll still get the same professional investigation.” Maybe he didn’t mean to sound dismissive when he said there was no chargeable crime involved in Henry’s death, also on the same day as his memorial service.

And he certainly couldn’t have known that a couple of months later a prosecutor would e-mail Granju’s attorney instructing him to “tell Ms. Katie to shut up – she actually blogged another not-so-veiled threat the very morning after our meeting.... someone should tell her to focus on the remaining children she still has at home - I imagine they are pretty weary of Henry’s issues at this point.”

Granju says the “threat” the prosecutor was referring to is a Facebook status update that declared, “I am Henry’s mother. I will always be Henry’s mother and I will continue to fight for him even after his death.”

Both she and her former husband Chris Granju speak frankly about their son’s addiction to prescription pain pills. They say they tried everything from two out-of-state residential treatment programs to practicing tough love. At the end they took shifts sitting next to his hospital bed for the 38 days as he lay dying. Afterward, they established a foundation to raise money to help families who cannot afford to pay for treatment for their drug-addicted children.

Katie Granju now believes she knows how her son ended up unconscious and choking on his own vomit for hours before someone called for help. She has gathered documents, researched the law, knocked on doors, followed leads, talked to dozens of potential witnesses. She has launched a full-bore “Justice for Henry” campaign complete with another blog, justiceforhenry.com. Last week, she announced that she plans to file “civil litigation” in the case.

It is fair to assume that none of these efforts will improve her popularity with those in charge. Investigators dismiss her information as inadmissible hearsay, although they recently agreed to examine Henry’s cell phone for evidence.

Joan Berry, whose daughter Johnia was murdered in December 2004, has been where Katie Granju is now. As months turned into years and the case went unsolved, Berry found herself at loggerheads with Jones’ predecessor and mentor Tim Hutchison, who refused to cooperate when Berry asked him to allow America’s Most Wanted to profile the case on national TV. She went public with her dissatisfaction, appeared on national television, and started a blog.

“We weren’t treated the way we wanted to be treated. It was a pretty big mess,” says Berry, who travels the county promoting legislation requiring law enforcement to take DNA samples from suspects being booked for violent crimes. The Johnia Berry Law is now on the books in 24 states, including Tennessee. In September 2007, 22-year-old burglar Taylor Lee Olson was arrested and charged with killing Johnia on the basis of a DNA sample taken when he was hauled in on a probation violation. He hanged himself in his jail cell the following year; the case never went to trial.

Berry says no one should expect the Granjus to give up their efforts.

“It’s a long, hard battle,” she says. “You don’t ever get over it. You just learn to live with it.”

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 20

JaySaint writes:

While I can't know what's going on with law enforcement, I don't believe they've ever denied this families specific complaints -- failure to maintain/collect evidence, dismissive/rude behavior toward the family, etc. I believe the sherrif claimed this is one of the most professionally run investigations his department has ever done. If that's true, then it makes me fearful as a resident of Knox county.

jessicax23 writes:

There is a WORLD of difference between politely and candidly saying, "We are still working on gathering sufficient evidence to prosecute" and saying, as the KCSO did in this case, that the killers were "good Samaritans" - even after the officers were well aware that this was decidedly NOT the case.

Also, the former statement would be false, as they failed to even question the key witnesses for months after the incident. This was not a case of insufficient evidence; it was a case of insufficient effort.

Kelli1186 writes:

I agree with jessicax23: it's a case of insufficient effort.

desireeoclair writes:

The insufficient effort to investigate and the horrible decision to release autopsy results to the public show that Knox County authorities are incompetent. Some of the statements that they have made are downright mean. Katie is a hero to mothers everywhere. When one mother's child is murdered, every mother's child is murdered. Shame on Knoxville. Keep the pressure on, Katie.

JuliW writes:

Is the KCSO going to release a statement saying what a lousy job they did? Certainly not. They are going to pass the buck. And if the attorney can provide the email from the prosecutor which instructed him to “tell Ms. Katie to shut up – she actually blogged another not-so-veiled threat the very morning after our meeting.... someone should tell her to focus on the remaining children she still has at home - I imagine they are pretty weary of Henry’s issues at this point.” I am fairly confident that would be considered dismissive and rude behavior. This whole thing has been so grossly mishandled by the authorities. If this had happened in Massachusetts the detective assigned to the case and the assistant DA would be looking for new jobs.

noot writes:

How do these investigators explain their behavior to their spouses, parents and kids?

They told the Granjus that Henry wasn't an "attractive victim". They told Ms. Granju-Hickman to shut up and go home and pay attention to her surviving children, because they must be weary of Henry's issues at this point.

Do they think they hold any responsibility in the weariness ( as they describe it, ) Henry's issues have caused this family?

Did they think they would wear this family out by being unresponsive?

Perhaps this is what should go on their tombstones: I lived to wear you out.

JCinMN writes:

I'm from Minneapolis, and just recently we had a 19-yr-old die from an overdose, and the man who provided the drugs has been charged with murder. This entire story makes me sick to my stomach. I am shocked at the way this case has been handled, as a parent and as a HUMAN BEING.

ohsheliatoo writes:

This story breaks my heart because no Mother should have to fight this hard to see justice for their child.I am so glad that I don't live in Knox. County because they could care less about addiction. Make drug dealers accountable and charge them to the fullest extent!Like the rest of the USA!!Granju family so sorry what you all have been through and never give UP! Thank you Katie!

knoxmom writes:

I cannot even begin to imagine the pain this family must feel. However, at some point in time, should we not look at the facts? The fact is, Henry attended, unsuccesfully, two seperate drug rehab centers. Fact, Henry was purchasing illegal drugs and overdosed and as unfortunate as that is, would you want Knox County to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to catch the guys who sold him the drugs? It just doesn't make sense. I applaud the Granju's for their continuous search for those who aided Henry in his accidental overdose. I imagine he was a wonderful kid with loads of potential and it is just a shame what has happened. My heart goes out to the Granju family and ALL of those who have lost children to such a terrible disease. Overdose happens EVERYDAY in this country and it would be hard to think that police departments could go after everyone who died under those circumstances. I cannot imagine what it would feel like sitting next to your dying son for 38 days. My heart just brakes for them. I read on here the comments about how Knox County doesn't care about addiction, etc. and I truly believe that is the furthest from the truth. KCSD continues to work on the homeless/drug problem here daily. I know from speaking to many of them the heart brake that is involved with their jobs. They see children overdose daily and then the drug dealers they put in jail are released on bond or sent home on good behavior. There is much to be fixed in our country but lashing out at those who serve and protect to the best of their ability and finance is not productive. This is one side of the story and one persons perspective. IF Mr. Jones were able to write his, we all may perceive things in a different manner as well. I can imagine if I were in the same boat as the Granju's, no one could do enough to rectify this situation for me and I would have no patients for anything other than hearing that they were going to go to the ends of the earth to find the perpetrators of this horrible incident. My deepest sympathy to this family and my deepest respect for their efforts.

Rikki writes:

You are right, knoxmom, it's ridiculous to spend (insert arbitrary figure here) dollars investigating (insert prejudicial adjective here) deaths. It's not the role of county law enforcement to regulate the sale of potent chemicals manufactured by huge multinational corporations distributed under tight control of doctors and pharmacists. If none of the people who manufacture, prescribe or sell these pills can figure out how they were being used as currency in a prostitution ring, how can we expect a county sheriff to figure it out?

We shouldn't be demanding justice for the victims of addiction and black-market sales so much as marveling at the awesomeness of the pharmaceutical industry spending more money on lobbying and political campaigns than any other industry.

It's best not to think about a system that pushes kids into the seedy fringes of society when we can cower together in a group hug instead. Nothing to see here, folks.

SOCALREADER writes:

I have to respectfully disagree with knoxmom. You are not looking at all the facts. Yes Henry was a drug addict, but FACT he died from a combination drug overdose and assault or( from reading the reports presented and having a biology background) possibly two assaults. His doctors ( as reported by Henry's mom because the sheriff's did not get the protocol pictures and medical reports) reported harm to the body that were conclusive with an assault. Also to spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on persecuting those responsible for not doing the right thing would be worth the money, because who knows who else these people are going to harm. As a reader from another state, I believe that the other side would be completely biased and full of excuses. Personally, I would feel unsafe if sheriffs and police officers and detectives made comments Sheriff JJ has made. These men are suppose to follow protocol for those who seem to have been put through an assault, right? Maybe CA is spoiled and our communities would not allow this situation to have exploded to such an awful situation. I think living in Knox makes some residents blind to what others from different cities or states see/ read. I truly hope the sheriffs and DA office open their eyes and DO SOMETHING!!I hope the attention makes them DO SOMETHING because it's more than Ms. Granju's hope for justice... poeple need to do thier job and do it right or not do it at all.

utmargarita writes:

The question I think we need to be asking is what's wrong with a system that fills our jails with drug users but doesn't go after the drug peddlers?

To me, justice for Henry will be achieved if Knox County law enforcement shuts down the pipeline of opiates that are getting into the hands of our young people. They could start by more aggressively prosecuting the adult addicts and career criminals who are selling these drugs to teens.

This article quotes Katie Granju as saying that more teens and young adults are now dying of drug overdoses than in car wrecks... I don't doubt that. I'd like to see the actual numbers and age breakdown of those in Knox County who have died of accidental opiate overdose in the past few years--I have looked for it on the Knox County Health Dept website and on the Knox County Sheriff's office website, without success.

I personally know of five people between the ages of 18 and 23 who recently died of unintended opiate overdose. And I know of one Webb grad and two recent Powell grads who are currently in rehab and taking Methadone--they are not out of the woods yet.

I have never been in jail, never been addicted, and don't hang out with criminals, so if this many drug overdose deaths have touched my life in the past 5 years I have to believe that the addiction epidemic is an even bigger problem than most of us imagine, and that Henry was just one more unfortunate victim.

Opiate addiction affects people in all areas of town, but I can only speak for people I know who have kids at West, Bearden High, Farragut High, Catholic, Karnes High, Powell High, Halls, CAK, Episcopal School, Webb, and Hardin Valley. They tell me that a shocklingly large number of kids at these schools are buying and using opiates. They buy them from each other in small quantities, but the real source is a network of pushers who prey on kids from "rich families."

We're talking about average kids who at age 13-17 are naive, or willing to try something because it seems cool, or think that they are bullet-proof because it's the nature of immature minds to think that way. The problem is, opiates on the market today are highly addictive, so kids who start out dumbly "experimenting" are quickly turned into junkies.

The system to deal with drugs IS NOT WORKING, and the result is what happened to Henry.

hihosteverino writes:

Yeah, JJ, tell the "little lady" to shut up and tend to the homefires. How charmingly Southern of you! I hope "Ms. Katie" sues everyone from the alleged dealer and the sheriff's department all the way up to the pharma that made these addictive pills. Oh yeah, it's time for East Tennessee officials to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Bunch of pot-bellied, undereducated rubes...

Tess writes:

in response to hihosteverino:

Yeah, JJ, tell the "little lady" to shut up and tend to the homefires. How charmingly Southern of you! I hope "Ms. Katie" sues everyone from the alleged dealer and the sheriff's department all the way up to the pharma that made these addictive pills. Oh yeah, it's time for East Tennessee officials to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Bunch of pot-bellied, undereducated rubes...

I don't know if the Sheriff has a pot belly or not, but he is not "under-educated." He has a master's degree in criminal justice from the University of Tennessee and was formerly a narcotics investigator. http://www.knoxsheriff.org/countysher...

givemeabreak writes:

It's despicable how this person has defamed law enforcement from day one. A drug dealer OD's, and law enforcement is supposed to drop everything? This woman is obviously exploiting her media connections to wage war on law enforcement. Her narcissism is nauseating.

KathleenW writes:

It's unfortunate that law enforcement cannot handle any kind of attention that isn't 100 percent from their perspective without thinking it is "defamation." I've seen it with other cases as well. Unless media (or blogs) are raving about how wonderful police and prosecutors are, they should just be quiet, right?

Hallsmom writes:

Maybe Sheriff JJ has a Master's degree, but he and his cohort in the DA's office must have flunked People Skills 101.

Swanky writes:

I read Katie's story a long time ago and this was not an over-dose as I recall. His head was bashed in. He was on drugs when it happened and it seems his addiction made his death a non-issue to police. From what I know this story is mis-leading. What she is really trying to get investigated is who clubbed him in the head, not who sold him drugs, though they may be the same.

theoryofmusicalinfluences writes:

Public warning: marijuana is laced with something in TN. There have been several deaths associated with this marijuana. It has apparently been laced with something poisonous or extremely addictive. (People who are used to smoking a large amount of natural pot are very susceptible to being killed by this stuff so please try to avoid it.)

thoughts123 writes:

in response to Swanky:

I read Katie's story a long time ago and this was not an over-dose as I recall. His head was bashed in. He was on drugs when it happened and it seems his addiction made his death a non-issue to police. From what I know this story is mis-leading. What she is really trying to get investigated is who clubbed him in the head, not who sold him drugs, though they may be the same.

I read an article saying that the autopsy showed the death was not a result of the assault. The facts are a bit confusing. And I am not clear on what action is desired, either. Possibly that when an overdosed occured, there were individuals that did not call 911 right away and those individuals should be held somewhat responsible for the death? While I hate drug addiction exists (as I do have someone close to me that is an addict) and I do hate those dealers that pray on those struggling with their addiction, can we really hold them responsible for what happens to those that choose to take the drugs? There just seems to be a thin line there. Of course, dealing drugs is illegal and action needs to be taken against dealing the drugs. But, can a drug dealer be tried for murder? (I know it has been done, but where is the line?). For instance, if someone buys a gun and shoots themselves, can the gun salesman be held responsible? So, in the same sense, if someone chooses to take drugs can those that sold the drugs to the person and/or those that witness the overdose be held responsible for the dealth in any way? These really are just questions I am asking as I haven't decided on an opinion myself. I do know one thing, drugs are a huge and growing problem in Tennessee. Something needs to be done, whether it be stronger restrictions on pharmaceuticals, more arrests, and even setting an example using this case to warn those still dealing out there.

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