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

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, 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."