Break the Habit

John Schmidt will save Danny. Come hell or a good high.

Danny is an addict. "He first experimented with marijuana and nitrous oxide when he was thirteen," says his ex-girlfriend Jessie, a petite, curly-haired brunet with a tender voice. "He graduated from cocaine to crack in his late teens and hasn't stopped since."

Since 1999, Danny has been arrested six times and convicted thrice for felony cocaine possession. That doesn't count at least a dozen other felony and misdemeanor arrests and convictions.

Four months ago, Jessie relays, Danny and a hooker ran a scam in Overtown. "She would pick up johns, make them rent a motel room, and once inside, she would steal their money. While the guy was in the bathroom, she would run out of the room and get into a car Danny was driving."

John Schmidt chats on his cell phone before entering the Miami-Dade courthouse, where he helps criminal drug offenders avoid jail time
Jacqueline Carini
John Schmidt chats on his cell phone before entering the Miami-Dade courthouse, where he helps criminal drug offenders avoid jail time
Schmidt speaks with recovering addicts while visiting the James E. Scott Community Association Transition and Rehabilitation Program
Jacqueline Carini
Schmidt speaks with recovering addicts while visiting the James E. Scott Community Association Transition and Rehabilitation Program

They were bankrolling $300 to $700 a night. But then a mark chased the prostitute from the room with a hatchet. Danny tried to fend off the angry john. He escaped after his right knee and both forearms were horribly hacked.

Danny was taken to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital. He ignored doctor's orders to stay put, and within hours of being stitched together, he headed for Overtown to buy crack, Jessie says. "He'll call me at 5:45 a.m. to beg for money because he knows I get up early to get ready for work," says Jessie, a schoolteacher. "When he is jonesing, he gets physically violent."

Jessie has known Danny for more than two decades, since they were in middle school. They were a couple for about a year until their breakup this past January. "He's really got a great heart," she says. "It really tears me up to see him the way he is now."

So this past May 3, Jessie decided to cure Danny. Around 4:00 p.m. she climbed the cracked front steps of his father's run-down two-bedroom house near NW Third Street and Tenth Avenue, in a rough section of Little Havana. After his 64-year-old father admitted her, Jessie walked toward the rear, where Danny's room was located. The roof was caving in from rain damage.

Jessie didn't knock; she just opened the wooden door. Danny, a six-foot two-inch, gangly, dark-skinned 33-year-old with a goatee, was asleep on a twin bed. He wore dark cargo shorts and no shirt. His arms were covered in bandages.

She shook him by the shoulder. "Hey, I brought a friend over who wants to help you," she said.

"I'm not going to fucking talk to anybody," he replied. "Dude, just fucking go. Bye-bye."

She walked out. Waiting for her outside the bedroom door was John Schmidt, a 51-year-old drug interventionist with wispy strawberry blond hair and a mustache, dressed in a blue button-down shirt and navy slacks. "He's just letting himself die, and he's taking pieces of you too," he said.

Then they left.

But it wasn't over. Schmidt, a drug counselor with three felony busts, five marriages, and a mission to cure the lowliest addicts, was determined to transform Danny's life.

John Schmidt was born and raised in northeast Baltimore, where he was diagnosed with epilepsy at an early age. "The epilepsy haunted me," Schmidt says. "I was ashamed of the seizures. I felt like an outcast, like I didn't fit in with the normal kids in my neighborhood."

By age fifteen, he was injecting heroin. His first taste of the drug is still etched in his mind like a movie still. "I was sitting in the passenger seat of my friend Terry's brown four-door sedan," Schmidt says. "I had great veins, so I didn't need to wrap a belt around my arm to make them pop out. When I injected the heroin, I felt like the top of my head had just blown off."

A year later Schmidt and Terry Sakellos, then a twenty-year-old marijuana and heroin dealer, went into business. "We got high together several times, and eventually I began to front [Schmidt] drugs, and he would sell them to his friends and acquaintances," Sakellos recalls. "John did well and always paid me for the drugs I had provided him."

In 1973 Sakellos and Schmidt went down on unconnected drug charges. Sakellos was found guilty on federal drug conspiracy and sentenced to nine years in prison.

Schmidt was busted with 4997 hits of acid and speed in his house, Baltimore County court records show. He was sent to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. After leaving jail, he stayed sober for a few weeks, enrolled at the Community College of Baltimore, and landed a full-time job. But then he fell apart. "Pretty soon I was shooting heroin again and snorting a gram and a half of coke on a nightly basis," Schmidt says. "So much for cleaning up."

In 1974 Schmidt was popped for possession of one gram of heroin. He was convicted and sentenced to four years at a state correctional facility in Jessup, Maryland. A year and a half later, Schmidt went before the Maryland parole commission, which gave him the option of entering a drug rehabilitation program in exchange for his freedom.

So he headed for Delancey Street Foundation, a San Francisco-based drug rehab facility, which would shape his later work trying to reform stubborn addicts like Danny. There his head was shaved and he was introduced to a treatment therapy called "The Game." Schmidt would sit in the middle of a circle of Delancey Street members who would verbally assault him. "They called me a piece a shit and a fuckup," Schmidt recollects. "I mean they really broke you down."

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