Break the Habit
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."
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."
In 1979 he left Delancey Street and returned to Baltimore. He moved to Miami a year later, living in relative anonymity while working sales jobs and staying sober.
One of those jobs was selling wholesale flowers for International Dateline Corp., a Clearwater-based flower importer. On August 22, 2000, Schmidt was arrested on five counts of grand theft. Peter Wertheim, IDC's owner, alleged Schmidt had stolen $13,497 by asking eleven clients to write out checks in his name.
Schmidt quickly admitted the crime, according to Miami-Dade Police Det. Robert Perez. In his report, Perez wrote that Schmidt said "he had deprived IDC of monies due to them. Mr. Schmidt advised he was having financial difficulty and could not provide for his family on his salary." Schmidt denies he confessed to Detective Perez.
On October 22, 2001, Schmidt pleaded no contest to the grand theft charges and was placed on probation for one year. He was ordered to pay Wertheim $18,200 in restitution. The probation was extended three times in as many years because he failed to repay Wertheim. In 2003 he owed $14,089. A year later, he was still in the hole for $12,860.
And Schmidt had other problems that would seem to make him an odd savior for drug addicts like Danny. First there's his marital history. According to court records, Schmidt has had at least five wives. In San Francisco he married Esther in 1979. They split a year later. On January 8, 1994, Schmidt and Maria Nelly Orrego became husband and wife in Miami. They were divorced before Christmas. On December 20 the same year, he tied the knot with Lilly Picardo Praslin. They stayed together until September 9, 2003, Schmidt's 48th birthday. Fourteen days later, he wed Elizabeth Pulido. That union lasted two years. On March 27, 2006, he married his current wife, Bertha. The couple has two young daughters. Schmidt is reluctant to share much about his failed marriages. "I was not mature," he says. "I made bad decisions."
In 2004 he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a rare illness of the small intestine that can be disabling. In an attempt to end his probation, Schmidt informed then-criminal court Judge Ivan Fernandez that his age and disease were preventing him from holding a steady full-time job so he could pay back what he owed. "No one wants a salesman who is going to the bathroom 15 to 30 times a day," Schmidt wrote in a July 26, 2004 letter to Fernandez. "And at the age of 48, your honor, I am not that much in demand anyway."
The judge lifted his probation. Schmidt claims he has since repaid most of the money to Wertheim, who didn't return three messages from New Times. "It was an embarrassing situation," Schmidt admits.
By the following year, Schmidt had rebounded, landing a job as a counselor at North Miami-based Holistic Addiction Treatment Center. There he began what would become his life mission: treating down-and-out addicts. He'd take late-night calls from desperate users and talk them through a morass he knew well. He'd also advocate for addicts in court. "Confronting and letting an addict know he or she is full of shit comes easy for me," he says. "I've found that they can relate to me and listen to me."
In January 2006, Schmidt resigned from Holistic to launch his own program, Marvin's Corner. He named it after his late friend and ex-drug addict Marvin Tovin, who died in 1984. "Marvin saved my life by taking me to Delancey Street," Schmidt says. "I promised him I would do the same for other people like me."
Since then, Schmidt has counseled more than two dozen addicts from Miami to Chicago. He specifically works with indigent drug users with criminal records. Not only has he performed drug interventions and other counseling services, but also he has found for needy clients free beds at long-term treatment facilities that normally charge tens of thousands of dollars. Schmidt charges a nonrefundable $2000 fee that he collects up front. "I won't do it without the money," he says. "This is my only source of financing, so there is not a huge amount of faith there."
Peter Gallagher, a 57-year-old recovering coke addict, says Schmidt taught him that accepting treatment was better than being locked up. In March last year, Gallagher was awaiting trial on a felony coke possession charge when he met Schmidt outside circuit court Judge Jeffrey Rosinek's courtroom. "He convinced me to take a plea and enter rehab," Gallagher says. "I have been clean for over a year thanks to him."
Danny proved a more difficult case for Schmidt.
Jessie was thirteen years old when she met Danny. In those days she was a spirited tomboy with an affinity for the Sex Pistols, Metallica, and the Circle Jerks. They attended middle school in Miami's Shenandoah neighborhood.
She would accompany Danny whenever he went skateboarding with his friends. One of their hangouts was Shenandoah Park, where Danny and his skate crew built a half-pipe. "Danny was a daredevil, a total maniac," Jessie recalls. "He'd do tricks that no one else would do ... like 360-degree spins."
Danny's promising skate career never took hold. He says, "Since the city made us tear down the half-pipe, and my dad was always putting me down for being a skate punk, I decided I'd rather steal cars and do drugs. For me, being clean means only smoking pot, popping Ecstasy, or doing shrooms."
For more than thirteen years, Danny has robbed people and sold drugs to support his habit. On July 16, 1993, he was arrested for grand theft auto. He was convicted and sentenced to one year probation. On March 30, 1994, he was busted on six counts of felony burglary and grand theft. Again he received one year of probation. He scored three convictions between 1998 and 2001 for felony coke possession.
On August 8, 2002, Danny was arrested on a strong-arm robbery felony. According to his criminal court file, he snatched a woman's purse on Flagler Street. A year later he was sentenced to two years in county jail. While incarcerated, Danny would make collect calls to Jessie, who was married at the time, but she wouldn't take them. "Until one day I got curious about what inmate was making collect calls to my house," she says. "When I picked up, Danny was on the other line. He told me everything. How he was on crack and how he kept getting into trouble."
When Danny was released, Jessie was the first person he visited. By then she had divorced. "We started hanging out every single day," she says. "Two weeks later we were together. Six months later he moved in with me."
Jessie, who had never tried hard drugs, would take Danny on drives through Overtown. "I'd go looking for crackheads," Danny says. "I wanted to remind myself of a place I did not want to be again. It was self-therapy."
He'd warn Jessie to stay away from cocaine. "Dude, coke is the white devil," he told her.
Soon Danny and a friend started an air-conditioning installation company. "He did the blueprints," Danny says. "I provided the labor. We made decent money."
When the partnership fizzled, Danny went to work for a construction demolition firm. "That lasted about six to eight months," he says. "I was even supervising work sites."
But Danny admits he was never entirely clean. He couldn't resist the urge to occasionally trip on mushrooms or roll on Ecstasy. It didn't help that Jessie sometimes used her after-school hours to experiment with him. "For me it was something I did once in blue moon," she says, adding that she got high with Danny less than five times. "Danny didn't know how to have a good time unless he was high," she says.
This past January, Jessie and Danny broke up. He moved back in with his father. Soon Danny was selling cocaine in his old neighborhood. "Dude, I was selling the best shit I had ever seen," he says. "So I started snorting some of it. It didn't take long for me to cook it up and smoke it."
A month later Danny sent Jessie a text message blaming her for his return to crack addiction. "I was shattered," she says. "I was bawling immediately over the sense of guilt."
On February 23, Danny's birthday, Jessie went to see him. He had lost more than 30 pounds. Then, after he was hacked up in early March, he went to her for money. Jessie estimates she gave him at least $1000 so he wouldn't steal from people. "There was emptiness in him," she says. "His eyes were zombielike. It was very distressing."
In late April she began scouring the Internet for treatment centers. "Most places wanted between $10,000 and $25,000," Jessie says. "Then I found Marvin's Corner. So I called up the number and that's when I first spoke to John Schmidt."
She hired Schmidt to find a treatment facility for Danny. He charged her $1000, half the amount of the nonrefundable retainer. She placed her faith in the ex-con reformed junkie to save her Danny. He had done it with many others.
Schmidt incorporated Marvin's Corner and set up his Website in January last year. One of his first clients was Mark Brown, a 39-year-old battling addictions to crack and alcohol. He had never held down a steady job and had been incarcerated at least five times on drug-related charges. Brown had just finished a 60-day stay at Holistic Treatment Center when he relapsed.
"I tried getting back into the program," Brown says during a recent telephone interview from his Sarasota home. "But they wouldn't take me. They would not even help me find a detox. John jumped right in."
Brown's 64-year-old mother, Mary, says Schmidt found her son a short-term rehabilitation program and continues to counsel him on a regular basis. "He set up the appointment and met us there," she says. "He was extremely instrumental in helping Mark."
She says her son has been sober ever since. "He is definitely on the mend," Mary insists.
Schmidt wants to make Marvin's Corner into a treatment center with at least 200 beds. He's taking cues from Delancey Street; clients will be subjected to therapeutic humiliation and military-style discipline. "I firmly believe you have to break addicts like me down to build them back up," Schmidt says.
And like Delancey Street, Schmidt explains, Marvin's Corner will be self-supported. Clients will work for the treatment facility's business enterprises, from janitorial services to telemarketing.
In January 2006 he hired former TV news reporter, now lobbyist, Ed O'Dell, to lobby county and municipal leaders for public money to buy a building. Schmidt says O'Dell was also supposed to land contracts for Marvin's Corner. He paid O'Dell $1500 per month for six months. "It almost made me go broke," Schmidt complains. "I worked a lot of nights and borrowed money from friends. Nothing happened."
"I talked to a lot of different people about the possibility of raising public money for Marvin's Corner," O'Dell said recently. But aside from introductory meetings with county Commissioner Dennis Moss and Homestead Mayor Roscoe Warren, not much materialized. "John has a solid idea," O'Dell added. "But we could never get off the ground for a variety of reasons."
Between June and November last year, Schmidt opened a small version of Marvin's Corner in a condominium at 1800 NW 24th Ave. "At one point I was packing ten people into a three-bedroom condo unit down the hall from the apartment where I lived," Schmidt attests. "We did it quietly for six months with the blessing of the owner, until he passed away and his son sold the building."
Every time he brought in a new client, he would shave the addict's head and hand him a broom. "I made them sweep everything," Schmidt says, "even the sun off the sidewalk." Among the people Schmidt helped was Mike, a recovering crack addict who was homeless when he went to Marvin's Corner. "For two years I slept anywhere I could in Overtown and Liberty City," he says. "John taught me discipline and self-respect."
Schmidt would wake Mike and the others at 6:00 a.m., feed them breakfast, conduct group counseling sessions for an hour, and then hand out chores. At night they would play "The Game" -- the system of therapeutic abuse Schmidt learned at Delancey Street.
Since establishing Marvin's Corner, Schmidt has earned the trust of some of Miami's leading drug addiction specialists. "When I first met John [this past August], I had reservations," says Jim Hall, chairman of Miami-Dade County's addiction services and a nationally known figure.
But he was intrigued by Schmidt's tale of recovery. Over the past year, Hall estimates, he and Schmidt have conducted 20 to 30 interventions together. "One of John's most powerful tools is his frank honesty," Hall says. "He realizes sharing his story is good for his credibility with other addicts."
Schmidt's approach is particularly beneficial for drug users with criminal records, Hall adds. "He gives a lot of hope to individuals who are quite hopeless," he says. "Where some programs are not confrontational, he comes from an old school of therapeutic sessions that believes you have to break down the person before fixing them. That is not what is typically seen today. But for some addicts, it is the only type of treatment they respond to."
This past May 21, Schmidt is sitting inside a Starbucks in Coral Gables. As usual he is wearing a light blue dress shirt, navy slacks, and dark loafers. He sips a tall iced coffee and reads the newspaper. He looks out the window when Jessie and Danny come strolling up the sidewalk. Jessie bursts out in a huge grin and waves at him. Danny, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, shows no emotion.
They enter and sit down next to Schmidt. Danny doesn't seem interested in being there other than to appease Jessie. Over the next 45 minutes, Schmidt gauges Danny's sincerity about seeking help. Danny claims easy access to drugs in Miami is part of his problem: "I need to get out of here, as far away as possible."
Schmidt tells him there's a two-year program in San Francisco, but then the crack addict reveals he's afraid of airplanes. "I'm not flying," he says. "You get me on a bus or a train."
Schmidt shoots a disapproving look at Danny. "If you are that scared, we can sedate you for the entire flight," Schmidt offers.
Danny continues to balk. "I'll go wherever you want me to go, but as long as I don't have to get on a plane."
Then Schmidt offers Danny a place at Pompano Beach-based Spectrum Programs Inc. "I want you to give me one day sober," Schmidt says. "You give me that, call me tomorrow morning, and I will get you in."
Two days later Danny telephones Schmidt, apologizing for his tardiness. They agree to meet May 24 for a group session Schmidt has coordinated at a friend's place in Coral Gables.
But three hours before the meeting, Danny phones Schmidt. "Yeah, I'm not going to make it to Coral Gables. Can you meet halfway, closer to my crib?" Danny asks.
Schmidt refuses. "It's not fair to the people who are coming in for this session," he says.
"Listen, man, I'm not going down there," Danny complains. "I don't have any money, and I don't like riding the bus."
Schmidt doesn't budge. "You've had 48 hours to get clean and save up three bucks to ride the bus," Schmidt says. "I'm sure you spend at least $100 a day buying crack. Now I'm not going to go to your place in the hood. And I'm not going to ask my friends to go to you either. This is the second step. You have to make the commitment to get clean and come to me. I'm not going to you. It doesn't work that way."
Danny loses his temper. "Well fuck you then."
Schmidt: "Fuck you it is, Danny. You have to do this on your own. I'm not going to take you there." He hangs up.
On May 26, Miami Police arrest Danny on grand theft auto. According to the arrest report, he was driving a stolen car on Flagler Street and SW 44th Place. When he was pulled over, Danny explained to the officer he had borrowed the car from a friend.
Schmidt still has hope. On June 7, he secures a six-month to two-year stay at Spectrum for Danny if he agrees to stay in jail until his June 15 arraignment. Danny refuses. Three days later his father bonds him out for $500.
He has not been in contact with Schmidt since.
On June 15, prosecutors drop the charges. Outside the courtroom, Danny is with Jessie. He informs New Times he doesn't want anything to do with Schmidt. "All John had to do was give me a ticket into a program," he says. "That's it."
Asked why he didn't call Schmidt the day after they met May 21, Danny is blunt. "I didn't call him back because I was smoking crack."
Then Jessie reveals she is beginning to doubt Schmidt's sincerity. "I'll be happy when I see [Danny] in a program or at least I get half my money back," she says. "I think it would be unethical of John to take all of my money and Danny doesn't go into a program."
Schmidt is annoyed. "The problem is Danny's lack of cooperation," he says. "He can't go on a three-day crack binge and then call me to tell me he is ready. There has to be some measure of sobriety."
He is adamant that he'll place Danny in rehab once the crack-smoker demonstrates he wants to sober up. "He has to crash and burn on his own," Schmidt affirms. "But as long as Jessie keeps enabling him, I can't help him."
A week later Jessie is sipping a latt' in the caf' at Barnes & Noble in Coral Gables. She is still taking Danny's calls, and she is still waiting for Schmidt to place Danny into Spectrum. Since he left the pokey, Danny has been telling her he wants to start a new business putting up fences. "I'd buy him the tools, but I am not handing him any more money," she says, not realizing Danny would pawn the tools for cash. Despite her drama with Danny, she cannot explain why she keeps putting herself through so much grief. "I don't know why," she says. "I analyze it over and over. I feel like I am the only person he has."
Schmidt, on the other hand, has moved on to other drug addicts. Since meeting Danny, he has placed five people into Delancey Street, Ocala-based Phoenix House, Spectrum, and St. Luke's Recovery Addiction Center in Miami. And he still hasn't given up on finding a property to accommodate 100 to 200 resident addicts.
"There are a lot of people in Miami who can do what I do," Schmidt says. "But they don't have the experience with therapeutic communities like Delancey Street that I do. I don't want to be a mental health professional, and I don't want to be a certified addiction professional. It is not necessary. I am an ex-addict who knows addicts." He convinced me to take a plea and enter rehab. I have been clean for over a year thanks to him.
For two years I slept anywhere I could in Overtown and Liberty City. John taught me discipline and self-respect.
I dont know why, she says. I analyze it over and over. I feel like I am the only person he has.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.