On a cold March morning in Columbus, N.C., Sean Harrington sat shackled in an antebellum courthouse and saw through the window a mountain stretched out like a vast wall.
The wind rattled bare trees there on White Oak Mountain and whipped up the falls on Horse Creek as it flowed south toward town.
The sky above the Polk County Courthouse had been swept clean of clouds and Harrington’s family filed past an American flag that thrashed atop a pole.
The tallest thing Harrington, 26, had ever seen on Hancock Street, 600 miles away in South Philadelphia, was a telephone pole, and depending how his day in court went, he knew he might be an old man before he saw that skinny block by I-95 again.
In 2014, he’d mailed heroin and cocaine to Elisif Bruun, a friend and fellow addict, while she sat in rehab in Polk County. After she overdosed, he was charged with second-degree murder.
The drive from Philadelphia had the Harringtons groggy, but they were restless, too, holding fast to hope as families often do before court. They huddled against the gusts by white pillars in the 1859 redbrick building’s portico.
“Michael, are you OK?” Clark J. Harrington, Sean Harrington’s grandfather and a retired Philadelphia lawyer, asked his son.
Mike Harrington, 57, muttered “Yeah,” but tears pooled in his eyes. He went inside beside his wife, Michele, and son Brian – a spitting image of his younger brother – to find out whether he’d live to see his son again on the outside.
Wreaths of magnolia leaves and cotton tufts hung in the foyer and wooden staircases curled up to a courtroom where brass chandeliers suspended from the high clapboard ceilings. The planked floors creaked as people settled in and whispered, and when he spoke the bailiff pronounced Polk County like “Poke.”
“This is not a social setting,” Judge Mark E. Powell warned the crowd.
It was March 2, the first time the Harringtons had seen Sean Harrington since his extradition from Philadelphia in September 2014. The Central High School graduate and rock guitarist had been in prison since May 2014, when he was arrested on theft charges at a Home Depot on Roosevelt Boulevard and a murder warrant out of Polk County appeared.
Harrington mailed the lethal dose to Bruun, 24, while she was staying at the Cooper Riis Healing Community that February, authorities said. Bruun had sent Harrington a $140 money order and investigators tracked the delivery back to him.
A photo of Harrington exiting a squad car in handcuffs was published in the Tryon Daily Bulletin when he got to North Carolina. In his hands he held a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. He was facing up to 50 years in prison if convicted.
Authorities in Polk County told reporters Harrington’s case would be their first prosecution of someone for supplying a lethal dose through the mail. They believed it would deter others from sending narcotics their way.
“A fellow can be sitting in Pennsylvania and still have to face charges here in our courts,” Polk County District Attorney Greg Newman told the paper.
Newman and other officials said they had the support of Bruun’s family. Families of the victim often fight for long sentences or balk when prosecutors offer plea deals in exchange for shorter terms. Families such as the Harringtons on the other side tend to slip out of court in shame.
‘Nothing to forgive’
Peter Bruun had already vowed to make a difference and honor his daughter when the Daily News contacted him seven months after her death. He wasn’t sure what he would do but was certain Harrington should be part of the solution.
He felt empathy, almost instantly, toward the man the law said killed his daughter. He owes that state of grace to her.
“I know Elisif would have wanted that more than anything,” Bruun said recently from Baltimore. “I believe he’s a good man who has been unwell, and he has a chance to contribute to society again.”
Last year, Bruun, a Danish-born, Williams College-educated artist, started the New Day Campaign, “art-based programming and public engagement to challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and substance use,” according to its website.
He befriended the Harringtons, much to their surprise, and invited them to speak at New Day Campaign events. Bruun believes families of addicts share a commonality, no matter what side of the courtroom they sit on.
“Let me be really clear here,” he said. “I can’t honestly say I forgave Sean, because there was nothing to forgive. For me to forgive Sean, I may as well have forgiven the postman who delivered the drugs, too. I didn’t go through a period of blame and forgiveness.”
An offer to testify
Elisif Bruun’s family wasn’t in Polk County on March 2, but they played a big role that day. Her father agreed to travel down from Baltimore – but only if Harrington needed someone to testify in his defense.
Newman, the district attorney, came to accept that Harrington had Bruun’s support. Newman acknowledged that his high-profile case was over.
Forgiveness found its way into the courtroom.
“The father of the victim contacted me and was not supportive of the prosecution in this case,” Newman told Powell.
Harrington pleaded guilty that morning to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 16 to 29 months in prison with credit for 667 days served. His parents clutched each other’s hands and tried to stifle their joy. Outside, his public defender, Paul Welch, said Peter Bruun’s unwavering opposition presented the District Attorney’s Office with a unique dilemma.
“I don’t think the other side knew what a jury would do with it,” Welch said. “I would have called her father as a witness, for us. You just never see that happen.”
Thinking about loss
After court, Harrington was taken to the Piedmont Correctional Institute in Salisbury. He spent eight days there and on March 11, guards drove him to a bus depot and bought him a ticket for Wilmington, N.C. He’d serve his probation while living with his grandmother in Southport, N.C.
Stipulations of plea agreements often forbid a defendant from speaking with a victim’s family; Harrington isn’t supposed to have contact with Peter Bruun until probation ends in October. On that long bus ride, Harrington thought about Bruun’s loss.
“Oh, my god, I want to take the man out to dinner and thank him so much,” Harrington said by phone recently from Southport. “I have so much to say to him. I can’t thank him enough. I also owe the man an apology. I was also thinking this is my chance to start over and do the right thing.”
Harrington began taking opiates at 16, he said, and was in the deep end of heroin addiction when he received Elisif Bruun’s money order. He’d met her through a small circle of users and sellers in Bar Harbor, Maine, where they both spent summers working. Harrington liked Bruun, her big blue eyes and artist’s soul, but she had a boyfriend and Harrington said he’d never break up a relationship.
In Philadelphia, Harrington would steal cash from his parents and sleep under I-95 when they’d kick him out. He would scour Home Depot parking lots looking for receipts, then use them to return items for cash. That’s how he was caught and held for extradition to North Carolina.
Bruun had turned to friends to help her score from rehab, Harrington said, but they would take her money and not deliver. Harrington said he held on to some pride, even at his lowest: He never stole from friends.
“She knew I was a trustworthy person,” he said, his voice growing softer. “I couldn’t turn around and do that to her. Maybe it could have been different. I can’t say. She might still be there and I might not be if I’d used her money to buy something for myself. I’m not a religious person, but it makes me think. It’s a heavy thing to think about, how one little choice has such dramatic effects down the road.”
On April 30, Harrington spent the night grilling cheeseburgers at the Dead End Saloon in Southport. Work is one of the few places he can go on house arrest and he’d been pulling 50-hour weeks there. His mind, however, was 500 miles away, with friends and family in a rock-and-roll dive bar in the Italian Market.
Harrington missed the smell of an amplifier when it powers on and longed for something harder than the Eric Clapton and Journey playing on rotation that night in North Carolina.
“The people at the Dead End Saloon, they told me, ‘If you f- up, we will not think twice to send you back to your probation officer.’ It’s good to have an extra set of eyes on me,” he said.
Up in Philadelphia, distortion spilled into the night from Connie’s Ric Rac on Ninth Street. Blue and pink mohawks bobbed to the bar chords and outside, people in black jeans and leather jackets smoked cigarettes. A pit bull named Chase sat calmly in a chair on the sidewalk while his owner gabbed away and drank a PBR.
The show was supposed to be a “Free Sean” fund-raiser. Harrington’s old band, the Blessed Muthas, was on the bill. Harrington used to play lead guitar, a shredder who climbed on top of bars with his Washburn slung low. “He used to play all the time. He just picked it up naturally,” Mike Harrington said. “He did a cover of AC/DC’s ‘Whole Lotta Rosie.’ Man, it was great. He was a freak.”
Most everyone greeted Mike, Michele, and Brian Harrington with handshakes and lingering hugs. The show turned into a fund-raiser for Bruun’s New Day Campaign and Angels in Motion (AIM), which hands out toiletries, food, and directions to resources to people on life’s edge.
Bruun was up at Citi Field in Queens with family to watch his beloved Mets play and couldn’t make it.
‘I love you, Mom’
Liz Fox, 55, an AIM board member, sold raffle tickets at Connie’s. It was too loud to tell every stranger her story.
Her son, Matthew Comfort, hoped to get into rehab after a long stint in jail, and she said he’d grown desperate after he couldn’t find a placement. Her last conversation on Sept. 16, 2014, was a simple one.
“He said, ‘I love you, Mom,’ and I said, ‘I love you, too,’ and he went into the bathroom and OD’d,” Fox said outside Connie’s.
Some singers growled out hearty “thank yous” to the Harringtons, and urged everyone to raise a beer and shout a curse or two for Sean Harrington. The Blessed Muthas played loud and fast. Singer Joseph Anthony Perez, dressed in aviator sunglasses, leather gloves, and a suede plum blazer, howled the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Hang On to Yourself.”
After the set, as Perez, 52, talked about Harrington, his voice turned tender. He’s known him since birth and played beside him on stage. Perez had also been an addict.
“So, I knew,” he said. “I saw the change in him.”
Asked about Harrington’s case, Bruun, and her father, Perez is silent for a moment. Then he began to cry.
“It was so sad to see it go down that way,” he said, holding his hand to his mouth. “But he does have a second chance. I really hope he utilizes it.”
Harrington is not sure where he’ll go when he can live where he wants. South Philadelphia is home, but he knows every hot corner in his hometown. In Philadelphia, where the heroin is almost pure, 349 people died of heroin overdoses in 2014. Harrington is surprised he wasn’t one of them.
“Philly’s always going to be in my heart. It’s a unique city, there’s nowhere else like it in the world,” he said. “It’s a shame.”
In Baltimore, where Elisif Bruun lived, 192 people died from “heroin intoxication” in 2014. Harrington scored in Bar Harbor and he could find heroin in Brunswick County, N.C., where Southport is and where 39 people overdosed from 1999 to 2014.
“I’d definitely like to get out of here if I can, but I know heroin is everywhere,” he said. “I don’t want to make Peter regret the stance he took. I don’t want him to ever think ‘I wasted my time trying to help that kid.’ ”
North Carolina recorded no overdoses in Polk County, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, between 1999 and 2014.
Because Bruun wasn’t a resident, her death became a number for another state, maybe Maine or Maryland, or maybe not at all.
Bruun, like Harrington, just passed through Polk County the way the clouds do when the wind blows on a cold winter morning.