Randy Louis Mort Jr. woke up to the cries of his daughter inside his crashed car in April 2010.
Mort was high on methamphetamine and Xanax, and had passed out behind the wheel before his vehicle careened off a road in Marianna and slammed into a tree. Carrying 5-year-old Gemma in his arms – one of them broken – he walked nearly two miles before flagging down another driver and collapsing in the road. The crash landed him in the hospital and on a meandering, tumultuous path to a second chance.
But he wouldn’t get his ultimate wake-up call before multiple run-ins with the law selling heroin and breaking down hard-to-process prescription drugs so he and users he sold to could shoot up, earning him the nickname, “The Marianna Chemist.”
“I was making $10,000 a week, having people come by at 2 a.m. You don’t turn those people away because they’re paying you so you can get high. And you start fooling yourself that these people like being around you. But they’re just there for the heroin,” Mort said.
The 35-year-old Mort’s foray into drugs was an unlikely one. A stellar high school athlete, the Bethlehem-Center High School graduate posted a 104-21 record in wrestling, and was a WPIAL champion and two-time state placeholder in the 145-pound weight class before graduating in 1998. He wanted to parlay that success into a collegiate career, and enrolled at Washington & Jefferson College while helping coach at Beth-Center. Mort said he never did drugs in high school, and still doesn’t drink because he doesn’t like the way it makes him feel. But he had a big jump into the drug scene when he went to play rugby at W&J.
“Someone gave me a shot of apple liqueur with six hits of liquid acid in it before my first match. I was running the wrong way, tackling my own teammates. I had no experience to fall back on to know what this was like, but I’m that kind of competitive person where if someone is going to do something, I’m going to do it twice as hard,” Mort said.
He transferred to Wheeling Jesuit University in 2002 and was robbed at gunpoint.
“I just got back from Thanksgiving break. The guy wanted to meet us in an alley. We got out with the drugs, we laid down on the ground after he pointed the gun at us. He shot in between us and said don’t call the cops. I’ve been shot at, been stabbed, was robbed again. But it wasn’t enough to make me stop,” Mort said.
By this time, Mort was in the rave scene taking ecstasy. He loved the friendly, sharing culture, but said it stopped once the drug’s effects wore off. The search to fill a void left by broken relationships took him to Colorado Springs in 2003 and he began collecting money for local gangs. Marital problems led to an increased use of meth. His stocky body shriveled, and his mind was wracked with despair. He saw drugs as the only option to cope.
“I was destroyed. I’ve talked to (my ex-wife) one time since then – three years ago, when she lost custody of our kids. But to numb the emptiness I kept delving into meth. And it’s a cycle. But why I stayed with her as long as I did? I’ve always been taught: make family work. But it quickly went from party to numbing pain,” Mort said.
Mort said he’s hoping to stay clean for good, and has been since he started working at the Union Grill in downtown Washington. He can celebrate his birthday and a year clean on the same day – Feb. 16. He started working as a dishwasher through the Washington County jail work-release program. Owner Erin Flynn saw potential in Mort.
“We hire people all the time through the work-release program. I mean, all over in the restaurant industry you find people with alcohol and drug addiction problems. But I believe in giving everyone a second chance. And with this program, frankly, you know they’re coming to work hard,” Flynn said.
Mort was only scrubbing dishes for a few weeks before Flynn saw his initiative and drive, promoting him to pizza and eventually grill line, overseeing most cooking.
“He’s always willing to work doubles and has such a great attitude around everyone. You could tell with his work ethic and ability that he could move up. He’s quick, he helps others, and I am proud of him for being so public about his past and offering to help others,” Flynn said.
Mort now lives with his girlfriend, Autumn Cronin, 32, in Daisytown, along with her three children. They’ve been dating since August.
On probation until January, Mort said he’s working to prove himself to his new family. Cronin and Mort both went to Beth-Center, but didn’t date.
“He was Mr. Popular, always with his sports … but he had his path, and I had mine. So it was meant to be this way,” Cronin said.
Mort’s mother has custody of his three children until he is off probation. He eventually wants all six kids under one roof in Daisytown.
“It’s definitely challenging with kids 4 to 13 (when they’re all here), but I wouldn’t change a minute of it. They call each other brother and sister,” Cronin said.
The two reconnected the same way the Observer-Reporter reached Mort: through Facebook. Cronin had posted of heartbreak – losing her son and past relationship struggles, and Mort reached out to her. Mort then posted almost every day for a two-week span in October detailing his life struggles – his arrests for burglary, theft and drug possession – as well as his seven-month run from authorities before his final arrest for breaking and entering into his former brother-in-law’s home. He turned himself in because he was tired of running. His Facebook posts, he said, are to stop him running from his past. And to keep him accountable.
“Probation doesn’t keep you clean. It puts you back in jail. I used the whole time when I was on probation before. You need something else. You need hope and something to reach for. What’s keeping me clean is I’m the happiest and most clear-headed and focused I’ve been in 15 years. The kids are happy, and that’s my happiness,” Mort said.
The reminders of what he doesn’t want to return to are published on Facebook: “I hid in my ex-wife’s trailer in the heating duct, inches away from police. I became a garbage can for drugs, mixing coke, Xanax, Fentanyl patches, Opana painkillers. … I became more than addicted to drugs. I became addicted to the lifestyle.”
Yet, the lifestyle offered a false sense of security. “I was dealing for a total of nine months. But I never saved a dime. I was buying Playstations, TV, but when I was arrested, I didn’t have a dollar to pay toward the $5,000 bail because every day I thought I could go out and sell a couple bags of heroin and pay the electric bill,” Mort said.
Mort said he sold to all walks of life, and had as many as 150 buyers at his peak – selling to state constables, security guards, drug counselors. Cronin said she’s put her foot down.
“I hope he stays on this path and away from people from his past. We’ve had issues with people coming back around, and we’ve dealt with that. I refuse to see him fail,” Cronin said.
But Mort’s openness about his past is what drew Cronin in, she said.
“It was a struggle at first, with trust issues. His phone would ring and I would get nervous, and likewise with me, he’d look over my shoulder. But when we sat out on swings until 4 a.m. on our first date, just talking, he wasn’t shy about his past and that assured me. He wanted me to know everything up front,” Cronin said.
Cronin said she’s going to pursue a second nursing degree, and Mort will continue working grill in Washington, all the while paying off fines. As for keeping clean, Mort said he’s been so open so others would know if he relapses.
“No amount of threats will get you clean. You need hope when you’re at the bottom. If you’re not loving yourself, you need someone to love you, and Autumn has done that the whole time. And that’s how people would know if I’m using. I’d disappear. No Facebook posts, no communication. That’s when you’d have to worry,” he said.