I hadn’t heard from Jeffrey Choate in a couple of months when, one evening in July, I received a jarring text message.
He was alive, he assured me, but just barely.
The man I’d followed for three years through the harrowing ups and downs of addiction and attempted recovery had relapsed again. He’d returned to San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, rented a hotel room on Turk Street and plunged into a three-week, drug-fueled descent.
He’d used heroin, meth and fentanyl, the powerful painkiller at the center of the city’s overdose epidemic. He remembered eating only once, drinking no water, barely sleeping and shedding a lot of weight. He heard gunshots every night, he said. He sent photos of his arms covered in bloody abscesses. He’d wound up in two hospitals.
“Being out in SF now is unreal,” texted Jeffrey, 36. “It has gotten so much worse. So many people I know have died from fentanyl. If I end up there one more time, I will be dead.”
He was, at the time, out of the Tenderloin. He’d texted from a residential treatment facility in his hometown of Clayton in Contra Costa County. He vowed this time would be different. He would stay sober, get a job and sell artwork like the panorama of San Francisco featuring a cable car, the Chronicle newsroom and City Hall that he drew in prison, which hangs above my living room couch.
I’d written about Jeffrey several times — through homelessness in the Tenderloin, a state prison stint and his work as an incarcerated firefighter — and hoped he’d finally find the health and happiness he sought.
Jeffrey Choate moves into a sober living house in Concord with help from his aunt and uncle, Pat and Bob Clarenbach, in September 2021.
We texted regularly. When I visited him in a sober living house in September, he seemed energetic and hopeful. He had a job lined up, was seeing a girlfriend and was participating in a 12-step program. In the fall, he attended an art exhibit, a comedy show and a 49ers game.
I told him I wanted to write another column about him. His ongoing recovery, I hoped, would make for the rare good news in the swirl of calamitous headlines coming out of the Tenderloin. Later, we exchanged holiday greetings.
“Merry Christmas,” he wrote. “Have a wonderful holiday.”
That would be Jeffrey’s last text to me.
The first time I saw Jeffrey, I thought he might be dead. He was passed out on a Larkin Street sidewalk, needles scattered around him, his clothes and skin smeared with dirt and his hands swollen from heroin use.
That was September 2018. I encountered him while doing a Tenderloin walk-along with a police officer for a column about the neighborhood’s open-air drug market. After the officer rousted him to make sure he was OK, Jeffrey told us he was 33 and homeless and had used heroin and crystal meth every day for years.
“I hate it, doing this,” he said. “As bad as it is, it’s kind of addicting out here.”
Officer Brian Donohue checks on Jeffrey Choate, whom he found unconscious and sprawled on a Larkin Street sidewalk in September 2018.
Jeffrey’s mother, Susan Choate-Brye, saw the column and photos of her son and emailed me. She offered to share the story of how her happy, healthy little boy wound up sprawled on concrete in the center of San Francisco.
He was your typical kid, she told me, building forts out of couch cushions, excelling at baseball and taking four girls to his seventh-grade dance. He was close with his mom and stepdad, Steve Brye, and enjoyed an upper-middle-class life in the family’s sprawling home in Clayton.
But after wisdom tooth surgery at age 17, Jeffrey got hooked on painkillers. He turned angry and mean, falling out of his parents’ lives. Susan later learned Kaiser had prescribed him 1,700 pills including OxyContin and hydrocodone over a few years despite doctors noting a substance abuse problem in his files.
Jeffrey grew so desperate to fund his pill addiction that he robbed three banks, unarmed, in 2013, earning $4,770 and 19 months in prison. When he got out, he turned to cheaper heroin and sank into homelessness in the Tenderloin. He remembers receiving Narcan shots to reverse repeated overdoses, but no offers of treatment.
Photos of a young Jeffrey Choate can be seen in the home of his mother, Susan, in Clayton, Calif. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. After a long battle with addiction, Jeffrey died of a drug overdose in a hotel not far from his parent’s home on Sunday, Jan. 2. He was 36.
A poem written by Jeffrey Choate can be seen in the home of his mother Susan in Clayton, Calif. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. After a long battle with addiction, Jeffrey died of a drug overdose in a hotel not far from his parent’s home on Sunday. Jan. 2. He was 36.
He seemed to represent the failure of San Francisco to effectively intervene — either with people addicted to drugs or with the swarms of dealers preying on them — as people die in shocking numbers. More than 700 people died of drug overdoses in San Francisco in 2020, and an additional 650 died last year, most from fentanyl, a synthetic drug so poisonous, just crumbs can kill.
Shortly after we met, Jeffrey came to represent the failures of harsher, law-and-order approaches to drug use, too. He was arrested for shoplifting in Colma while high and giving police a false name. A San Mateo County judge sentenced him to five years in prison even though his mother had secured him a bed at a treatment facility in the city.
I’ll never forget going to a Redwood City jail with Susan and watching as she and her only child talked through glass. It was smeared with the fingerprints of previous visitors trying in vain to reach their loved ones.
Jeffrey was transferred to San Quentin and eventually to a prison fire camp in Fort Bragg. He wrote in a letter to me that the camp gave him a purpose, spurred friendships and restored his strength. His writing was upbeat and funny. He sent drawings of Spider-Man and the Hulk for my sons.
Susan Choate-Brye talks with Jeffrey Choate through glass at a Redwood City jail in February 2019.
He was released in summer 2020, his sentence reduced because of a change in state law. And he soon came to represent yet another government failure.
Though he loved fighting fires, state law prohibited him from joining the profession because of his criminal record. That law has since been changed, but it’s still unusual for a formerly incarcerated person to become a professional firefighter.
That’s where Chronicle readers last encountered him. Newly released from prison during a pandemic, living with his parents and feeling bored and aimless.
“Everything is super high-octane there — just going, going, going,” he said of prison fire camp. “Then you come back here, and it’s just nothing.”
Jeffrey and I kept in contact through fall 2020 and spring 2021. He sounded motivated and hopeful. But then he went quiet — until that disturbing text about relapsing in the Tenderloin.
In a long phone conversation shortly after that message, he said he’d bought what dealers said was crystal meth. It should have kept him wide awake, but he found he had to fight off sleep. He knew he’d taken fentanyl, which is now being cut into other drugs as a cheap, potent and dangerous additive.
“I don’t have a choice anymore about whether I use fentanyl or not because it’s in everything,” he said. “That choice has been taken away from any drug addict who’s using now. People who don’t have the tolerance can overdose very easily.”
Susan Choate-Brye and Jeffrey Choate are seen in a childhood photo from a family vacation in Hawaii.
Jeffrey Choate is seen in an undated childhood photo.
Jeffrey Choate is seen an undated archival photo.
He vowed to never return to the Tenderloin. He said violence fueled by the drug trade was out of control and that people desperate for money to buy drugs were stealing from parked cars, stores, mailboxes and each other. Worst of all, he said, nobody seemed to care.
“Every time I see London Breed on TV, I kind of laugh,” he said of the San Francisco mayor, who he thought was mostly ignoring the misery just blocks from City Hall. “I used to have this grandiose idea of the city. Now I’m disgusted with it.”
Jeffrey talked a lot about Portugal’s approach to the scourge of drug addiction, and I agreed with him its strategy makes a lot more sense than anything San Francisco is doing. There, possession of any type of drug in small amounts is decriminalized, but requires reporting to a special noncriminal commission if a police officer catches you.
The commission may recommend drug treatment facilities — which always have spots available — or appointments with a psychologist to address underlying problems. People don’t have to comply, but if not, their file will stay open. If they’re caught using drugs again, they could be assigned to community service or ordered to stay away from a particular area.
Portugal arrests people found with larger quantities of drugs or who are selling it. Dealers face years in prison. In San Francisco, police data shows, people arrested for dealing repeatedly are held an average of just 5½ days in jail each time before being released. They often return to the same Tenderloin corner to keep selling.
Jeffrey believed Portugal’s system could work here. He was even more adamant he could never safely go back to the Tenderloin.
“If I do that again, I will not make it,” he said. “That was my last run.”
Jeffrey counted July 12 as his sober date. He’d stayed in a residential treatment program at Diablo Valley Ranch in Clayton before moving into a sober living house in Concord.
That was the site of my late September visit. I learned he had his own bedroom and shared a living room and kitchen with four other men in recovery. He was taking Suboxone, a medication to treat opioid addiction. He was starting a new job with a moving company. He and a girlfriend he’d met online had reunited.
He’d been baptized in the Catholic Church and had recently gone to confession, crying for an hour. As part of his 12-step program, he’d made a list of 278 things he’d done wrong, including stealing from stores to get drug money. He planned to apologize to as many people as he could. He attended meetings and had a sponsor.
“Something has changed definitely this time,” he said. “I feel a lot better.”
He was proud of his monthly volunteer work telling his story to the Let’s Talk Truth Coalition, a group of health care workers and others who work with people addicted to drugs in Contra Costa County. Troy Vincent, a friend of Jeffrey’s from high school who works as a paramedic, is part of the coalition and invited him to speak to the group.
Jeffrey Choate tells his life story through Zoom in September 2021 to a group of health care workers and others who work with those with substance use disorder. His high school friend Troy Vincent (background) works as a paramedic in Contra Costa County and invited Jeffrey to speak at the monthly sessions.
I listened to one of the talks, and Jeffrey left nothing out, describing numerous treatment attempts and jail stints and 13 overdoses.
“I am a different person,” he told the group. “I want to be of service. I want to help people. I don’t want to live that life anymore.”
He told me later he thought that sharing his story — to the group, in The Chronicle, maybe someday in a book — could help make living the horrors worth it.
“If the story gives somebody hope,” he said, “that’s good for me.”
We continued to text throughout the fall. In October, he told me he had called the police officer who found him passed out on Larkin Street so long ago to thank him for caring. He said he liked his job at the moving company. He wished me a happy Thanksgiving and said he was celebrating with his girlfriend’s family.
By December, the Tenderloin was in the news a lot. Breed declared an emergency in the neighborhood and vowed a bigger police presence, more services and an end to “the bulls— that has destroyed our city.” Jeffrey texted me on Dec. 21 to say he’d just heard about the mayor’s plans and strongly disagreed with the piece about sending people openly using drugs to jail if they refused services.
He was adamant the city needed to try something new — like finally open a long-discussed supervised consumption site where people can use drugs under the care of medical professionals. Scores of those sites exist around the world, and no one has ever died of an overdose in one. Breed has said she might open one this fall.
“This is a great opportunity,” Jeffrey texted, “to try something different.”
Four days later, on Christmas Eve, Jeffrey wished me a happy holiday. Nine days after that, I received another text. This time from Susan with the worst news a mother can share.
“I got a call a few hours ago,” she wrote. “Jeff was found dead in a motel in Concord.”
She and Jeffrey hadn’t spoken much since July after a blow-up over something she couldn’t even remember. She decided to step back from the tumultuous relationship for a while.
Susan Choate looks out the window as her husband Steve Brye drives her to Premier Inns in Concord, Calif. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. The hotel is the location where her son, Jeffrey, was found dead after a drug overdose only a few miles from his parent’s home on Sunday, Jan. 2. He was 26.
Jeffrey Choate died of a drug overdose at this motel.
Susan’s sister, Pat Clarenbach, had kept in close touch with Jeffrey throughout his life and continued to do so in his final months. She said he was still working for the moving company and for the delivery company she owns with her husband. He’d been distraught, she said, over his breakup with his girlfriend shortly after Christmas. He’d used drugs again.
According to Pat, the manager of the sober living house told Jeffrey he needed to take a drug test, but Jeffrey told him it would come back dirty. That meant he couldn’t return to the house for 72 hours, Pat said. Instead, he checked into the motel on New Year’s Eve.
Pat talked to Jeffrey the night of Jan. 1, and he sounded tired and upset. When she couldn’t reach him the next day, she sent her son to the motel to investigate. He learned the cleaning staff had just discovered Jeffrey’s body with drug paraphernalia strewn around it. Pat phoned Susan and broke the news.
The official toxicology report won’t be completed for months, but Susan is confident Jeffrey was lost to an overdose, probably fentanyl. And that, yet again, her son represents a major societal crisis. More than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses in the 12-month period ending in April, and men like Jeffrey, ages 35 to 44, are dying at the highest rates.
Susan Choate-Brye and husband Steve Brye struggled for years to help Jeffrey Choate, Susan’s son, overcome addiction.
On Jan. 4, I met Susan at her home and we drove together to the mortuary. She would have Jeffrey cremated, she decided, and keep the urn until her own death so that they could be buried together. That way, he’d never be alone again.
“I just don’t want this to be true,” she said as she surveyed a wall of urns for sale.
“I know, honey,” her husband, Steve, told her, rubbing her shoulder.
Overwhelmed, she left the urn decision for another day. Really, she just needed to talk. And cry.
“All I’m thinking about is when I first brought him home,” she said through tears. “His little feet and his little hands. You just want to roll the time back and when you see a bump you already lived through, you want to fix it.
“But I’ve got to move forward. I’ve been paralyzed,” she said. “He is not going to die in vain — he’s not. Something is going to come of this.”
Before going back home, she wanted to see her son’s body once more. Steve went in first, stroking Jeffrey’s hair and whispering that he loved him, that he was sorry everything turned out the way it had, and that he knew his grandparents were waiting for him in heaven.
Susan Choate-Brye and her husband, Steve Brye, filled out paperwork for Jeffrey Choate’s death certificate at a funeral home in Concord on Jan. 4, just two days after they learned that he had died of a suspected overdose at age 36.
Susan went in next.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” she wailed, sobbing and placing her hand over her mouth in shock. “Jeff, wake up! Wake up, please!”
At Susan’s request, a mortuary staffer cut a snippet of Jeffrey’s hair and put it in a Ziploc bag. Later, at home, she opened Jeffrey’s baby book and placed it beside a lock she had kept from his first haircut. She flipped through photos of him as a smiling little boy and sighed.
“He had all his life ahead of him,” she said.
A celebration of Jeffrey Choate’s life will be held in April. Donations in his memory may be made to the Gubbio Project at thegubbioproject.org/donate or the Salvation Army’s San Francisco Adult Rehabilitation Center at sanfranciscoarc.salvationarmy.org.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @hknightsf
Heather Knight is a columnist working out of City Hall and covering everything from politics to homelessness to family flight and the quirks of living in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. She believes in holding politicians accountable for their decisions or, often, lack thereof – and telling the stories of real people and their struggles.
She co-hosts the Chronicle’s TotalSF podcast and co-founded its #TotalSF program to celebrate the wonder and whimsy of San Francisco.