Note: This transcript is a radio script, which means it includes production notations and occasional syntactical errors and quirks of writing for audio storytelling.
Episode 4: Put It To Rest
For seven years before Josh went to prison he had a job he loved.
He worked at a Christmas tree farm. A big one -- some years, the farm sold 3,000 trees in a season. Josh loved it cuz he was outdoors-- on his own, all day, planting and mowing.
ZIELFELDER: He was a small guy but he was super strong, he was super high energy.
Rick Zielfelder [ZEEL-felder], who owns the farm -- started out with just two employees. Rick says Josh outworked his own manager.
ZIELFELDER: [00:11:47] He worked circles around the other person and we had to make a tough decision and /// we chose to move forward with Josh /// and it was because of personality was super comfortable. His work ethic was amazing. /// He blew me away with what a hard worker he was.
About a week before he got outta prison, Josh and I talked on the phone. He knew getting a good job on the outside could keep him out of trouble. I asked what kinda work he might get, you know, once he got out.
LAVENETS: Before I got into this mess I was working on a tree farm. /// A Christmas tree plantation in Farmington. ///
EMILY: Are they people you might be able to work for, in the future?
LAVENETS: ... Well, Rick really wasn't impressed I got in trouble.
That was pretty much all Josh said about the tree farm at the time. I figured his boss there just didn’t like what he had done to get arrested.
Josh changed the subject.
LAVENETS: Kenny says he'll take me back roofin, and /// I know a guy named Paul, /// he might be able to get me on a lobster boat. /// So I have a lot, I have some options.
Josh has to find a job - and it’s not just because he needs money. It’s actually one of his parole conditions.
His best chance to get a job now that he’s got a felony record?...is gonna be through someone he already knows. Someone from his past.
And not everyone Josh knows is on the up and up.
Honestly, I hope he calls the tree farm guy.---- But ---- he won’t.
From New Hampshire Public Radio, this is the final episode of Supervision. A podcast about a life on parole. I’m Emily Corwin.
At the end of the last episode, I told you that that moment in the hallway was the last time I ever saw Josh.
Before I tell you what happened, I need to backup a little bit. I need to tell you more about the tree farm.
Rick Zielfelder is a gentle guy. He speaks carefully. I called him recently, and he agreed to meet up at his office. He owns a motorcycle suspension shop -- the tree farm is more of a hobby.
And sitting with his arms on his desk...eventually, Rick tells me rest of the story that Josh had carefully avoided.
ZIELFELDER: [00:13:16] So those first years were Josh as we knew Josh. Over time some things started to change and we didn't know what, when, why.
Rick says...early on, Josh was part of the team. At lunchtime, Rick’s family and all the employees would sit together to eat bagged lunches from home.
ZIELFELDER: [00:17:40] There’s a lot of fields out there, and at a point in time it became Josh would get in his car, drive to a far corner and sit by himself, and I don't know what he was doing. /// I look back now and have to wonder what he was doing, but I, I don’t know. [00:17:49][9.3]
Josh also started showing up to work with sketchy-looking friends, or not showing up at all. A couple times he missed work because of what Rick calls temporary lockups -- scuffles with the law.
ZIELFELDER: [2:50 + 25] Even his demeanor was different. And that's why /// we did speculate there was something going on in the background because that wasn't the personality of the person that we knew early on.
Rick started losing trust in Josh. He gave Josh assignments in the office, so he could keep an eye on him.
ZIELFELDER: [00:21:07] At the end Josh just disappeared. Right? There was no call there was no text. There was no communication [00:21:14][7.2]
That would have been early January, 2015, about the same time Josh was arrested for assaulting his wife and stepson. After three months in jail, a judge let Josh out to wait at home for a trial and sentencing.
That’s when Josh did something.
Without announcing himself, he showed up back at the Christmas tree farm.
ZIELFELDER: He'd got released. He’d got together with his wife. [00:21:51][30.0]
[00:21:52] He showed up at the...he was into Subaru rally cars as well. He thought it'd be fun to go out in the fields and power his car around the fields in the snow. And there was way too much snow. He buried the car. He couldn't find keys to tractors at our place or a neighbor's place. And he had to call me at that point saying, “Hey can you help me get my car out. And we hadn't heard from him in months at that point. /// And this is how we find out you're around again.
They had to tow Josh’s car out of the snow - at night. The next morning he came back to pick it up.
And that was goodbye.
ZIELFELDER: There was no communication. That was just the last contact [00:22:52][2.9]
No thanks, no nothing.
Josh LOVED this job. It gave him a sense of purpose.
But just a couple months outta prison, he can’t seem to bring himself to ask Rick for his job back. And Josh really needs a job. Right now, he’s crashing with his friend Trish and borrowing money from his mom for food.
LAVENETS: I'm startin’ to get really desperate for work right now so I'll probably go roofing. But everybody doesn't want me to do that.
EMILY: Wait, talk about that.
LAVENETS: Well this roofing company I used to work for, I got in trouble.
Josh says he knows a guy who will hire him. The guy who owns the roofing company. Kenney Stanley.
LAVENETS: None of his vehicles are ever registered or inspected, nobody has drivers licenses, and they’re all, you know, bad drug habits.
Before Josh’s seven years at the tree farm, he worked for this guy. Now Josh’s family and friends are saying: don’t do it.
What information I could find about Kenney is not good. His roofing company has been fined 385 thousand dollars for federal health and safety violations. And Kenney himself has had at least 33 cases against him in New Hampshire courts. There are small claims cases, simple assaults, violating a protective order, menacing dogs, you name it...
Kenney pays people under the table and Josh says the other employees use drugs. To be clear, just being around drugs is a violation of Josh’s parole conditions. It could send him back to jail.
And there’s this one thing that happened while Josh was working for Kenney way back when -- that make his family and friends nervous now. See back then, just like today? Josh had a DWI.
LAVENETS: I didn’t have a license. /// Nobody had a license and he was freakin’ out, yellin at everybody...
So this anecdote Josh is about to describe - I couldn't find a record of it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I can tell you Josh does have a drug charge on his record. And the state has charged Kenny with both, “allowing [an] improper person to operate [a] vehicle,” and with failing to get his vehicles inspected.
Anyway, according to Josh, Kenney asked him to drive some guys to a job.
LAVENETS: He asked, but it was pretty much in a do it or lose your job way.
EMILY: I see, so they told you to drive?
LAVENETS: Yes. /// Uh, we had a job in Massachusetts. We were going through the tollbooth /// and there was a state cop standing at the toll, I guess he was checking stickers, and of course no stickers and cracked windshield. /// And sure enough I was in handcuffs getting charged. I thought I was just gonna be charged with driving without a license but no...turned little more serious than that.
Josh says -- another guy in the car had methadone on him. Illegal methadone. Josh was charged with possession.
LAVENETS: Yeah I never done the stuff in my life. /// I tried pleading my case but... /// Can't afford a lawyer, so you get a public defender that works for the state. It's a big set up, it’s just a losing battle unless you have a lotta money. Yeah.
Josh says he pleaded guilty.
That was more than ten years ago. Now, Josh is five weeks out of prison, and I can’t find him.
I reach out to Trish, who he was living with. She tells me he moved. Her landlord kicked him out.
So -- I call Kris, Josh’s friend who picked him up that first day outta prison.
EMILY: Hey Kris it’s Emily.
Josh, he says -- is struggling. After he left Trish’s place in Rochester, he went to Milton, the next town north, to live in his step-dad’s basement.
KRIS: Milton, what’s in Milton? I mean, you need a car, you need a license if you want to do anything in Milton.
Rochester, a city with 30 ,000 people, at least has public buses and an actual downtown. Milton is an old mill town -- population 4,000. The downtown consists of a gas station, a dollar store, a Dunkin Donuts, and a pizza place. That’s it. It’s isolating.
Without a car or a license-- it’s hard to imagine Josh getting a job -- or keeping up with friends.
EMILY: Are you worried about him up in Milton? Like, do you think he would get into trouble up there?
KRIS: Noo noo.
EMILY: There’s nothin to do?
KRIS: I worry more about the people he’s working with. Cuz you know I mean it’s a shady thing.
Then Kris tells me Josh is working for a roofing company up in Milton.
EMILY: This roofing company though, like this isn’t the same company he got in trouble with before, like /// it’s not the same guy is it?
KRIS: Yeah, I think it is.
EMILY: It’s the same guy? Oh! ///
KRIS: It’s not on the books, it’s under the table, it’s everything that’s just WRONG.
So Josh is working for Kenney.
Like everyone in Josh’s life, Kris doesn’t want him to work for Kenney’s company. AND, Kris claims he HAS a great job lined up for Josh. Doing construction.
KRIS: All he has to do is make a phone call and he could have a job in Portsmouth for two years making $36 an hour. You think Josh would make that phone call? /// And he just hasn’t done it. I’m like all you gotta do is call. I talked to the guy today. I said, “Hey, are you hiring?” He goes, “We can’t get enough people here.” ///
EMILY: What’s Josh making in his current job?
KRIS:Table scraps. /// And the job I’m trying to get him has full medical, full dental, vacation time, holidays, I mean it’s the full corporate package.
EMILY: Wow, huh.
KRIS: Just. For whatever reason he won’t act on it and I just don’t know why. I can lead a horse to water but I can’t force him to drink so I’ve done all I can do for the kid.
Kris is obviously frustrated. But if there’s one thing I know about Josh, it’s that he hates relying on other people. What I might think of as a favor? He would call mooching. And I have a feeling the only way he could get to this sweet job in Portsmouth is if Kris drove up to Milton to give him a ride every morning.
Instead, Josh is working for Kenney.
Even though Josh isn’t returning my phone calls he does respond to my texts and Facebook messages. I reach out every few days. Usually, he writes back to say he’ll call me later, or that he’s roofing all over New England, and he never knows if or when he’ll get a day off.
But he does give me updates. Like that he finally received the $100 the prison owed him. And he says, things are going pretty good with his parole officer Greg.
At one point, Josh messages me to say, “I work with a bunch of junkies.”
Later, I see Kris post a public comment on Josh’s wall. It’s an article in a local paper, about Kenney’s roofing company. The headline reads: Roofing contractor faces fines for OSHA violations. In the comments, Kris writes: “Go union or go home...in a bag.” Josh replies, quote, “lol in a bag. Death is everywhere.”
Two weeks later -- at nine am on a Monday morning -- I’m eating breakfast with my mom when the phone rings. It’s Kris. I pick up -- but don’t think to record the call.
When I answer, Kris tells me...Josh is dead.
In a voice more monotone than usual -- he lays out his hazy understanding of what happened. He says he’d gone hiking with Josh that very weekend -- and Josh seemed fine. Last night, Kris says, Josh was drinking heavily with friends. And then this morning he was found dead, where he was living in his step-dad’s basement.
KRIS: I just went outside to smoke a cigarette.
A few weeks later, Kris tells me how he found out Josh died.
KRIS: I just uh, sent him a message, and his stepmother responded back to me under his messenger icon and said, “This is his stepmother, call me at this number.”
EMILY: What did you think was happening right then?
KRIS: I thought he went back to prison. So...I thought he had maybe drank some beers and his parole officer just randomly happened to show up, which they can do. ///
EMILY: And then what happens next?
KRIS: Called her and she told me he died last night. And I was like ok. What the fuck.
[MUX THRU THIS SECTION, re: MM and JR:]
What the fuck.
I only have ONE document that tells me anything about what happened that night. And it doesn’t even establish Josh’s cause of death. But...it has a lot of details. It’s graphic, and it’s sad. It’s the police report -- essentially just one officer’s narrative from the night he died. Here’s what it says.
Josh spent that day sitting around a firepit in his step-parents yard, drinking significant amounts of beer. He was with his step-sister, her boyfriend, and a friend. The friend -- Brandon -- stuck around with Josh after the others went home. Josh was still very drunk, when -- around 2am, he, went downstairs to do laundry. [This is a detail that seems to me, somehow -- very Josh.]
After that, Brandon said he heard a loud thump. When he went downstairs he found Josh unconscious and unresponsive. He called 911 and started CPR.
When Milton police officer Carrie Driscoll showed up -- she wrote -- she could smell alcohol, and vomit. She saw Josh on his back with vomit on his face and pooled around his head. She took over CPR, and checked for a pulse. She couldn’t find one.
Paramedics arrived and attached Josh to a ventilator. Officer Driscoll watched vomit come out of his lungs. Right there, in the basement, Josh was declared dead at 2:52 am.
Officer Driscoll waited 20 minutes for the assistant deputy medical examiner to arrive. She speculated to Driscoll that acute alcohol overdose and airway obstruction -- from the vomit -- were likely factors in Josh’s death.
This police report -- it’s three pages long. And it’s all I have. The medical examiner told the police officer they’d need to do an autopsy and a toxicology report to determine Josh’s cause of death. I can’t get those documents. Josh’s family can - but when I ask his mom to share them, she stops responding to me.
That means I don’t have answers to my biggest questions.
Did seizures play a role in his death? I don’t know. Was he on any other drugs that night? I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know. Josh’s friend Kris told me Josh never mentioned any more seizures after that first day out of prison. And Josh’s mom - before she stopped talking to me - she told me a doctor had taken Josh off an antidepressant that’s known to cause seizures.
I also know the people who were with Josh the night he died told police what Josh had told me -- so many times. That Josh didn’t do drugs. Except for pot. And his friend said -- Josh hadn’t smoked pot that night.
Josh had always said -- his problem is alcohol.
And from what I saw, he was right. Josh was drunk when he committed the crimes that sent him to prison...and when he insulted his employer by getting his car stuck at the tree farm...he was most likely drunk when he lost his housing. And...he was drunk when he died.
I’m left shocked and grieving. I was rooting for Josh. I never saw him when he was depressed or drunk or off his meds. The Josh I got to know? Despite his crimes - he was still loveable, earnest, candid ...sometimes silly.
And right now, all I want to do is talk about him with the people who knew him. It takes me a while to figure out that this is not a conversation everyone wants to have with me.
She stops responding to my Facebook messages after Josh dies. When I drop by her apartment one afternoon, her maybe-eight year old son comes downstairs to open the door. He says he’ll ask his mom if I can come in. But when he comes back, he says she’s sleeping.
At one point I even call Kenney, the guy Josh had been working for, roofing. He agrees to meet me at a job site.
EMILY: Hey! Are you Sean?
ROOFER 1: Sean is up here. Sean!
EMILY: Is Kenney up here?
ROOFER 1: Kenney isn’t here yet.
EMILY: Oh he’s not there yet. Ok do you know if he’s coming?
ROOFER 1: Yeah he’s coming.
EMILY: Ok, cool
For four hours I wait for Kenney. Kenney doesn’t show.
EMILY: He’s like so hard to get ahold of.
ROOFER 3: Tell me about it i’ve been trying to get ahold of him all morning.
EMILY: And you can’t get a hold of him either? Cuz when I call nothing happens.
ROOFER 3: Nope.
EMILY: And that happens for you too? Ok. Alright. I’ll hang out.
ROOFER 3: I gotta go talk with this homeowner real quick.
It’s not till I meet up with Rick, from the tree farm, months later -- that I find someone else who’s craving details the way I am. He tells me he’s been trying to figure out what happened to Josh. He hasn’t been sure if he’s alive or dead. When I break the news, Rick seems relieved just to know the truth.
ZIELFELDER: [00:23:49] The rumor we had heard was it was a hiking accident and we knew he loved to hike. That part was very believable. /// So I continued to search for hiking accidents and I couldn't find anything. /// And when you called you you were the first person that said, yes, he is in fact gone. [00:24:27][37.5]
Now -- Rick and I both know *how* Josh died. By I still want to know WHY. Why did Josh have to die?
If just one more thing had gone right, would he be alive today?
EMILY: [00:05:24] What do you think would have happened if hypothetically speaking he had given you a call and said you know I'm out of prison and I really need a job? [00:05:42][17.9]
ZIELFELDER: [00:05:47] You know I I don't I don't know. I... ///
Josh had told me Rick was too disappointed in him to give him a second chance. Rick says that’s not fair.
I think Josh’s shame stood in the way of him even asking the question.
ZIELFELDER: I don't have ill feelings towards Josh. /// Was I frustrated when Josh disappeared and then he showed up the way he did? Yes. But I am still shocked that he's not here.
EMILY: Hey, Kris, how ya doin?
It takes a while for Kris to agree to meet up with me. In the months since Josh was paroled, Kris had gotten married -- and -- had a baby girl.
We meet at the same park where Josh had taken me a few months back. The same park where Josh took his son to the playground a dozen years ago. Today, Kris and his wife are struggling to open a brand-new stroller. She’s gonna walk the baby around the park, while he and I talk.
EMILY: You wanna sit down?
KRIS: No. That’s alright
KRIS: Yeah I’m good.
EMILY: Alright, I’ll stand.
I try to get close with my microphone -- but -- he’s keeping his distance.
As far as I can tell, Kris was Josh’s closest friend. He coordinated Josh’s cremation -- spread some of his ashes on Josh’s favorite mountains.
But Kris doesn’t want to wrestle with it any longer. And -- that makes sense. He’s focused on his daughter now.
KRIS: Not too many people /// set up a cremation on Monday and then catch a baby on Tuesday. So, August was a little tough for me.
Kris and I go back and forth about the details of Josh’s death -- just trying to make sense of it. And it makes me think of something I read on the internet. While I was casting about, looking for an explanation.
I had found this study. It showed that inmates are way more likely than other people their age to go to the ER -- and to die -- in the weeks and months after their release from prison. Not just from overdoses. From all kinds of things.
And one reason people think that is -- is that prison trains you to be passive. But on the outside -- you have to advocate for yourself. And Kris and I BOTH saw -- how Josh struggled with that.
EMILY: Do you feel like when it came to the seizures and figuring that out, Josh was able to get to all the doctor’s appointments he had, and needed to go to and /// if he needed a ride do you think he would l have asked for a ride?
KRIS: Well I mean he wouldn’t have asked me. He knows there’s nothing I can do when I’m at work. Can’t just leave. So. My career’s very important to me. An income is very important to me. Stability is very important to me. All those things kinda revolve around being where I’m required to be for X amount of dollars so.
EMILY: Do you think he had anybody he had anybody he could ask for a ride to a doctor’s appointment?
KRIS: I don’t know. I don’t know.
I’m not implying a car ride would have saved Josh’s life. But I keep coming back to those same logistics the parole board asked every parolee about, including Josh. Where will you live? Will you have a car? A job? Who will be there to help you?
Kris, Josh’s mom, and Trish *wanted* to visit Josh in prison, *wanted* to pick him up on his first day out; *wanted* to drive him where he couldn’t drive himself -- but they couldn’t always be there for him.
And...Josh didn’t want to mooch. He didn’t want to be in anyone’s way.
And then there’s the system. It let Josh out on parole, then expected him to do things the best of us would struggle at. “Get a job” -- without a driver’s license. “Don’t associate with felons” -- even though most of the you work with had criminal records. “Don’t drink” even though you’re an adult. With a drinking problem.
So, ALL of it -- the bad luck, the poor choices, and the expectations of the parole system itself ...it all pushed Josh into an increasingly vulnerable position. And it was in that position, on August 7th, two-thousand-seventeen - Josh died.
Standing in that park in Rochester, Kris and I continue to talk. Every ten minutes or so, his wife walks past us, pushing their new baby. This time, Kris indicates, he has to go. It’s clear this is the last time we’ll talk.
KRIS: Put it to rest, you know. Close your story out, find another one. Move on. That’s what Josh would want. He’d want you to just move on. He’d never want anyone to get hung up on his problems. Never.
We’ll never know what Josh would have wanted. He had high hopes for this project: he wanted to tell his story.
So, here’s Josh’s story. He lived a life on parole for three months before he died. In that time, he stayed out of prison. Although it may not have been a safe job, and it may not have paid very much, Josh worked to support himself.
He made a lot of mistakes on the outside, mistakes he paid for, in prison, and after. The Josh I got to know was striving to do better. To BE better.
And even in those hard months, he found moments of joy...and purpose.
Just a few days before he died….Josh climbed another mountain.
END OF SERIES
Supervision was produced and reported by me, Emily Corwin.
Jack Rodolico is Senior Producer
Editing by Dan Barrick, Cori Princell, and Maureen McMurray.
Digital production by Sara Plourde and Rebecca Lavoie.
Sound mixing by Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy
Special thanks to Vermont Public Radio.
Supervision was supported by a grant from the New Hampshire Bar Foundation
To learn more about the series visit our website: supervisionpodcast.org
Supervision is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.
Emily Corwin here with a quick note.
Supervision was made at New Hampshire Radio, a place where journalism - and our audience - comes first. We know it’s important to tell stories like this one - stories other outlets aren’t willing to invest the time and money to report. If you agree, and want NHPR to make more podcasts like this one, consider donating just twenty dollars - or the amount of your choice - right now. You can find a link to donate in the show notes, or just go to our website, supervision podcast dot org.
This story took me more than two years to finish. It didn’t go the way I expected. And honestly, most news outlets -- would have let this story languish and die -- on the cutting room floor. Instead, New Hampshire Public Radio told me to keep going. They gave me four editors and two producers. That risk taking? It’s expensive. If you want NHPR to make more podcasts like this one, consider donating just twenty dollars - or the amount of your choice - right now. You can find a link to donate in the show notes, or just go to our website, supervision podcast dot org.