In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, Aug. 26, a man left a detox house in Newport Beach exhibiting signs of paranoid delirium. He screamed about wanting to leave, about being chased, about wanting to go home.
Neighbors awoke. Henry Richard Lehr, 23, raged for 10 or 15 minutes before forcing his way into a handsome home on a nearby cul-de-sac around 4 a.m.
In seconds, Lehr — an aspiring singer-songwriter with a “phonographic” memory who struggled with alcohol and other substances — was dead.
The man who shot him still doesn’t know if he’ll be cleared because he was acting in self-defense, or if he’ll be charged with a crime.
And residents of this little corner of Santa Ana Heights, who live near two state-licensed addiction treatment centers and two unlicensed sober living homes, insist that there has to be a better way to care for people in a drug or alcohol crisis than putting them in tract homes in the middle of residential neighborhoods.
Lehr’s family is stunned and heartbroken. Surveillance video shows him breaking down the neighbor’s front door, but they say there was far more to him than what happened that night.
“He was not an aggressive or violent person, but he was acting very much like that that night,” said his father, David Lehr, of Bloomington, Indiana.
“It sounds like it was a symptom of withdrawal, a psychotic episode,” David Lehr added. “I’ve never seen him behave that way before. I think he thought he was trying to get away from whatever was chasing him, trying to get to safety, or to his family, which is tragic and sad.”
The autopsy and toxicology reports are pending and the incident remains under investigation. But the elder Lehr doesn’t think his son was on anything the night he died. He said his son had been drinking heavily on Monday, when he checked into the detox, Gratitude Lodge, but was mostly calm on Tuesday.
On Wednesday night, leading up to the incident, the younger Lehr started hallucinating. He was taken to Hoag Hospital, given medication, and returned to Gratitude Lodge.
He left hours later and ended up dead in a neighbor’s home.
The California Department of Health Care Services, which licenses addiction treatment centers, said it couldn’t comment on incidents where there may be an active investigation.
Gratitude Lodge declined comment for this story through its attorney, as did the rattled man who fired the gun.
Gratitude Lodge is one of more than 1,700 licensed or certified addiction treatment centers in California, and one of 32 in Newport Beach, according to state records.
Most are six-bed facilities, operating in tract houses in residential neighborhoods. They’re not locked — meaning people can’t be forced to stay against their will. Though many, like Gratitude Lodge, work with licensed medical personnel to provide what’s called “incidental medical services,” they’re not staffed 24/7 by doctors.
Detox is the first stage of weaning users off drugs or alcohol, and medical experts say it can be a dangerous time. Seizures — particularly during withdrawal from alcohol or benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax — are not uncommon, and state data suggest that many of the deaths in licensed rehabs happen at the detox stage.
Gratitude Lodge warns of the medical dangers of rehab in its advertising. “Detoxification is a period of time where the body gets rid of any drugs or alcohol in it. During this time, your body may react physically and mentally with uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms—some of which can be deadly,” says Gratitude Lodge’s web site. “Detoxing requires medical monitoring and supervision.”
The “incidental medical services” that Gratitude Lodge, and others with the designation, are allowed to provide do not include primary medical care, according to the state.
Rather, they can obtain medical histories, monitor patients’ health to determine if transfer to emergency care is needed, do tests associated with detoxification from alcohol or drugs and oversee patients’ self-administered medications.
“IMS does not include the provision of general primary medical care and are limited to services that are not required to be performed in a licensed clinic or licensed health facility,” according to the state.
Several other states do not allow detox without greater medical oversight. In Massachusetts, detox must happen in an acute care facility.
Begging for help
People living in Santa Ana Heights have been complaining to the city for years about what they view as an overconcentration of addiction treatment and sober living homes in their neighborhood.
Of 70 houses in the tract, they said, five are group homes. The people living in those homes are transient by nature, the neighbors said, and they lack adequate supervision. Other complaints touched on proximity (neighbors said there are too many centers too close together) and commerce (there are businesses that shouldn’t be allowed to operate in neighborhoods zoned for residential use.)
At least 29 emergency calls have been made to facilities in the neighborhood in the past six years. But many residents are rattled by the incident that left Lehr dead and a neighbor in legal limbo.
“If that guy didn’t have a gun, what would have happened?” asked neighbor David Fiori. “It could have been his life.”
John Nardolillo, 30, moved away from Santa Ana Heights shortly after the shooting. But for four years, he and roommates lived in the neighborhood. A friend’s new car was stolen. At night, when he would smoke on the porch, he saw people he didn’t recognize walking back from a nearby convenience store.
“If you’re trying to raise your kids, that’s probably not what you envision when you buy a house in that neighborhood,” he said.
The Lehr shooting has prompted a cry for change in Santa Ana Heights. At the Sept. 14 meeting of the Newport Beach City Council, a parade of residents begged city officials to do more to control the rehab centers.
Some residents asked Newport Beach to follow the lead of Costa Mesa, which has successfully defended its sober living ordinances that, among other things, require 650 feet of separation between unlicensed sober homes, 24/7 supervision at every center, and transportation home for patients who leave.
Newport Beach was actually a pioneer in trying to control the growing addiction-treatment landscape. In 2008, the city council approved an ordinance to regulate group homes for recovering addicts. It required city approval for new homes in certain neighborhoods and established quiet hours, parking and smoking areas, and van routes.
Three operators sued, saying the city violated anti-discrimination and fair housing laws. A truce was reached in 2015, when Newport settled with Pacific Shores Properties, Newport Coast Recovery and Yellowstone Women’s First Step House. The city paid the operators a total of $5.25 million, on top of the $4 million it had already spent on litigation.
Newport Beach’s ordinances remain in place, but residents say they’re not as tough as Costa Mesa’s and that the multi-million-dollar payout has made Newport timid about enforcing its own rules.
Newport officials said its rehab law is essentially the same as Costa Mesa’s. “They copied our ordinance when they drafted theirs,” said City Attorney Aaron Harp said. “They made a few tweaks to it, but in essence it’s the same ordinance.”
The source of Newport’s problems is licensed rehabs, not unlicensed sober living homes. Local governments, including Costa Mesa, simply can’t impose restrictions on state-licensed facilities.
“If we could do something we would. Our hands are tied,” said Newport Beach Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon to residents at the meeting.
The city council commentary included partisan finger-pointing. Unhappy residents set up a meeting with Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley — the Democrat who helped craft Costa Mesa’s sober living laws when she was mayor. Muldoon told them to mind her party affiliation, blaming Democrats at the state level for the city’s inability to regulate the industry.
The real issue is federal law, other lawmakers from both parties say. Rehab operators use the Americans with Disabilities and Fair Housing acts as both legal sword and shield to avoid regulation. Addiction has long been considered a disability, and operators have argued — often successfully — that cities must treat addiction recovery houses as simple residences, not businesses.
Nardolillo, the neighbor who moved away after the shooting, is sympathetic to people struggling with addiction. He came to California from Maryland in 2013 for treatment and has worked at rehabs in Orange County since getting clean, he said.
“They’ve got to be somewhere,” Nardolillo said of neighborhood-based rehab centers. “It reaches people who do want to get clean to have some semblance of normal, everyday life, living in a neighborhood and not in a hospital with gray walls.”
There may never have been a more wanted child than Henry Lehr.
At a celebration of his life in Bloomington on Sept. 4, Barbara Lehr told of how she wanted a child so desperately that, prior to Henry’s birth, she started bargaining with God. Weeks later, she was pregnant.
“Henry was a delightful child. He was full of wonder and awe at life,” his mother said. “He’d wake up, run outside, and back in to proclaim, ‘Today is the day the Lord has made and we will rejoice in it!’ ”
Her son was a terrible student but a great learner, she added. He had issues with attention but was captivated by stories.
“If you try to communicate an idea to him, his mind would come up with an analogy that helped me understand what I was saying,” she said. He carried quotations from “The Simpsons” in his back pocket and loved making his father laugh.
He also had a “phonographic memory,” Barbara Lehr said. If he heard something, he could recite it back with near-perfection. After he moved to Arizona, for rehab, he worked as a food server. One night he took an order for 28 and did it entirely from memory, and it was so perfect the guests gave him a standing ovation.
She said he’d sometimes pay for a homeless woman’s lunch and then send her on her way with a portion of that day’s tips. He had been working hard, doing well and had been sober for many months and working in food service in Arizona, his parents said.
One of his greatest loves was music. Lehr taught himself to play guitar, wrote his own songs and sang in a folksy tenor. His sister recalled him playing an untuned piano at ungodly hours. “Henry has touched so many hearts and made so many unbreakable bonds,” she said. “He struggled. How hard he tried. How talented he was.”
The family also is deeply religious. The night before he died, Henry Lehr called his mother and said: ‘Jesus has come to me. He says he has cast out my demons and Mom, he is my Lord and savior and I will serve him my entire life because I love him with all of my heart,’ “ Barbara Lehr said, voice breaking.
“What we didn’t know is that the entirety of his life would be 12 hours. I delight in that phone call. What a precious gift from my God.”
This content was originally published here.