The arrest of John Cramsey started out as a story about guns. But a closer examination reveals a tale about the American heroin epidemic.
On 21 June, Cramsey made international headlines after he was pulled over with two others on the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel in a truck filled with handguns, ammunition and long-range weapons.
It was a little over a week after the largest mass shooting in modern US history took place in Orlando, so speculation began immediately that the “heavily armed trio” was on its way to commit another act of violence.
But when Cramsey’s friends back in Allentown, Pennsylvania, heard the news, they immediately called the incident a misunderstanding.
“He was rescuing a girl,” says Lyn Baker. “We have a few people who’ve been very angry at his arrest. Some information has been misleading or just downright incorrect.”
Baker and Cramsey are the co-founders of a group called Enough is Enough, which says it provides “family support, grief counselling and solutions” to Pennsylvania families dealing with opioid and heroin addiction. The state has seen a double-digit increase in the number of overdose deaths in recent years.
“John gets a little excited over stuff but what he was doing was trying to save a life,” wrote one supporter on the group’s Facebook page, which has over 1,000 members.
According to his own posts, Cramsey – who owns a gun range called Higher Ground Tactical – was on his way to “extract” a young woman from a drug den and bring her back to Pennsylvania.
“I’m currently 11 miles outside of Brooklyn New York and going to a hotel to extract a 16-year-old girl,” Cramsey wrote, alongside photos of himself in his truck with two friends. “Last night she woke to find her friend’s body next to her in the same bed where her friend died of another heroin overdose … I’m bringing her out of NY today and anybody else in that hotel that wants to go home too.”
Before he could make it, he was pulled over for a cracked windshield and detained after police officers found five pistols, one AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, high-capacity magazines, multiple knives and a small amount of marijuana. Authorities displayed the weapons next to an ammunition satchel Cramsey was carrying that said “Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer”.
Cramsey also had the phrase displayed on the side of his truck, as well as on T-shirts, but Baker says their purpose is not violence against drug dealers.
“Our priority isn’t to wipe out people, it’s to get people into treatment,” she says.
However, she could not account for why Cramsey set off on his journey so heavily armed. She says she was on the phone with him late into the night in the hours before he left. They had been talking about Cramsey’s daughter.
“John started this group right after she died. He has not properly grieved,” says Baker. “He’s been getting sadder and sadder and sadder.”
In February, Cramsey’s 20-year-old daughter Alexandra, or “Lexii”, was found dead beside her boyfriend in a home in Allentown. The coroner determined the cause was an overdose of heroin and fentanyl, the same powerful opioid pain medication that killed music megastar Prince earlier this year.
Lexii Cramsey described herself as “a 20-year-old model with a gypsy soul”.
“I have huge aspirations and a never-ending desire to see the world, one step at a time,” she wrote on her Tumblr page.
According to friend and fashion photographer Mark Shiber, Lexii already achieved a degree of success working in Philadelphia, New York and Mexico.
“She was getting all kinds of magazines, she was getting published, she was doing great,” he says.
When he heard Lexii was dead, the news that it was an overdose came as a total shock.
“From what we knew she would never touch that stuff. She hated it,” says Shiber. “If it was heroin, that was the first time she tried it.”
Lexii Cramsey had no criminal record and her death was ruled “accidental”.
Just days after police discovered her body, John Cramsey showed up to his first heroin town hall meeting where he met Baker and other community members active in the fight against addiction.
But some at the same meeting were alarmed by Cramsey’s language, and his raw grief.
“I was really, very, very, very concerned since first meeting John,” says Donna Jacobsen, facilitator of the Lehigh Valley Parent and Family Support Group. “To me, I was frightened by seeing the decals – ‘shoot your local heroin dealer’. That’s really not the answer.”
Cramsey acknowledged as much in another public forum just three week’s after Lexii’s death, when he told the audience at a heroin awareness meeting he said he no longer desired vengeance on the man who sold his daughter her fatal dose.
“If I’d have taken him out it wouldn’t have made me any better,” he said. “I’ve changed my tune. I’m the inoculation for this disease. I’m going to make a damn difference.”
Cramsey made that difference for Andrew Miller, a 27-year-old Allentown resident who has struggled with his heroin addiction for 10 years.
Two months ago, Miller says he’d been to several local hospitals begging to be admitted into a programme to get clean. But he didn’t have health insurance.
“Nobody could really help me,” he says. “[My mom] told me to call John Cramsey. One phone call to him, he had me meet him in a half hour.”
Miller says Cramsey helped get him into Lehigh County’s drug and alcohol services, which secured him a bed at a 28-day rehabilitation programme. When that was over, Miller decided to go to a sober-living house located in south Florida. He says Cramsey personally paid for his plane ticket.
“I’m not used to getting help, so it’s really crazy to me,” says Miller, who is now 69 days sober. “Until someone loses a son or a daughter, I don’t know if you’ll ever know how it feels. He’s on a mission and he’s not stupid.”
Layne Turner, head of the Lehigh County Drug and Alcohol Administration, says that Cramsey has personally brought at least three people to the county to get treatment.
“He’s a father that’s grieving. He has done a lot of good in the community, but there are concerns about how far is too far,” says Turner. “That’s not for me to decide, but John Cramsey shouldn’t be the story. The story is… all the social issues that are leading directly to addiction.”
According to the Lehigh County coroner, there were 115 drug overdose deaths in 2015 in the county, and 72 suspected drug-involved deaths in the first half of 2016. Turner says the local hospitals are seeing 400 to 450 suspected overdoses a month in their emergency rooms.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been and it’s hitting all walks of life,” says Lehigh County coroner Scott M Grim. “It’s disturbing.”
Regardless, a spokesman for the Allentown Police Department says they can’t condone the actions Cramsey took in New York.
“We do not encourage anyone to take the law into their own hands,” says Captain Dan Wiedemann. “First step is to contact [the local police], which was not done in this case.”
Cramsey and his two friends are still in custody, with a cash bond set at $75,000 (about £50,000). Cramsey’s lawyer, James Lisa, says that the family can not afford that amount and he may have to remain behind bars over the weekend.
Lisa says he plans to challenge the circumstances which prompted the traffic stop in court.
“I believe the search was illegal,” he says. “Regardless of what’s on the vehicle, speech is still protected.”
As to the mission that brought Cramsey to the area in the first place, Lisa says: “I commend him on what he’s doing. While his motivation is correct, his method may not have been appropriate.”
The heroin crisis gripping the US is its worst drugs epidemic for more than 60 years, according to a recent State Department briefing.
In the last five years, heroin consumption has doubled while cocaine use has halved.