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Justin Lidstone died of an overdose. His family was gutted. We spent a year with them to understand what happened




In a small, windowless room at Toronto police headquarters, Tanya Lidstone wipes away tears and searches for clues in the stack of photographs of her dead son.

One is a wide shot of Justin in the stairwell of the upscale building downtown where he was found. A tight shot focuses on his left hand, his fingers curled around a plastic syringe cap. Another is a close-up of Justin’s face, his sharp cheekbones and blue lips framed by long sandy hair.

Then Tanya, 41, pauses on an image and leans in close: It is of Justin, slumped partially on his left side, his feet positioned on the first step going up.

“It looks like he fell,” she whispers. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand. He knew better than to take (drugs) alone.”

Tanya Lidstone views police photos of the scene where her son, Justin Lidstone, was found dead of an overdose.
Tanya Lidstone views police photos of the scene where her son, Justin Lidstone, was found dead of an overdose.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

Justin Lidstone’s family may never know exactly what happened to him between the time he walked into that building on Oct. 21, 2017 and when he was found, about 21 hours later.

What is known, based on police notes, is that on that unusually warm fall evening last year, two people coming down the stairs after using a rooftop barbecue stumbled upon Justin’s body on the 14th-floor landing.

His backpack — stuffed with art supplies, tallboys of beer and four used syringes — was open and next to the wall behind his back; his Nike sneakers were sitting neatly in front of his extended legs. He had a wallet, but no identification. A phone charger, but no phone.

And in the crook of his left elbow, beneath the rolled cuff of a blue long-sleeved shirt, a fresh puncture marked his pale skin.

Police and paramedics were called. It was obvious nothing could be done.

The Office of the Chief Coroner would later determine that Justin’s blood was polluted with a toxic mix of cocaine, methamphetamine and a fatal dose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The medical cause of death: mixed drug toxicity.

And with that, Justin was counted among at least 308 people who died of opioid overdoses in Toronto last year.

Most died inadvertently after taking lethal concentrations of fentanyl. Most were men in their prime, between the ages of 25 and 44.

Justin Lidstone was just six weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.

He left behind a circle of devastated family and friends, some still grieving; others trying to manage their own drug use; all attempting to make some sense of the loss of a deeply loved young man who carved out a life in a world where death is an increasingly frequent guest.

One year later, his mother Tanya is still haunted by unanswered questions: What brought her son to that building? Where did he get the drugs? How did he end up in the stairwell? Why didn’t somebody call for help?

That he was doing drugs wasn’t a shock. It was a habit mother and son shared.

“He is a junkie. I get that,” says Tanya. “But he’s also a human being that deserves his life and was taken from us.”

Tanya Lidstone still has many unanswered questions about the death of her son. Justin Lidstone was found dead in a Toronto stairwell on Oct. 22, 2017. The medical cause of death: Mixed drug toxicity. His mother is still haunted by the loss.

Tanya has been in regular contact with Toronto police, providing tips on who she thinks was with her son on his last day and who sold him the drugs that killed him. She told them he was visiting somebody on that floor, a place he could get money, or drugs or a place to do them. She believes that after Justin injected, somebody either walked her son out into the stairwell, where he collapsed, or his body was dragged there, his things left nearby.

The coroner’s report notes that from the outset there were “no signs of a struggle” in the stairwell or “external signs of trauma” on his body, and says the manner of death was an accident. The police say Justin’s case is closed. “Everything that was provided to us we followed up with, as well as doing the general things that we do for all investigations,” says Const. Caroline de Kloet.

With his case, as with any case, any new leads would be pursued, she says. And while homicide detectives do work with the police drug squad, this investigation did not go that route. “This is not a murder,” she says.

Tanya believes she’ll never get the answers she needs unless she finds them herself.

“I have to accept that. That is the hardest part,” she says. “If [his death had been by] a gun they would have had the murderer.”

What killed Justin was as effective as a gun and has turned an already risky behaviour, the consumption of street drugs, into something close to Russian roulette. In Toronto, opioid-related deaths more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. The city now has a range of safe-injection services and enacted an overdose-prevention plan. But frontline workers and activists, steeped in loss and fighting for their loved ones, say it’s not enough.

Maybe, Tanya thinks, sharing the details of what happened to her family can convince governments that better access to mental health, addiction and harm-reduction services are a fair trade for people’s lives. That something can be done to stop the flow of the form of fentanyl that is killing people.

“I hope people understand how dangerous it is,” she says.

Then her son won’t just be a statistic.

Justin Tyler Joseph Bellak Lidstone was born in Toronto on Dec. 1, 1994, at Women’s College Hospital. The seven-pound, seven-ounce baby was jaundiced, but otherwise healthy.

His mother Tanya was just 17, a Crown ward who, at age 5, had been taken away from her own parents by the Catholic Children’s Aid Society.

“The last I remember of living with my mom was seeing her run down the street, trying to chase the cab that we were being taken away in,” says Tanya. “I wanted to be a better mom than what I had.”

During Tanya’s second trimester, she moved into Bethany Home, a home for teenage girls run by the Salvation Army, to get healthy and learn parenting skills. She stayed until Justin was 3 months old.

“I was excited to have him. I was excited he was a boy. I was excited that I was going to break the cycle with my mother and my dad, and I was excited to have somebody love me unconditionally.”

Her relationship with Justin’s father didn’t last and they went their separate ways.

Tanya Lidstone was just 17 and a Crown ward when her son Justin was born in December 1994.
Tanya Lidstone was just 17 and a Crown ward when her son Justin was born in December 1994.  (Supplied)

Mother and son moved into a one-bedroom apartment for six months, then a two-bedroom in a public housing tower near Victoria Park and Sheppard Ave. E.

For a time things were good. Justin was easy to care for and rarely cried. Mother and son were supported by agencies invested in helping them succeed and stay healthy.

When Justin was nearly a year old, Tanya brought him along for a trip to the Evergreen Centre for Street Youth, at the Yonge Street Mission. She had a dentist appointment and asked staff to look at her son. Her baby was lethargic and had a greenish tint to his skin. The nurse on site suspected pneumonia and urged Tanya to take him to the Hospital for Sick Children, where doctors discovered damage to his kidney and liver and lungs.

Justin was seized straight from the hospital. The Catholic Children’s Aid — the same agency that had removed Tanya from her own parents — placed Justin in foster care.

Later, somebody known to Tanya was charged with aggravated assault — but was found not guilty, court records show.

Tanya fought to get her son back. The supervised visits at the children’s aid offices were the hardest. Justin would cry and rage and try to hide every time Tanya had to leave. Tanya, who by this time had given birth to a second child, Tenysha Malik-Lidstone, would cry with him, then take more parenting courses so she could provide him with a good home.

Up to that point, Tanya had smoked pot but stayed away from hard drugs: but almost a year into their separation and just before her first appearance in court to argue for Justin’s custody, a friend offered her cocaine to help her keep upright after a night of heavy drinking. The cocaine masked her intoxication, but not her distress.

And while she convinced the judge to let her take her baby home, that day marked the start of a hard drug habit that would deeply damage the family.

Tanya Lidstone says she tried to build a stable home for her two children, even volunteering to be a leader when Justin and Tenysha joined Beaver Scouts.
Tanya Lidstone says she tried to build a stable home for her two children, even volunteering to be a leader when Justin and Tenysha joined Beaver Scouts.  (Supplied)

Tanya says she drank occasionally and smoked marijuana, but kept hard drugs out of the house.

She tried to build a stable home. She read books on child development and took her son to classes to help improve his reading and speech. Justin and Tenysha became Beaver Scouts and she volunteered to be a leader.

She made ends meet through a mix of social assistance and money earned working shifts at a Wendy’s restaurant, where the kids would do their homework at the tables and sometimes help tidy up.

Tanya often felt isolated raising two children on her own. “It’s hard to … be comfortable when you’re scared s–less and you’re trying to educate yourself and be a better person and fit into the real world.”

Meanwhile, Justin, who for the most part appeared outgoing, struggled emotionally, even as a little boy. During his teenage years his anxiety became more pronounced.

And while he was good with his hands and considered becoming an engineer, he had trouble navigating the school system.

“He could have done well in school, it was just getting him to sit down and actually write the test,” says Olympia Trypis, 23, who met Justin in detention while she was in Grade 9 at Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute. He was a grade above her. They bonded over long talks about politics, social justice and their shared anxiety.

A natural charmer, Justin was easy to spot in the school hallways: His clothing was as colourful as his personality. His hair was dyed pink, purple and blue, studs pierced his lower lip and his wrists were wrapped in stacks of plastic beaded bracelets. Later, he would grow his blond hair long. His sister says he looked like a marooned mermaid.

Justin was a natural charmer with a colourful personality. His friends described him as loyal and loving.
Justin was a natural charmer with a colourful personality. His friends described him as loyal and loving.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

Friends described him as loyal and loving, with a deep desire to learn and a sincere compassion for others.

“He could see people for who they were,” says Jacob Nagy, 25, who met Justin when the boys were teenagers.

Once, Justin ripped a stuffed dog off a street pole and gave it to Nagy as a gift. “He didn’t have much but he still, you know, wanted to give it to me and try and make me happy.”

In the evenings, the boys would steal cough syrup to get buzzed off dextromethorphan or they would hang out and smoke pot.

Justin had started using marijuana at about age 13, his mother says. A few years later he was taking the party drug ecstasy and Ketamine, a veterinary sedative. When friends experimented with chemicals he passed on what he knew, telling them not to mix in a bid to keep them safe and watching out for bad reactions.

Tanya says she tried to get Justin into a rehab facility when he was 14, but he didn’t want to go and she couldn’t admit him against his will. Over the years, she tried to get him psychiatric care, but she says Justin knew what to say to appear stable.

Meanwhile, home for Justin became mostly a place to come down off a high. He’d lash out at his sister Tenysha and get into explosive, sometimes physical fights with Tanya. He would storm out and disappear for days. Sometimes Tanya drove through the city to hunt for him.

During the early days, Justin also took care of Tenysha. He taught her to skateboard and about music and style. The chaos in their house toughened her up, she says, teaching her hard lessons about addiction and mental health.

“I will always love my brother for helping raise me and help me become the person that I am,” says Tenysha, 21.

Tenysha says the chaos in her house growing up taught her hard lessons about addiction and mental health.
Tenysha says the chaos in her house growing up taught her hard lessons about addiction and mental health.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

Tanya says the last straw for her was when Tenysha found a bag of ecstasy in the pocket of a skirt she had borrowed from Justin’s then-girlfriend. Furious and feeling unable to cope, Tanya dropped him off at children’s aid.

He was sent to a group home — but took off. He was 14 and on the street.

Shortly afterward, Tanya moved with Tenysha to Bobcaygeon to be near friends and try to clean up. Justin had been reported missing to Toronto police after he left the group home. Officers found him by chance, after breaking up a house party and drove him to Bobcaygeon.

That journey by police cruiser was the inauspicious start to what would become a happier chapter for the Lidstones.

Town life was initially good for the family. Tanya saved up and bought Tenysha a camera and encouraged a natural talent for photography that she hoped to turn into a career. Justin graduated from an adult high school program in nearby Fenelon Falls. During a short ceremony he was lauded for making his fellow students feel welcome and teased about his routine of cranking up his music before getting down to work.

It seemed they had put hard drugs behind them, but in 2015, mother and son relapsed. Justin was dealing cocaine and eventually sold to his own mother. Until then she hadn’t seen him use hard drugs, she says. They had hidden it from each other. Blowout fights with Tanya and her then-boyfriend were common.

Tanya Lidstone and her son Justin both had a drug habit. At one point they were using daily and, she says, they lost themselves.
Tanya Lidstone and her son Justin both had a drug habit. At one point they were using daily and, she says, they lost themselves.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

Then Tenysha, a stabilizing force and caregiver for both her mother and brother for years, moved to Lambton College in Sarnia for photography school.

Tanya moved to Lindsay in search of cheaper rent and found an apartment at the top of a large two-storey home. Justin followed.

Drugs were plentiful. By then, Tanya and Justin were using every day. By that point the main drug was crack cocaine, she says. That was where they lost themselves, Tanya says.

“We don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to wake up and be a druggie today,” she says. “You are brought into the community, whether through friends, or family. You’re not wanting to. And it becomes the only lifestyle you understand.

“So you lose yourself because you want to be accepted.”

In the spring of 2017, Justin returned to Toronto and reconnected with old friends, but the city’s drug scene had become more complicated and much more dangerous.

Toronto was facing a lack of affordable housing, and of addiction and mental health services. Making things worse, the street drug supply was contaminated with fentanyl.

The prescription form of the pain medication is used during surgery and given to people dying from cancer. What is being passed from hand to hand in Toronto is unregulated and can be lethal.

“It will take you to that edge of breathing, to the point where you are completely dissociated but just barely staying alive,” explains Dr. Hance Clarke, director of pain services and medical director of the pain research unit at Toronto General Hospital. “That is the best high that you can have when you are dancing in the recreational drug use world.

“And then you kind of just drift into this phase of not being present and just barely breathing.”

What can pull people back from the edge is a medication called Naloxone, injected or administered through a nasal spray. Fighting for easy access to this life-saving treatment is part of what prompted activists to set up a renegade overdose prevention site at Moss Park.

In 2017, many street drugs were tainted. Left, a user injects carfentanil in a Toronto alley, as another drug user injects fentanyl inside the Moss Park overdose prevention site. The Moss Park team stopped or reversed hundreds of overdoses in its first 10 months.
In 2017, many street drugs were tainted. Left, a user injects carfentanil in a Toronto alley, as another drug user injects fentanyl inside the Moss Park overdose prevention site. The Moss Park team stopped or reversed hundreds of overdoses in its first 10 months.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

The team behind it — the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA) and the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society — preaches that stigma and the fear of arrest drives drug users into the shadows and increasingly into harm’s way.

Justin’s friend Trypis had, by this point, taken her own intravenous drug use public, speaking to committees at City Hall about her fears for herself and her friends. Nagy was sober and pouring himself into volunteering, outreach and harm reduction work, including at a youth shelter.

And so, on Aug. 12, 2017, the three friends found themselves at Moss Park on opening day.

“We walked around this whole park and cleaned up needles and had like a really good talk about what harm reduction was and what it means to both of us,” Trypis, now co-chair of THRA, says of that walk she took with Justin.

Even though he was surrounded by people who would watch over him if he needed help, those last months were still some of the hardest of Justin’s life. He was dipping in and out of what one friend described as drug-induced psychosis.

At this point, Nagy was letting Justin stay with him, hoping that having a roof over his head, with people who cared about him, would give him some stability.

“I really believed in him,” Nagy says. “I feel like I wished I had put more energy into him. At that point I was doing well and was hoping everybody would catch on.”

Contact with his family was sporadic. During a phone call with his sister, Justin, sobbing, told her he needed help but didn’t know how to get it. Later, Tenysha would text, asking if he was OK, telling him she loved him.

She rarely got a response.

Then late last October, Trypis overdosed by accident. What she thought was heroin was a mix of caffeine and the synthetic opioid carfentanil, a drug used to sedate large animals. But she was not alone. She was with people who knew how to handle an overdose, and they gave her Naloxone.

Justin's friend, Olympia Trypis, says they bonded over long talks about politics, social justice and their shared anxiety.
Justin’s friend, Olympia Trypis, says they bonded over long talks about politics, social justice and their shared anxiety.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

Three days later, Justin posted a message from his Facebook account, Justin Fuhkin Lidstonerr.

The timestamp was just after 7 p.m.

“Made a big decision today. Now I don’t want to be alone anyone down to do something.”

Two hours later, security cameras captured him walking into the condo elevator near Church and Wellesley Sts.

Residents at the condominium tower must buzz visitors into the lobby.

Tanya believes Justin knew somebody in the building who either gave him the drugs or the space to use them.

On Oct. 21, at around 9:35 p.m., surveillance cameras recorded him riding the elevator to the 14th floor.

And then, Justin, 22, the devoted friend, who loved to draw and write, fought to graduate from high school and dreamed of becoming an engineer, disappears.

Early the next evening, two people stumbled upon a body in the condo stairwell, an orange blanket balled up nearby, a black baseball hat in a corner and shoes by the victim’s legs.

Paramedics were called to the building, but it was too late.

Police canvassed the floor. One person said they saw somebody whose description matched the deceased doing drugs weeks earlier near an outside door to the east stairwell.

The coroner arrived to bag the body and placed a tag around the ankle.

It read: “Unknown identity.”

Jacob Nagy met Justin when they were teenagers. "I really believed in him," says Nagy.
Jacob Nagy met Justin when they were teenagers. « I really believed in him, » says Nagy.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

It was Nagy who reported Justin missing. On Oct. 23 he put out a call on Facebook. “Anybody hear from Justin Lidstonerr.”

Justin’s sister texted her brother: “always so concerning to see your friends are looking for you. shootme (sic) a message when you can.”

Early the next day Nagy called the police. Later that afternoon they confirmed they had found his friend.

Nagy’s mother called Tanya in Lindsay.

Tanya screamed. She ran around her apartment for hours, crying that she needed to bring her baby home before climbing fully clothed into her bathtub and turning on the water.

Her grief is bottomless, relentless. “I hate myself,” says Tanya, whose pain and regret is compounded by the fact she introduced drug culture into their lives.

Justin was laid to rest at the Giffen-Mack Funeral Home & Cremation Centre on Danforth Ave., on Oct. 30. Hundreds of mourners packed two rooms.

“I saw love, I saw people proud to know him,” Tanya recalls of that day nearly one year ago. “I had seen a lot of pain because he was gone, and a lot of people’s safety net was taken from them.”

In the casket, Justin was dressed in a bright green T-shirt sporting the logo from a favourite video game, The Legend of Zelda; his long hair rested on his shoulders. Red roses wrapped in brown paper, glow sticks, art and letters, along with stuffed polar bears and a frog given to him as a baby.

Somebody put a cigarette between Justin’s lips. A joint was next to him.

“When he went through being cremated, that stuff was with him, for his last high,” says Tanya. “I wasn’t too happy about it at first, but you know what? It is who he was.”

When Tanya collected his ashes she felt she couldn’t breathe.

Tanya Lidstone clutches the container with her son's ashes.
Tanya Lidstone clutches the container with her son’s ashes.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

In the weeks following Justin’s death, her own drug use escalated. She began injecting cocaine for the first time.

In mid-November, she was charged with possession and possession for the purpose of trafficking after police officers arrested her outside her Lindsay home.

Those charges were later stayed at the request of the Crown.

Shortly after Christmas, Tanya moved back to Toronto to live with her aunt and get grief counselling and mental health support. She’s now living with her fiancé in Mississauga. Tanya tried to get into rehab, but now feels she can manage her drug consumption on her own.

In the weeks following Justin's death, Tanya was overwhelmed by grief.
In the weeks following Justin’s death, Tanya was overwhelmed by grief.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

For Tanya, it is the unexplained that still consumes her.

She’s been trying relentlessly to educate herself about fentanyl and search for what, if any, information could lead to justice for her son.

Tanya started with Justin’s social network. “There is an investigation on his death. U left my son to die,” she wrote on Facebook two days after his funeral.

She requested and was sent a copy of the coroner’s report. It is an exhaustive document, detailing what her son was wearing, the contents of his wallet and backpack, the position in which he was found, the volume and types of drugs in his system and the otherwise good health of each of his organs. The report notes three tattoos. The finer details of one, a sword and shield with wings on his forearm also from The Legend of Zelda are in the police notes.

Early on, Tanya fixated on something a police officer had told her: Justin wasn’t wearing his shoes. If Justin was using drugs alone in the stairwell, he never would have taken off his shoes, she insists. “It was too neat,” she says of her hopelessly messy son. “Nothing made sense at the scene.”

She has pored over the police notes she obtained through a Freedom of Information request, a process even a parent has to go through and something the Star helped her access. She questioned the discrepancies. Where was his phone? His wallet was stuffed with gift cards for Menchie’s and he was carrying Canadian Tire money. What happened to his identification?

There were used needles in his backpack, but no record of a needle to go with the cap in his outstretched hand, or any of the supplies that would be needed to prepare or cook intravenous drugs.

Tanya holds a pendant with Justin's ashes during a visit to the stairwell where he was found dead.
Tanya holds a pendant with Justin’s ashes during a visit to the stairwell where he was found dead.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

The evidence, or rather the lack of it, says Tanya, supports her suspicion that her son was not doing drugs alone in that stairwell, but was abandoned there.

Between the time he injected the drugs and when he died, she says, somebody could have called for help. At the time of Justin’s death, Canada had introduced a Good Samaritan law, since passed, which provides immunity for those who call 911 in the case of an overdose.

Dr. Clarke, who reviewed Justin’s blood results — which showed 17 times the amount of fentanyl that would have slowed and shut down breathing — says if somebody had administered Naloxone and called 911, Justin probably would have lived. Clarke said that of all the drugs in his system, based on the levels found in his blood, fentanyl was the cause of death, and it was highly likely that it was the illicit form of the drug.

Tanya has returned twice to the stairwell.

The first time, last winter, she was escorted by a resident of the condominium and taped a baby photo of Justin and his sister to the wall.

The second time was just hours after viewing the photos of her son at the police station last July.

This time the superintendent let her in. Tanya squeezed a small heart-shaped locket holding his ashes. “I think he is here with us.”

Story Behind the Story delivers insights into how the Star investigates, reports, and produces stories.

Last Sunday, a year after Justin walked into the condo where he was found, his sister Tenysha, Nagy and some other friends held a candlelit vigil in Alexandra Park — a place where they hung out together as teenagers.

Tanya was meant to come but says she couldn’t face people. She’d been in bed for two days. But she says she’s been off hard drugs for five or six months.

Tenysha bought coffee and gave out tapered candles. The night was a chance to laugh, cry and swear at Justin for leaving them.

Nagy is moving forward, as he planned, now a first-year student at George Brown College, in the Community Worker Program. His grief at losing Justin was compounded by his grandmother’s sudden and serious illness, chaos in his personal life — and the continuing deaths of friends. He was working full time but exhausted himself, and for the time being is focusing solely on his studies.

Trypis continues to throw herself into advocacy and is a peer harm-reduction worker at Parkdale Community Health Centre. She still uses intravenous drugs. “It’s hard. I want to stop,” she says. “It’s really hard because you don’t have time to grieve” between deaths. “It is too hard to handle.”

Still struggling with her grief, Tenysha says she wants people to walk away from her brother’s story knowing there are real people behind drug addiction, that it impacts not only the users but those who love them.

“I wasn’t prepared to lose him,” she says. “Nobody is prepared to lose anybody when they are addicted to drugs.”

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar


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