After the fall

Glenn Richardson's road back from the brink of suicide.


An AJC exclusive: Attempting to kill himself wasn’t spur of the moment for Glenn Richardson, once one of Georgia's most powerful politicians.

An AJC exclusive: Attempting to kill himself wasn’t spur of the moment for Glenn Richardson, once one of Georgia's most powerful politicians.

Next week: A husband with a brain injury reconnects with his family over Thanksgiving.

It had come to this, dying alone in his bathroom by his own hand.

Through guile and force of personality, Glenn Richardson was known to Republicans in the state House as a leader who delivered his party into power after a century in the wilderness.

As Georgia’s speaker of the House, he was the state’s second most powerful man. But the pressures of his job, combined with an insatiable appetite for the trappings of success, were feeding his ruin. On Nov. 8, 2009, he was just a depressed, lonely man who saw no other way out of a self-induced spiral.

Richardson was taking half a dozen medications a day including Ambien, a sleep aid; hydrocodone, an opioid pain killer; and depression meds. He stashed Ambien in every bag he owned so he could always take the edge off. The meds were prescribed, he said, but paid for out-of-pocket. He worried insurance claims would create a paper trail and give enemies powerful ammunition — that he had depression and was addicted.

On that Sunday evening in November, his seven-bedroom home near Hiram seemed especially forlorn. In 2004, he bought the 12-acre property encircled by barbed-wire just before becoming speaker. He wanted to protect his family’s privacy from an intrusive media and public. For a while, the house buzzed with life. But by late 2009, he often wandered the home of his dreams alone.

The year before, his wife left him after he had an affair with a Capitol lobbyist, and three of his best friends — fellow business and political leaders in Paulding County — died in a plane crash. His law practice, fueled by real estate growth, hurt for business, as did the bank he co-founded.

Killing himself wasn’t spur of the moment. He had fought depressive, suicidal thoughts for years. This time, he stockpiled 400 Ambiens and 40 tablets of hydrocodone. He researched it on the Internet and found 100 could kill a man. Four hundred should kill a horse.

2. Back on the road

One fall afternoon last month, Richardson drove his pickup down a West Georgia country road. He was off to deliver yard signs to supporters, pick up a donor’s check and collect information on a candidates forum that night in Carrollton.

Richardson, 52, was running in a special election for a state Senate seat that opened up when the incumbent became a judge. The race drew five eager candidates, including the former speaker.

The district — in Douglas, Paulding and Carroll counties west of Atlanta — combines subdivisions, farms, small towns and an electorate so conservative no Democrat dared run.

The vacancy left just two months to campaign, making it a pressure-packed sprint. When last seen, Richardson’s ruin was so complete, his mental state so fragile that many worried about him returning.

“There’s a clinical history there that leads us to be concerned,” said state Rep. Larry O’Neal, who was a Republican House floor leader with Richardson. “I just hope he can handle it.”

Richardson smiles hearing such concerns. He’s a humbler version of his old self, quick to laugh, engaging in conversation, eager to please, although his face still gets flushed when talking in his rapid west Georgia twang. He knows he carries enough personal baggage to fuel a battery of attack ads, but he was willing to chance it by running.

“I’d rather take my shot now than sit down wondering what might have been,” he said. “If I get beat, I get beat. I’m at peace.”

James Glenn Richardson always yearned to be in politics, which was also his father’s dream. He misses being in the mix. He misses the art of verbal combat, of wooing voters and twisting arms to make something happen.

He pointed out the window to his green campaign signs competing for attention with an opponent’s red, white and blue placards. Green signs always seemed pleasant. Seeing them out there made it register: He was back in the game.

He called a Carrollton friend to get a feel for the forum. “Any hot items here other than the flea market burning down last weekend?” Then he got serious, asking about the Q&A structure, worried that someone — possibly an opponent’s surrogate — would zing him with a hostile personal question.

Before the forum, about 100 mostly older Carrollton area residents milled about the meeting hall, greeting each other and the candidates in friendly acknowledgement. A pretty blond woman years younger than Richardson smiles and waves. His girlfriend, who he asked the newspaper not name, has come to watch. The candidates then sat on the stage as audience members settled into folding chairs.

Richardson introduced himself by talking about his local roots going back to the 1800s. When talking issues, he sounded confident and well-versed, yet folksy and sporting a populist feel.

He said it should be tougher for banks to foreclose on homes to give financially troubled folks a fighting chance. He knows this first-hand; he has a hard time most months paying the two mortgages on his home. Later, he said it was time to think about giving non-violent criminals a second chance.

In the Legislature, Richardson, a sometimes arrogant man who lashed out at opponents, was known for fits of anger. At the forum, he sometimes seemed almost sheepish, his former edge softened.

“We’re the sum total of all our experiences, good and bad,” he said, giving his new-found pitch. “I learned the most when I was flat on my back looking up. I’ve spent a lifetime of training for this. I know the people. I know the place. If you do me the honor of a second chance, I’ll do my best.”

The crowd applauded politely. It was rare, he said, to be accosted by someone telling him off. Although animosity was out there. Recently, he received an email: “I hope you lose. I hope you’re broke. I hope next time you try suicide that you are successful.”

Richardson plays in a rough game but has always been thin-skinned.”It always hurt more than it should,” he said.

3. Meteoric rise, hard fall

Twenty years ago, as Paulding County’s attorney, Richardson often launched into rambling soliloquies about then-Speaker Tom Murphy, the legendary, cigar-chewing Democrat who ruled for decades. Murphy, he argued, abused power to reward allies and punish enemies.

Tired of complaining, Richardson won a state House seat in 1996 and became a thorn in Murphy’s side.

In 1999, Richardson proposed numerous amendments to water down an Open Records bill proposed by then-Gov. Roy Barnes. His amendments were shot down but prolonged debate for five hours, infuriating Barnes. When the bill passed, Richardson was outvoted 169-1.

Steve Anthony, Murphy’s longtime aide, said the speaker detested Richardson’s bomb throwing. “That damn Richardson is trying to do something,” Murphy told his aide. “He’s smarter than the rest of them. And maybe more dangerous.”

In 2002, Sonny Perdue upset Barnes and became Georgia’s first Republican governor since the Reconstruction. Richardson became his House floor leader and, two years later, the point man to swing the House GOP. He held strategy meetings, raised money, picked winnable seats, trained candidates and drove thousands of miles to campaign for them.

“I built the system of getting people all over the state to write checks for the right races,” he said. “Then I started picking off Democrats.”

The November 2004 election cemented the GOP’s grip on Georgia politics. Richardson was elected speaker and, flush with victory, lined up ambitious plans. “I felt I had a destiny,” he said.

But in December, he fell off a ladder putting up Christmas lights at home. His lower left leg was shattered, requiring surgery and causing agonizing pain. Doctors prescribed painkillers. He could not sleep, so he started taking Ambien.

In January 2005, he was sworn in as Georgia’s first Republican speaker since the 1870s. It was a historic moment, with his wife, Susan, his children and parents at his side. But the photos of that day didn’t show the real picture. He was in intense pain, was starting to lean heavily on medication and was fielding myriad demands, from legislators wanting better office spaces to colleagues pushing for pet bills Democrats had ignored for years.

And he was dealing with a marriage that had grown unhappy.

“Susan didn’t like politics,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Cobb County Republican. “She didn’t want to be there.”

Not long into the 2005 session, Cooper, who is a nurse, saw a red-faced speaker storming into his office and was troubled. She followed him and insisted to know what was wrong. He confided he was dealing with depression. She got him to see a psychiatrist. About that time, he started taking depression medication.

The Richardson years were tumultuous. He battled Democrats, Senate Republicans, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Gov. Perdue. In 2007, an angry speaker told the media Perdue bared “his backside” by vetoing a $142 million property tax rebate Richardson pushed for homeowners.

That session, Democrats filed an ethics complaint claiming Richardson had an “inappropriate” relationship with a female lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light while pushing a bill that authorized a controversial $300 million natural gas pipeline.

The charges didn’t stick — publicly. Personally, however, the damage was done. On New Year’s day 2008, Susan confronted him. “I want to get a divorce,” she told him.

That February, his three friends died in a plane crash.

Then that April, he returned from a weekend at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, opened the door and discovered Susan had cleared out the home. It sank in. He was alone.

At the Capitol, there was a growing discontent. There were whispers the speaker was out of control, that he attended a business breakfast meeting seemingly impaired.

Bob Irvin, a longtime legislator, heard complaints from fellow Republicans.

“Some resented him putting the arm on them to raise money to elect other candidates,” Irvin said. “There were a lot of people who told me about increased lobbyist spending on food and outings. Richardson didn’t invent this system, Murphy did. But Richardson picked it up and made it a lot bigger.”

Early on, Richardson tried to meet with his predecessor for advice about how to handle the job. But Murphy had suffered a stroke and could not speak. “There was no book to follow,” Richardson said.

4. Ending it

The weekend of Nov. 8, 2009, Richardson was beside himself. His ex-wife had gone away with a man and Richardson said he did not know where his teenage children were. He said he located his then 15-year-old daughter and had her come to his home for the weekend.

But Sunday came and he was alone again. As dusk sank in, Richardson felt maybe the lowest he’d ever felt. He started gulping the pills he hoarded. The plan was to painlessly slip away, “to get in bed and pull the covers over me.”

He scrawled a suicide note. But somewhere in his haze, he got sentimental. He picked up the phone and told his two sons and daughter he loved them. He doesn’t remember calling his parents, who lived in neighboring Douglas County, where he was raised.

He told his mother, Myrtie, that he took the pills. “I love you,” he said. “It’s too late to do anything.”

His mother called 911 and raced to his home. Emergency crews found him semi-conscious, sitting on the lip of his bathtub, a .357 Magnum nearby. His breathing had dropped to five respirations a minute, he said, and doctors worried his organs might shut down. His children visited their dad unconscious in the intensive care unit.

The next day, he woke up to see his pastor. “I’m not supposed to be here,” Richardson said.

“Yes you are,” the preacher responded.

Richardson was transported to an out-of-state hospital, hoping the incident might blow over. But there are few secrets in politics and the world soon knew.

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, a pharmacist and friend of Richardson, said the speaker was on a collision course from the start.

“The speaker was taking pain medication that would knock anyone else out,” he said. “Barbiturates or an opioid (like hydrocodone) will wildly change your behavior. Then you add sleeping tablets. It accumulates in your system. Then put that on top of depression and then put on top of that the rigors of being speaker. I’m amazed he held out as long as he did.”

At first, it seemed Richardson might survive politically. He announced he had depression and was viewed sympathetically. Within days he was back stumping for other Republicans.

But then his ex-wife appeared on TV telling a reporter from Fox 5 Atlanta that Richardson had become outraged when she started dating. She said he bombarded her with text and phone messages, threatening to have state law enforcement track her down. His suicide attempt, she said, was a manipulative attempt to win her back.

Most damaging was her confirmation of the long-rumored affair with the lobbyist. “It’s not an alleged inappropriate relationship,” she said. “It was a full-out affair.”

Susan Richardson declined to talk about her ex-husband, when recently asked. “We have separate lives,” she said. “Let him live his life and I’ll live mine.”

“That was the end,” said Rep. Cooper, his friend.

Two days later, Richardson was summoned to the governor’s mansion. He thought he’d meet with Perdue to talk about about how to go forward. Instead, he entered a conference room filled with about 20 of his top allies from the House — his “lieutenants, majors and colonels.”

“I didn’t know you’d all be here,” he told them.

Perdue began the meeting with a prayer. In the awkward moments that followed, the assembled group told Richardson it was time for him to go.

Stunned, he methodically moved around the room and pointed at each member.

“Stand up!” he said. “Are you with me?”

One by one, the answer was the same.

“Glenn, I love you, but it’s time.”

On Christmas morning a few weeks later, Richardson drove to the Capitol alone. As he expected (and hoped), the building was deserted. He entered his second floor office one last time, packed the personal mementos of his 13-year career and slipped out unobserved.

5. The road back

As a new year came, the Legislature came to order and Richardson sat on his back deck. Day after day, he stared off into the woods. Each day, his father, Farris, stopped by to see him.

Farris Richardson, a no-nonsense, gruff-talking fellow who ran a trucking company and a grocery store on U.S. 78, was affectionately known as the “Mayor of Winston,” a rural area of Douglas County.

“Want to go fishing?” Farris would ask.

“No.”

“Want to go for a ride?”

“No.”

“What do you want to do?”

“This,” the son said. So that’s what they did.

So much promise, so much achieved. All gone. So fast. His mind churned.

His father urged him to get busy, so Richardson built a birdhouse. He constructed a farm work wagon. His dad insisted he get a few chickens. Daily interaction with the birds would be therapeutic. No, Richardson told him. But one day, Farris showed up with chickens anyway. Together they built a coop.

Bit by bit, his mind cleared. Father and son worked together in a sand mining operation Farris owned on the Chattahoochee River. Hard work makes a man whole, Farris reasoned. At least, it occupies a mind. Richardson threw himself into tasks — the chickens, work around the farm. He even ventured out socially.

But he slipped up. In August 2010, after an argument with a girlfriend, Richardson threatened “to end all of his problems,” according to a police report. An officer responding to his home was told Richardson had pointed a pistol at himself.

Richardson says he didn’t intend to kill himself. But he knew he had to change his life. He met with a doctor and asked how he could quickly get off meds. The doctor devised a three-week program of withdrawal and monitored him closely.

By September, he started thinking clearly again. By October, he was back at his law firm trying to rebuild his practice.

Then in November, his mother called: Your father has cancer. The son visited the doctor with his dad. Farris, always one to get to the point, asked, “How long have I got, doc?”

As it turned out, not long. Richardson spent the next 74 days with his father enjoying long chats, quiet time, looking through photos, even doctors’ visits. Had he still been speaker, that could never have happened.

It was also a turning point, he said. Throwing yourself into another’s trouble helps wash away your own.

Farris died in February 2011. At the funeral, Richardson saved rows at the church for political dignitaries. Just a few filtered in.

“That drove it home for me,” said Cooper, “that when you’re gone, you’re gone.”

It also provided clarity. Get on with your life, he told himself. He threw himself into work and took on several legal cases at little or no cost because no one, it seemed, has money these days. He joined up with former foe Roy Barnes to sue Georgia Power, arguing the utility was illegally adding sales taxes and fees to a monthly nuclear expansion surcharge on customers’ bills.

In August, the Senate seat opened up. Richardson talked to friends and family. Many were surprised he’d want back in. Still struggling, he drove out to Ephesus Baptist Church cemetery in Villa Rica and stood at the foot of his father’s grave.

“Dad, I know you’re not here. But I know you can hear me. What do I do?”

Farris was Richardson’s biggest fan. He cheered his son’s rise and cradled him after the fall.

“I came to a peace,” Richardson said. “I’m going to try it. I might fail.”

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to me?” he thought.

6. Day of reckoning

Election day was gray and blustery but came with a sense of nervous excitement.

Richardson, who once raised millions for other candidates, scraped together $31,000 in two months; not bad, but nothing like the $130,000 that Bill Hembree, a nine-term Republican legislator who served under the former speaker, raised.

Just three legislators donated to the former speaker. Fifty gave to Hembree.

Back at the governor’s mansion in 2009, Perdue and his top lieutenants had told Richardson they’d always be there for him.

“As it turns out, I hardly have talked to any of them again,” he said.

Richardson ran a ragtag campaign based on yard signs, robocalls and meet-and-greets. His opponents never directly addressed his 2009 flameout, although Hembree would tell voters, “I will not embarrass you,” a point that irked Richardson.

On election night Richardson chose not to spend $500 that he didn’t have to throw a party at a restaurant. Instead, he sat in his living room with his mother, daughter, girlfriend and a handful of friends.

It was barbecue, Bud Lite and Fox News on TV. Richardson frequently checked in with the Secretary of State’s website for results.

He hoped to make his way to the runoff Dec. 4 with a quarter of the vote. He’d been hearing good things from people he came across during the campaign.

Finally, about 8 p.m. results blipped on the computer. Some 20,000 had cast early ballots in the district. Hembree got about 50 percent. Mike Dugan, a newcomer on a shoestring budget, surprisingly got 24 percent. Richardson was fourth with 11.6 percent. He was even running a distant second in his own county.

He was crestfallen. “If your neighbors aren’t voting for you…” He didn’t finish the thought. Didn’t need to. At that moment, he knew he was done.

“I just didn’t have enough message out there,” he said.

“You’re the best man for that job,” his mother said, hugging him.

His 18-year-old daughter, Maggie, who lives with her father, looked up from her homework and flashed her dad a sad “that’s OK” smile.

Richardson once had power and money but lost his family. Now power and money elude him, but the family is intact.

“I am sure there was a reason for all of this,” he said at night’s end, although he was not exactly sure what that was. It’s all part of a journey, he said. Maybe something that had to be exorcised so he could move on.

Tired and sinking into his couch, Richardson told a newsman on the phone he had no plans for the future. He hung up and then announced his next political move: In the morning, he would drive around to yank up his yard signs.

ABOUT THE REPORTER

Bill Torpy joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1990. He started covering outlying areas of metro Atlanta, including Paulding County, where he met Glenn Richardson, then a young county attorney. He covered former Mayor Bill Campbell’s corruption trial, the 2006 police shooting of Kathryn Johnston, and many other stories involving state and city politics. A native of Chicago, he learned about politics early; his uncle was one of the most productive precinct captains on the city’s South Side. Torpy is a graduate of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., and previously worked for the Daily Southtown in Chicago.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Veteran AJC reporter Bill Torpy first met Glenn Richardson 20 years ago when Richardson was the attorney for growing Paulding County. Torpy followed Richardson’s rapid ascent to the speaker’s post, while writing stories about the General Assembly. This fall, as he was campaigning for a state Senate seat, Richardson, who had a testy relationship with the media, granted Torpy unfettered access to his personal life and story. No other Atlanta news source can bring readers that type of access and that type of experienced, authoritative storytelling. It’s part of our commitment to deliver exclusive news content to AJC readers. Tell us your personal journey at personaljourneys@ajc.com.

See more photos and video: http://www.myajc.com/s/living/personal-journeys/

Next week: A husband with a brain injury reconnects with his family over Thanksgiving.


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