A Life: Jason Moots; 1976-2021

  • Jason Moots, of Norwich, pauses for a portrait while making breakfast sandwiches at Dan and Whit’s general store in Norwich, Vt., Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Jason Moots pops egg yolks while making a batch of breakfast sandwiches at Dan and Whit’s general store in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/30/2022 9:22:50 PM
Modified: 1/30/2022 9:21:21 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — After abruptly leaving his job as a dishwasher at the Norwich Inn last summer, Jason Moots didn’t return to collect his final paycheck.

The inn’s management tried mailing the check to the last address it had for Moots, but it was sent back. He’d apparently moved without giving a forwarding address.

Or maybe Moots didn’t have one to give.

The homeless rarely do.

On the evening of Sept. 27, Hartford police responded to a report of an unconscious male in the woods behind Riverbank Church on Holiday Drive in White River Junction.

When officers arrived at the small homeless encampment not far from Sykes Mountain Avenue, Moots was already dead.

An autopsy indicated that he had died of an accidental fentanyl overdose — one of 169 opioid-related deaths in Vermont during the first 10 months of 2021, the state’s Department of Health recently reported. That’s a dozen more than during the entire year of 2020.

Moots was 45.

Why write an “A Life” about a middle-aged man with a substance use disorder who was homeless when he died?

I didn’t know Moots, although looking back I’m sure we crossed paths from time to time. I recognized him from Valley News photographs taken a couple years ago that showed him with long wavy hair, glasses and an unshaven face under his COVID-19 mask.

His obituary — if one was ever written — didn’t appear in this paper or on the website of Gregory and Son Cremation Service in South Burlington, Vt., where his family sent his body.

It didn’t seem right to me that the last mention of Moots in the Valley News was a three-paragraph brief that noted his death “is not suspicious at this time.”

Like many states, Vermont doesn’t keep a record of how many people die homeless year.

“It’s an indication of how little we value the unhoused,” said Simon Dennis, a leading advocate for the homeless in the Upper Valley. “Nobody wants to know that number.”

Tracking the information is difficult because it’s “not necessarily indicated on the death certificate,” said Ben Truman, spokesman for the Vermont Department of Health.

Moots’ death certificate, which is public record, lists his place of death as the woods on Holiday Drive.

Last week, I followed footprints on a snow-covered path that starts at the edge of the Riverbank Church parking lot and meanders into the woods. An old bicycle was propped against a fence at the top of an embankment.

Moots’ makeshift shelter was one of several hidden amongst tall pines across a ravine from Interstate 91.

Dennis, a former member of the Hartford Selectboard, had met Moots during a visit to the encampment last September. Moots talked about his job at a sandwich shop.

“He was trying to convince a friend (at the encampment) to apply for a job there,” Dennis recalled. “He said he liked it because it was honest work.”

Hoping to learn more about Moots, I reached out to a couple of his friends. I didn’t hear back. He has a brother who lives in Lebanon, but I couldn’t find him at the apartment building where I was told he lived.

Moots’ death certificate says he was born in Louisville, Ky. His mother, who authorities contacted after his death, lives in Largo, Fla. I called her, but she wasn’t interested in being part of this story.

Dan Fraser met Moots in the spring of 2018. Fraser had contacted Upper Valley Haven to see if the social services nonprofit knew of anyone who might be interested in working at Dan & Whit’s, his family’s general store in Norwich.

In May 2018, Moots began working behind the store’s deli and meat counter. In the beginning, “it worked out pretty well,” Fraser told me. “He was a hard worker and always friendly.”

When a studio apartment became available next door in a building owned by Dan & Whit’s, Fraser offered it to Moots who didn’t own a car.

Moots, who was making about $13 an hour to start, earned extra pay by taking weekend shifts. Some weeks, he put in more than 50 hours, frying hamburgers, making breakfast sandwiches and waiting on customers.

As time went on, Fraser noticed Moots talking out loud to himself more and more, which can be a sign of a mental health condition. Moots became prone to sudden verbal outbursts, swearing in front of customers bewildered by his behavior.

“Things progressively got worse,” Fraser said. “He started having more bad days than good days.”

Fraser talked with Moots about his behavior, but it didn’t help. “This isn’t working,” Fraser recalled telling Moots. “This public of a job isn’t a good fit for you.”

After nearly three years at the store, Moots was let go in April 2021. To Fraser’s credit, he talked with the Norwich Inn about giving Moots a chance in its kitchen.

Needing a dishwasher, the inn hired Moots. “He was very interested in learning the ins and out of the kitchen,” assistant manager Emily Charbonneau told me. “He was always eager to help. We liked having him here.”

After a couple of months, Moots mentioned that he had a friend who was looking for a job. Charbonneau interviewed the friend, but it came at a time when the inn wasn’t short on kitchen help.

When Moots found out “we didn’t hire his friend, he just left,” Charbonneau said.

After moving out of his apartment, Moots wasn’t seen much around Norwich.

Late one night in early July, his troubles mounted. He was in the passenger seat when a friend was pulled over by Lebanon police, after leaving the Walmart plaza in West Lebanon.

A Lebanon police officer said the van’s s headlights weren’t turned on, which prompted the traffic stop.

In a probable cause affidavit, an officer said she “observed marijuana in a plastic bag in the center console.” The officer said she also saw a container in the van that appeared to contain small bags of marijuana.

The driver consented to a search of the vehicle, police said. When asked, Moots showed police an identification card from Florida.

“Based on the amount of marijuana, (the driver) and Moots were placed into custody for possession with intent to sell,” police said.

Moots was released on personal recognizance, but he faced two felonies, each carrying a maximum prison sentence of seven years. It’s hard to believe that possessing marijuana could potentially lead to prison time.

But it is New Hampshire, where politicians continue to back Draconian laws regarding marijuana while allowing state liquor stores to grow like weeds along interstate highways.

I can’t help but wonder if Moots’ legal troubles contributed to his mental health and substance use problems.

Looking back, Fraser also wonders about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic — and the isolation that comes with it — had on Moots.

“He didn’t drive, he didn’t have a computer so he couldn’t Zoom,” Fraser said. “His support network was gone.”

Sheila Young didn’t know Moots but wishes she had. The White River Junction nonprofit that she oversees might have been able to help. Young is executive director of Second Wind Foundation, which runs Upper Valley Turning Point, a “community center for people in recovery from substance use disorder and other addictive behavior.”

The organization has what it calls a DRA — dual recovery anonymous — for people with a substance use disorder and a co-occurring mental health condition.

“Substance use can be a person’s attempt at self-medication for an untreated mental health condition,” Young told me in an interview.

Substance use disorders and mental health conditions both carry stigmas. “Instead of seeing a person with an illness, people often want to look the other way,” Young said.

For 30 years, the National Coalition for the Homeless has encouraged communities to set aside a day in December to remember their “neighbors who have died homeless in the past year.”

The vast majority are “preventable deaths,” Donald Whitehead, executive director of the Washington, D.C. nonprofit, told me. But the country for the most part is unwilling to “provide the resources needed for treatment and proper housing and employment,” he said.

I relayed to Whitehead what I knew about Moots and the circumstances around his death.

“We all should find a way to be a little more compassionate,” Whitehead said. “It’s almost like he didn’t exist.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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