The surprise ending of this documentary may just break your heart


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An estimated 841,000 people have died since 1999 from drug overdoses in the United States.  This startling statistic comes from the Centers of Disease Control, which also reports that 70,630 drug overdose deaths occurred in 2019 in the United States. That’s 13,000 more people than those killed in the Vietnam war.

While every few years the drug of choice may change, the problem remains the same. Getting the dealers to stop dealing, while the users stop using. It is a battle for police trying to get the drugs and the dealers off the streets. In the past it was cocaine, then heroin, and by the late ’90s crack or today’s drug of choice, opioids.

The CDC reports the illicit drugs are currently at the top of the list in drug overdose deaths with 72.9% of opioid-involved overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.

Shining a bright light on the problem is never easy. It would require going to the source and convincing drug dealers to let you drive around with them, watch them commit crimes, buy drugs, use drugs, hit their girlfriends, tape interviews with them in jail and ultimately, film their demise.

Making a documentary film like that would require time and patience.

Enter Jon Alpert, who spent the better part of a 36-year odyssey creating “Life of Crime,” which debuted on HBO Max last month. For more than three decades, Alpert documented the life and times of three drug-addicted criminals and the result is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

This is the third and final installment of three Life of Crime documentaries Alpert has directed, following 1989’s One Year in A Life of Crime and 1998’s Life of Crime 2. This final installment completes Alpert’s fly on the wall view of its 3 main characters: friends, Robert Steffey, Freddie Rodriguez and Deliris Vasquez. This trio from the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey, each battle heroin addictions that suck them into a revolving door of crime, drug use and jail time.

Alpert reveals that it all began in 1984, when his beloved motorcycle was stolen from New York’s Chinatown – twice, before it was discovered in Newark — twice. Back then, Newark was in the midst of one of the city’s worst crime waves in decades. Alpert was curious about the people repeatedly stealing his car and committing these types of crimes.

“I was raised by parents that taught me you don’t steal, so this was tough on me. In the end, I wanted to know who these people were, why they did what they did, and what we could learn about it.”

Shortly after, he visited Independence High School in Newark. Back then juvenile delinquents had overrun the school. When Jon inquired to officials about potential criminals attending the school, the response was: “How many you want?”

The next day, two men, Rob and Freddie, who would become the center Alpert’s documentary, showed up in New York City and agreed to get coffee with Jon. They told him about what they did to survive on the streets of North Jersey, and they invited Jon to come along for the ride, literally.

The next day the men met in Elizabeth, NJ and with the help of a Panasonic camera hidden inside a briefcase, Alpert watched in astonishment and horror as he recorded the men shoplifting eight sets of sheets from Woolworth’s.

“I was terrified the whole time they were going to get caught,” says Jon. “After that, it got really wild, really fast.”

Taping a crime spree can get you in just as much hot water as committing the crimes, but Alpert says he had ground rules set up before they started rolling. “I made them a promise that I would never squeal on them, but I also made it clear if they were going to try and hurt someone, I was going to try and stop it,” he says.

In fact, he had to put his camera down more than once to stop a fight, including domestic battery committed by a friend of Freddie’s, who decided his girlfriends’ education came at the end of his hand. “She needs to learn,” he screams at Alpert, who stopped the man from hurting his girlfriend.

“We never expected him to start beating her up, when he hit her, it was clear, we have to stop this and we did,” says Alpert. “Once we were driving around and they saw a young boy with a boom-box and thought they could hit him with their car and then grab the radio while he was down. I made them stop the car and pull over, I was not going to let them hurt a little boy over a radio.”

The crimes and drug use increase whenever the three were out of work. Deliris Vasquez, already of mother of two, turned to prostitution while Steffey and Rodriguez and committed a laundry list of crimes that had them bouncing back and forth between jail, the streets and rehab.

“They thrived in prison, they had three square meals a day, exercise, friends and structure,” says Alpert. “On the street, anything can happen.”

The ending for the three, and the series is almost predictable, but Alpert and his team from Downtown Community Television deliver a curve, even they didn’t see coming.

While Steffey and Rodriguez succumbed to the drugs they battled more than half their lives, Deliris Vasquez was turning things around, helping hundreds of people through rehab and programs to get off the streets.

”One day she called and a voice said “It’s Deliris Vasquez,” and I said that’s impossible, she’s dead,” says Jon. “Then, she asked me if my dog was boo-boo,” and I couldn’t believe it” he says. Vasquez told Jon she was drug-free for more than five years and totally excited about her work as a volunteer helping others. He began shooting her appearances speaking at shelters and rehab centers.

Then Covid hit.

In 2019, Alpert was working with Newark City officials to recognize Vasquez as a model citizen, complete with a parade and the key to the city. Instead, Covid shuttered businesses and like many others, Deliris lost her job. Her support system faded away and soon she was very

isolated. On a weekend trip to the shore, she connected with someone from her past, and one shot of heroin later, she overdosed and died.

“It wasn’t the ending we expected,” Alpert says. “But this whole film was an amazing journey and we went where it went.”

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