WARREN — Kathy Huguenin knew where her husband was, but she still couldn’t save him.
More than a month after 55-year-old Thomas Huguenin dove back into the liquor bottle and left his home in Eastpointe, his electronic trail of purchases at a party store led Kathy to Warren, near Van Dyke and Old 13 Mile Road.
It was quiet and still on the banks of the Bear Creek on Nov. 4. Kathy met a friend for lunch at Buddy’s Pizza, mere steps away from where Tom’s body would be found the next afternoon.
The Bear Creek’s waters feed gently into the nearby Red Run, and eventually flow out into Lake St. Clair. The wooded area, one of the last remnants of a vast forest here before the earliest pioneer farmers arrived, stands in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle along nearby Van Dyke.
That probably explains why the Warren police know the area well as a haven for the homeless, or in Tom’s case, for those in transition.
Tom had written about the peacefulness he found among the trees and by the river, as he underwent treatment at the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center last summer.
“That’s why I knew he’d be here,” Kathy said. “I knew he was here. I never saw him, but I knew.”
Passersby found Tom’s body on Nov. 5.
The discovery marked the tragic end of a long and painful story. It’s a story about a man who battled alcoholism for years and never stopped trying.
The long road down
Michael Manning was addicted to heroin for 36 years before he managed to turn his life around.
He lives in Clinton Township and works as a substance-abuse counselor these days, laboring to help those lost in addiction to find their way to sobriety.
Manning said he met the Huguenins in March 2012 through a client who lived across the street from them.
“One day, Kathy came over, crying her brains out. She was banging on the door,” Manning said. “She came in crying. She said, ‘Michael, would you please come over and speak with us? I’d really like to talk to you.’”
That’s how he met Tom, who at the time, was holed up in the basement. Manning said that’s a typical tactic for hardcore alcoholics.
“They’re very reclusive. He would go in the basement and start drinking,” Manning said. “He would drink vodka. That was his drug of choice. He drank it like soda pop for about 30 years.”
Kathy said she met Tom at a church that hosted separate meetings for children of alcoholics and for those in Alcoholics Anonymous. She said Tom was then a recovering alcoholic, staying sober and going to AA, while she was living her life as an adult who grew up in the painful shadow of alcoholism.
They married in 1992. Tom worked for a while as a paralegal, and later as a gardener.
That was Tom’s real passion. He was a master gardener, and he took care of various landscapes around town for years. The couple won a beautification award for their home in Eastpointe as recently as 2011.
But Kathy said her husband’s life began to unravel in 2008, when he went back to drinking after a pair of deaths in the family.
By March, when Tom came out of the basement to meet Manning, the booze was flowing into his body daily, in great quantities.
“I was introduced. He walked upstairs. Kathy introduces me,” Manning said. “As he sat down, the fumes from the vodka, I mean it was just, the vodka fumes were so strong coming across the table.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Wow, Tom. You’ve been drinking all day.’ He says, ‘Yesterday, I had a couple of beers.’ I said, ‘Tom, you are killing me.’”
Manning said he then ex-plained that Kathy had asked him to come to the house to speak with them.
“I said, ‘Tom, you are reeking so badly, I can barely breathe over here, and you’re going to look me in the eye and say, ‘Yesterday, I had two beers?’ That was the first time we met,” Manning said. “Right then, I knew he had a hell of a drinking problem.”
The rough road back
Manning said Tom was in absolute denial about his drinking, as most addicts are. To Tom, it was no big deal.
But Kathy knew what Tom’s benders were doing to him and their marriage.
After Manning unsuccessfully tried to convince Tom to go into rehab, plans for an intervention were made. Tom had no idea it was coming until his mother, brother and Kathy got together at the house and tried to coax him out of his basement sanctuary.
“It’s basically an ambush. The one thing you do when you do an intervention, you make sure you have a facility waiting. You have everything arranged,” Manning said. “We could never get him to come upstairs. I tried. His mom tried. It was a total failure. And now he’s starting to get angry.
“With the intervention, I started to turn it up on him. He was just annihilated on vodka, downstairs sitting on the couch, saying, ‘I don’t have a problem,’” Manning said.
After that, Manning kept coming to the house to see Tom every week or two, trying to build a relationship.
It reached a boiling point, literally, in May, when Kathy called frantically to say Tom came home bombed from a gardening job and fell asleep with food on the stove.
The ensuing blaze brought the Eastpointe Fire Department to the house.
At Manning’s insistence, Kathy told the police what happened, and Tom was taken to the hospital the next day, where his forced withdrawal from alcohol put him in the intensive care unit.
“He’d been in the hospital. He almost lost his life. His body went crazy,” Manning said. “Because he’s been drinking over a fifth a day for 20 to 30 years, his body starts to go into convulsions, seizures.
“That’s where I now come in. I figure I’ve got leverage on him. I know he wants to get out of there. I said, ‘Tom, I’ll get you out of here. Now are you ready for rehab?’ He said, ‘Absolutely. I’ll go.’”
After about a month of medical and mental health care at the hospital, Manning said he arranged for 30 days of inpatient treatment for Tom at Sacred Heart.
When he got out of there and began outpatient counseling, it looked like he’d again turned his life around.
“He had a glow about him. His skin color was good. He wasn’t pale anymore,” Manning said. “He looked great. He looked fantastic, actually.”
Kathy said much of the next three months, which would turn out to be the last days of Tom’s life, was beautiful.
“When he was sober those last 90 days, it was business as usual. It was like Christmas every day,” Kathy said. “It was back to our old marriage — our hopes and dreams.”
Back to the bottle
By all accounts, Tom was doing extremely well last summer. He was going to AA meetings and getting outpatient treatment.
Manning said he wanted to see Tom regularly, but that Tom usually wanted to talk with him on the phone instead.
Tom did agree to meet with Manning at a gathering for parents of addicts. Both Tom and Kathy took part in the meeting, and Tom’s story was shared as a positive example for those in attendance.
But something happened in September, about two months after Tom left Sacred Heart. Manning said he became concerned when his phone calls with Tom stopped suddenly.
“I just got a bad feeling. I waited a few more days, and I called Kathy,” Manning said. “She just starts bawling. ‘Michael, he’s drinking again. He’s down in the basement.’ I said, ‘I’ll be right over.’”
Tom told Kathy and Manning that he’d stop drinking, but he clearly couldn’t.
He was depressed. He avoided people, places and things. He again started to lose interest in the things he loved to do.
Kathy said she gave him an ultimatum.
“I told him he couldn’t stay in the house if he was drinking,” Kathy said.
So he left in the car.
She later found out that he stayed in the neighborhood for a few days, but then drove to Warren, near where he had gone to outpatient therapy on the east side of the Bear Creek.
The end of the road
After two weeks, Kathy went to the Eastpointe Police Department and reported Tom missing.
Not long after that, she started to see activity on his debit card from a party store near Van Dyke and Old 13 Mile.
She began to suspect she might find him near the Bear Creek, passing the time out of sight with a bottle of vodka or some beers.
But Tom was never found alive.
A day after Kathy ate lunch at Buddy’s with her friend, when they went to look for Tom, a man and a woman walking near the culvert spotted a body partially submerged in the creek.
It was Tom. His body had been in the creek for about two weeks.
While no one knows exactly how he got in the water, Manning said he knows the road that took Tom there.
For a hardcore drinker who battled alcoholism for three decades, Manning said every sip from the bottle was just another step down that road.
Those closest to Tom in his last days said it’s important to remember him for who he was, and the battle he fought but lost.
“When he wasn’t drinking, Tom was the nicest person you have ever met in your whole life — golden heart. He’d give you the shirt off your back,” Manning said. “I’m just glad I got a chance to meet him sober, so I could meet Tom.”
Kathy said her husband had a dry sense of humor. He enjoyed music. He played guitar. He loved their three dogs: Jasmine, Ted and Clifford.
“It’s just so sad that he had to die like this. He was a human being,” Kathy said, standing again above the creek near where Tom’s body was found. “He had a lot of relapses, but he never stopped trying.”