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Murder at the Hippie House: As Ohio Fumbles Marijuana Legislation, a Benevolent Weed Operation Ends in Bloodshed

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Tia didn’t think twice when Corey asked her to get him a gun. By then, he wasn’t eating much or going outside. He’d just pace the apartment in Green, every five minutes cracking the blinds to peer at the street down the hill, running the same thoughts on loop. Was that the same white van as before? Didn’t that guy with the dogs walk by an hour ago? Was someone in the woods again? “I feel they’re coming back,” Corey told Tia. “I feel it in my gut.” He asked her to get an AR-15.

Along with a friend, Tia went to a local gun show, buying both the rifle for Corey and a pistol for herself. The irony didn't slip past her. Here was Tia — tiny at 23, bleached skin and kind eyes the color of light blue crayon — with zero firearms training. But buying military-grade ordnance? Sure: easy and legal. Yet the same law books would call her a criminal for possessing weed. And weed was why they were running for guns in the first place.

Tia took the new purchases back. Home was an apartment, part of a triplex topping a hill fully dressed with dense woods, empty acres Corey and his friends would smash through on dirt bikes or zoom drones over. Technically, home now was apartments. By then Tia and their two kids were living in the middle unit while Corey ran the business and paced next door. He'd promised he'd give up his customers to his friends. Six months more, he'd told Tia. Now she wasn't sure. Everything was spinning faster, as if someone was pressing down on an accelerator.

Those two apartments: Tia didn't miss the irony there, either. The separate living arrangements were the physical embodiment of the separate lifestyles they were now living. Corey and Tia. Mustard and Titi. Weed dealer and mainstream marijuana activist. Mom and dad. Sure, she thought about leaving. But those thoughts never stretched too far. "There was no Tia and Corey breaking up," she says today. "We were ride or die. So I stayed with him. I was living in the separate house. I think we were living double lives."

But now Tia was seeing a third iteration of the man she'd been with for seven years — and it scared her. Corey's lanky frame, right arm swirled shoulder-to-wrist in tattoos, nervously paced the apartment again. His usual sly smile lit less and less from his scruffy beard. Some mornings he'd wake up missing his dead dad. He told Tia she couldn't leave him with the kids because he was worried he couldn't protect them then. "He would just want to be held," Tia says. "Corey was never like that." He was just waiting.

***

The next time you pack that bowl with good green or lip on the joint making the rounds at the party, think about where it's coming from. "Do you guys understand what these kids are going through to get you your freaking pot?" Tia says now. "It's insane."

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She's sitting in a suburban mall coffee kiosk, her small hands wrapped around a steaming latte. Despite shouldering through a stack of traumas — broken homes, drug overdose, child custody fights, a dead boyfriend — that would easily scramble the spirits of a lesser person, she's remarkably upbeat. "Really, I think Corey and I were in a polyamorous relationship with marijuana," she admits, half-kidding, blue eyes flashing regret. "That was our girlfriend, and then we had each other. The side-piece was marijuana."

Ohio is idling at a crossroads in terms of marijuana reform. A tug-of-war between various interests and resistance has left the state lagging behind the national trend that's seen some form of legalization in 23 states and Washington, D.C. Last November, Ohio voters soundly knocked down Issue 3, a ballot initiative for both medicinal and recreational marijuana that placed the business firmly in the control of a set number of players. All this is happening while an opiate epidemic has smashed the state like a typhoon.

This year, another pro-legalization group, Legalize Ohio 2016, has been busy collecting signatures for a followup November ballot option. Voters could again face the choice of greenlighting Buckeye State marijuana use. At the time same, last month a legislative task force tapped with hammering together a medicinal weed proposal announced that they'd come up with a bill to take to legislators. Rep. Stephen Huffman, a Tripp City Republican on the task force, told the Columbus Dispatch in late March the proposal could hit the legislature as early as this July.

"We need to do something to get it correct," Huffman told the Dispatch. "If not, the ballot initiative will come and it will not be good for the people."

The grassroots and legislative scrambles toward marijuana reform — any type of reform — shine a spotlight on the schizophrenic nature of the American pot scene. Although use has increasingly gained mainstream acceptance, in states still dragging ass when it comes to clear policy — states like Ohio — the underground market is the only channel feeding demand. And Tia Gilbert knows more than most the cost of the underground. "I lost the love of my life because of a plant," she says, sad eyes locked on her latte.

***

Tanya Seibel likes to tell an anecdote from Corey's early days, one that's a handy skeleton key for popping open who he'd later become. When her first-born was just trying to master the fundamentals of walking, Tanya watched the baby mount the high stairs at the family's home in Lake Township. Forecasting an ugly header or injury, she cooed over to the baby: "Corey. Get down. Corey, get down." But Corey had other ideas, spinning around to ask his mother: "Or what?"

"By god, he was going to climb those stairs at any price," Seibel says today with a laugh. "And this was someone who was under 2 saying, 'Or what?' That was the theme of his whole life. He was going to do what he was going to do."

Corey would be the oldest of three boys. According to Tanya, their childhoods were standard-issue suburbia. Their father, Scott, was a postman. "It was a good life," she says. From an early age, Corey seemed less interested in material things — even clothes. "I don't think he even liked the feel of clothing."

Tanya's oldest went where his compass pointed, no matter what. Often, in school, that meant fighting for other kids who were getting picked on or bullied. "I had mothers calling and thanking me because Corey stood up for their kid," Tanya remembers. When he was older, Corey began paying close attention to food, the chemicals and GMOs stuck in daily groceries. He filled his family's ears with organic food gospel, and even went through Tanya's cupboard with a pen marking products with skulls and crossbones.

Unfortunately, the family's smooth life was upset when Corey's dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. The family watched as Scott Seibel withered away. "Corey was only 19 when their dad died," Tanya explains. "It was a rough road. I think he was a little angry because his dad had been a smoker."

Corey and Tia met at a poker game in a friend's garage. She was 16. He was 20. Weed was there right from the start. "I remember Corey pulled out these huge, purple nuggets," Tia says. From there, the two were inseparable. On the surface, their experiences with marijuana were straight out of the suburbs: bored, aimless kids covertly killing empty hours in blasts of weed smoke. "Weed was a huge no-no in my house," Tia says. "I remember the face my grandmother had when she found my first bowl: complete disgust. I felt ashamed."

But both Corey and Tia were also finding marijuana was an effective way to tunnel out from the complex feelings weighing them down. Corey was still dealing with the fallout from his dad's death, Tia says; she admits she was still working through her feelings from growing up in a broken home. Weed opened different doors for each.

In 2009, the young couple was dealt a shocker when Tia became pregnant. Corey, desperate for money for his new family, got in a fight behind a bowling alley with a guy who owed him cash. Corey ended up catching a felonious assault charge due to the incident. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Corey was locked up when Tia went into labor prematurely, giving birth to a 1-pound, 5-ounce daughter who immediately headed for the NICU.

Corey eventually secured an early release from prison. But within a year, he'd offended the conditions of his release, landing back inside. This time around, Tia found herself trying to support a baby with endless shifts at Chipotle. Weed wasn't enough to handle all the stress; after hopping through various substances — some prescribed by doctors, some not — she started shooting heroin. "He was in prison, and I was absolutely miserable, and I was using heroin to cope with my emotions about losing Corey. I'd lost my best friend, and I was losing my mind."

And almost her life. When Corey was in prison, she overdosed on a blast of herion. She was 19.

***

She would later think of them as cocoon moments – clichéd and corny, whatever. That's what they were. You walked into a situation one way, walked out completely different.

After heroin almost gulped her down for good, Tia quit cold turkey. Marijuana, however, did play an integral part in getting clean, she says. When Corey came home from his second run in prison, he also returned transformed. According to Tia, inside Corey had come under the influence of a few fellow inmates who big-brothered him about being a responsible dad. Corey responded. Back home, he began to provide for his daughter and a son Tia had had in the meantime from another relationship. Still, there were limited options out there for a guy with his resume.

"His record prevented him from working in some fields," Corey's mom, Tanya admits. "But working one crappy job after the next, I think he realized how much more could be made doing what he was doing."

Corey went back to dealing marijuana. But he had his own cocoon moment coming. Around last March, Corey was involved in a deal that went bad. He was convinced law enforcement was looking for him, so he split town, leaving behind Tia and the kids. Her situation nose-dived further when a friend fighting through opiate addiction overdosed and died.

It was a life-changer for Tia. Here, people were struggling, turning to medications and pharmaceuticals. "Let's stop over-medicating," she says. "Let's introduce natural remedies." There was an obvious demand for marijuana. But in states without medicinal or recreational use, the underground was the only option. That demand, Tia realized, wasn't going to simply turn off.

Tia began reaching out to pro-legalization groups, like ComfyTree, an organization that trains people on setting up marijuana businesses in legal markets. The more conversations she had, the more Tia began volunteering her time to movements pushing forward with legalization efforts. She traveled with other activist groups to Washington, D.C. for pro-pot rallies, and also trekked out to Denver for High Times' Cannabis Cup. The covert chutes and ladders necessary to score weed in the underground market were pointless, she realized, in a well-regulated state. "I just thought, 'Fuck it, I'm going legal,'" Tia remembers.

When Corey turned back up, he'd had a similar moment. Corey had been hiding out for two months in Michigan. According to Tia, Corey had passed the time at a caregiver farm in the country where he helped a woman grow covert marijuana meant for people battling medical problems. Back in Ohio now, Corey had a newfound sense of the power of the plant, Tia says, that synced with her own feelings about the need for sensible marijuana reform. Corey just wanted a farm where he could raise his family in peace.

Last spring, the couple and two kids moved into an apartment in a building topping a wooded rise in Green, south of Akron proper. The neighborhood was mostly suburban development curling around Appalachian hills. A gravel and dirt road wound up to the triplex. After moving in, the drive was soon rutted from all the traffic pulling in and out.

The customers, Tia says, were more often than not using medicinally even though no doctor had cut them a script. But weed filled a need or opened some doors.

"I know this person needs it because her boyfriend cheated on her and now he's off with her best friend and she's stuck with the kid and super depressed," Tia explains. "Or I know this lady suffers from MS and can't get out of bed without her medicine. Or I know this guy is really bi-polar and him and his girl are going to get into it if he doesn't get served."

The apartment soon became a safe zone for an assortment of struggling kids drifting through hard knocks. More than weed dealer, Corey became something of a shirtless, shoeless swami walking the apartment in basketball shorts, offering advice mined from his own tough run of luck.

"Every time I went over there, there would always be a group of kids," explains Dexter Cooley, a regular. "A lot of them were going through hardships. Some of them had been kicked out of their house or couldn't get jobs. Corey would have his house open and he'd try to help people out. He had a good heart."

Corey big-brothered the younger guys buying from him, urging them to give up cigarettes or eat better or think differently. "I'm not saying I'm some hippie now who's going to go hug a tree, but he definitely got me more conscious of our world and what we're doing to it," Cooley adds. "I also used to be very judgmental, and Corey showed me not to take everything personally."

Another apartment regular, Cody, was an aspiring model and actor with a grueling workout and fitness routine. Whenever he'd walk through the door, Corey would pop open his laptop, talking Cody through all-natural pre-workout supplements he could use instead of the store-bought chemical juice. "He talk to me about how much better they were for me, the difference it would make, how it would help me in the long term," Cody says. "I'm just stopping by to smoke and talk, and he's surprising me with all this stuff. This dude was thinking about me even when I wasn't here."

Often Corey and Tia would cook up big meals for the houseguests. Corey bought dirt bikes so the fam could buzz around the nearby woods. Friends would haul over their computers for a LAN party, 10 guys competing together in marathon sessions of computer games like RuneScape. "Corey made sure we always had the fastest internet connection," Tia explains. Berner — the West Coast emcee who fills his songs with the highs and lows of drug slinging — was on repeat from the speakers. I'm gonna keep pushing, where would I be without the cherries in the kush? ... A quarter ounce of candy on the plate, weighing up sacks.

"It was a hippie house," she says. "It was not a trap house."

Tia remembers a day last fall, before everything started wheeling out of control. The leaves were dropping off the trees spreading overhead. They could watch the outdoors from the security cameras lined up to check on outside traffic.

"Just enjoy it," Corey told Tia.

***

Idealistic notions aside, at the end of the day, Corey was slinging a controlled substance. Mr. Nice Guy didn't always cut it. As more customers began rumbling up the driveway from Long Road, more strange faces were at the door: friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends. "You don't want to be the dick who says, 'Get out,'" Tia says.

Enter Mustard. In prison, inmates had complained to Corey his breath smelled like the condiment. The nickname stuck, and now out on the street, when Corey flipped a switch from benevolent caregiver to stone-faced businessman, he was channeling Mustard, his gangster alter ego. Corey couldn't be Corey to the stream of new customers. "When he was Mustard, he had to be tough," Tia explains. "He couldn't show people he was scared or anxious or he didn't want to do this anymore. Because he was the man, and he was feeding the whole town."

"In this day and age, it's very easy to mistake kindness for weakness," Dexter Cooley admits. "You can be nice and they'll try to get one up on you."

Tia found herself sliding into her own persona, one to match Mustard, another gangster ride-or-die tough-front for new business, a Bonnie to Corey's Clyde. Titi. They would joke about it. Corey and Tia. Mustard and Titi. Their split personalities.

But more often they were having to climb inside the latter to do business. The carefree family atmosphere was gone from the apartment, out like an extinguished candle. Sitting there instead was something that even lungfuls of the kindest bud couldn't muffle or shoo away.

"The bigger he got, the worse his anxiety got," Tia recalls. "He didn't want to be Mustard. He wanted to be Farmer Corey." But the traffic kept grinding up the driveway. Suddenly those Berner lyrics started hitting different buttons. It all changed so fast, a lot of friends went missing ... I cant fall asleep phone ringing off the hook everybody want a piece. Corey kept the hippie house front hammered in place for the regulars. The anxiety chewing through him only surfaced in rare moments. Once, Cody remembers Corey meditatively talking about people out there who would love to take him out. Behind the scene, everything was falling apart.

Tia is mum on the details, but at some point she believes something went wrong between Corey and a client. Paranoia started creeping into his tone of voice. He was expecting something to happen. Neighbors were also noting all the traffic ripping up and down the driveway. One would later tell the newspaper that she regularly watched once a month as an Escalade drove up, dropped off a duffle bag, and left. That fall, someone placed handwritten notes in mailboxes of nearby neighbors warning about drug dealing at the triplex. Someone also reportedly placed two bullets in another neighbor's mailbox.

Tia wanted him out. She'd had enough. Her heart was fixed on mainstream weed activism, pushing Ohioans to pass legislation so people could get their weed without guys like Corey having to chance strange cars and bad deals and shady custies. She'd beg. She'd tell Corey she'd take a straight nine-to-five for money. He agreed. But give it time. Six more months. Then he'd pass the business off. He was worried he didn't have enough saved to quit yet. Six more months. But Corey couldn't deny they were too hot then. And that guy with the dogs? Didn't he walk by an hour ago? Was that the same white van as before? Six months. It was Berner lyrics all over again. Where would I be Without the game, I probably wouldn't be the same ... Looking for a way out, but me, I could never change.

"That was who I was going to spend the rest of my life with," Tia explains. "No matter what, I was going to make it work because I saw my parents walk away from each other and not make it work, and I wasn't going to do that to my kids."

Despite her pleas to get out, some part of Tia couldn't unplug the appeal the Mustard and Titi roller-coaster had for her. "Goodfellas was my favorite movie growing up," she says. "Half of me liked helping people. But half of me liked being the kingpin's girlfriend."

Days before the end, Corey took all the money he'd pocketed from dime bags and ounces, burying the cash out in the woods. He didn't tell anyone or scribble out a map. Tia first figured it was ballpark between $50,000 or $60,000. One of Corey's friends, however, told her later that the bankroll was closer to $100,000.

***

The afternoon before it happened, Tia spun around town hitting up three different stores looking for the chocolate milk Corey wanted. "Why am I doing this?" she wondered.

In the evening, a couple hours shy of midnight, Cody stopped by to hang with Corey. As usual, he was sitting at his computer gaming away. They talked for a bit. Corey, burnt out from housework, said he was getting ready to go to bed. "I've had such a long-ass day," he told Cody as the friend was walking out the door.

That night, Tia had decided to turn in early. On a normal night, she'd put the kids down in the middle apartment, then head next door to spend some time with Corey. Or she'd stay up in the middle unit, plopped on the couch playing around with her computer. Instead she climbed into bed, plunking down into a sleep so deep she didn't hear anything next door ... didn't catch two bullets zipping through the walls, punching into the part of the couch where she'd usually be sitting with her laptop, she says.

The official version is tightlipped with details. The incident report from the Summit County Sheriff's Office notes that law enforcement responded to a call for service to 2791 Long Road for a reported shooting. Corey was found shot and declared dead on the scene. The report also notes that six suspects "were present at the house when the shooting occurred and all fled the scene."

"We had several leads, obviously," Summit County Sheriff Office spokesman Bill Holland tells Scene. Two arrests have already been made. Shortly after the shooting, Spencer Sims was arrested and is currently facing charges of murder, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary. Last month, law enforcement grabbed Ty'Shawn Henderson for aggravated robbery. "Further charges may be pending with further investigation," Holland says. A third suspect — the alleged shooter — has yet to be arrested. Court documents indicate Sims, Henderson and the third suspect came to the apartment under the guise of buying a pound of weed from Corey.

Holland declined to detail what drugs were found on the scene. After the murder, neighbors told various media outlets that law enforcement had begun an investigation into activity at the apartment in the weeks leading up to the murder.

"I was shocked," Dexter Cooley says of learning about the shooting. "My mind was blown."

Tanya Seibel originally worried her son's case would be dust-binned by law enforcement: just another dead drug dealer. The opposite has been true, she says. The detectives have been forthcoming with all the elements of their investigation. So far, they have yet to arrest the actual shooter, Tanya says. "They want to have all their ducks in a row, so that's why there's been some delay." She remains confident her son's killers will be brought to justice. "I think it will give us all some closure, but it's not going to heal the gapping wound we'll carry with us for our whole lives."

Tia Gilbert is filling that gaping hole with activism, going gung-ho on trying to infect other Ohioans with her optimism about marijuana reform. She's upped her participation in ComfyTree events, and has begun working other pro-legalization organizations like Weed Be Better Off. She's started appearing in pot education web shows, and would like to do a documentary on the underground weed game.

Looking back on those frantic last weeks, she realizes, in Corey's mind, he was stuck on a one-way track. "He was either going to jail or he was going to die." All because of marijuana.

You could argue it either way: Mustard, a drug dealer who was looking to make money. Corey, a big-hearted guy who'd rolled his hard times and past mistakes into a deep spring of empathy for folks in similar spots. Whichever version of the story, marijuana played a starring role. Arguably, any form of Ohio legalization would have altered the supply-and-demand cycle powering the underground game Corey was in.

"Corey used to say, 'Just because it's the law doesn't mean it's right,'" Tia remembers.

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