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"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.