by Jordan Green and Eric Ginsburg
As Ellin and Michael Schott finished their early-morning breakfast at Carolina’s Diner in west Greensboro, they briefly considered going back to Ellin’s room at the Red Roof Inn. Recently divorced and back and forth for counseling, things were starting to look up for Ellin, who struggled with opioid addiction for almost 15 years. But Michael felt that Ellin was starting to pull her life back together. She hadn’t talked to their teenaged son in months and didn’t have anywhere stable to live, but he’d been paying her to help with his newspaper delivery route.
That morning, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, Michael wanted to go back to her hotel room and fool around. But as the sun rose, Ellin knew it would be prime panhandling time, an activity that embarrassed her but that she nonetheless relied on. So Michael paid her $30 and dropped her off near the intersection of Regional Road and Highway 68 around 8 a.m., and Ellin danced away for his benefit. Before she left, she assured him, “We’re going to be okay.”
Hours later, a Greensboro police officer picked Ellin up for panhandling without a license, her third time breaking the city ordinance in a narrow window. Unable to make bond, Ellin would spend the weekend in jail until her hearing that Monday, but she never made it to the hearing. Suffering from repeated seizures after being denied her prescribed anti-seizure medication at Greensboro Jail Central, emergency responders rushed Ellin to the hospital early that Monday morning. A few days later, Ellin Beth Schott — a 57-year-old Greensboro resident and mother of two — passed away.
Family members describe young Ellin Reinhard as the type of person who could’ve taken on the world. The middle of three kids born in Schenectady, NY, Ellin stood out with her athletic talent, academic prowess and beauty, her younger brother Steve recalls.
She swam and played tennis, excelling enough at the latter enough to land a scholarship at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ, her mother Lenoir said. There she studied accounting and graduated cum laude, as she had in high school, and immediately found work, Lenoir said.
Ellin had been outgoing and quickly made friends when she was young, but Lenoir noticed a change around puberty.
“She considered herself the overlooked child,” Lenoir said, adding that her only daughter lacked self-esteem. Ellin’s brother Steve, now a successful lawyer in Raleigh, said his sister’s view of herself and likely middle-child syndrome followed her throughout her life.
“I think she felt sometimes like she was strapped in with both hands, in that she tried to compete with her brothers,” he said, adding that she followed their older brother Ken to college. “I think Ellin, at times, felt like she had to keep up. She was viewed as kind of, you know, always struggling to find out how to keep up.”
Ellin hated accounting from the first day, said Lenoir, who is unsure of why her daughter chose to study it in the first place. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that Ellin bounced from job to job, relocating repeatedly. Steve attributes that to his sister’s personality.
“She never seemed to be able to hold a job for a significant period of time,” he said, adding that Ellin “always had reasons as to why things didn’t work out and usually it was somebody else’s issues as to why it didn’t. She typically felt blameless; she was the victim. In the family at least, her narrative was she was always the victim.”
Steve said the family used to joke that Ellin had a job “working off every exit off the New Jersey Turnpike,” but Ellin also moved across state lines, often visiting her family who had relocated to Greensboro in 1977. After moving to Richmond, Va., Ellin met her first husband, Mitch, and a lifelong friend named Sarah Scott Thomas.
[pullquote]“My joke is my sister was in court more times than I was.” — Steve Reinhard[/pullquote]“Ellin was very smart,” Thomas said. “She had a really good job… she had a house, she was on top of her game. We all kind of laughed that Mitch had done really well for himself and we weren’t sure how he did that.”
When the couple moved to Florida, Thomas and Ellin remained friends. But there, going through a complicated pregnancy, Ellin’s new employer fired her. She sued for wrongful termination, but lost. While adding the caveat that he isn’t an employment lawyer, Steve said this looked like another case of Ellin playing the victim and failing to take responsibility. His sister would go on to sue in other instances, and though Steve said that there may have been a case or two where she was genuinely victimized, he generally views it as Ellin just being Ellin.
“My joke is my sister was in court more times than I was,” he said.
Her husband didn’t have a job, and without Ellin’s income, the couple struggled, Thomas said. Ellin battled health issues — some of them dating back to repeated car accidents in college, but since Ellin was on her mother’s insurance, Lenoir can say with confidence that those accidents weren’t Ellin’s fault. Her son Hunter arrived prematurely, and wasn’t well at first either, Thomas said. It all overwhelmed the relatively new marriage, and Ellin returned to Greensboro when the pair split.
She would later meet Michael Schott, who worked as a senior project manager for a construction company until 2009, assisting on major projects such as the renovation of Center Pointe condos in downtown Greensboro. Ellin and Michael married in 1997, and Ellin gave birth to her second son Jacob in 1998.
From Thomas’ vantage point in Richmond, Ellin seemed to be doing very well. With kids around the same age, the two friends made a considerable effort to be in each other’s lives, taking trips to the zoo in Asheboro together, meeting up in South Boston, Va. and bringing their kids to Gettysburg together. Before settling down, Thomas and Ellin used to go out a lot, but “once we had kids, the bar thing was done,” and Ellin acclimated to parenthood and married life with Michael, Thomas said.
“She was an immaculate housekeeper,” Thomas said. “Her house was fantastic and I was almost embarrassed when she would come to stay with me. She and Mike really worked on that house.”
But in 2001, Michael saw the first signs of Ellin’s painkiller abuse. And Hunter, her older son, would develop a serious drug problem. By 2012, a fight over whether Ellin’s desire to take care of her adult son was enabling his addiction directly contributed to the couple’s separation, Michael said. At first, Ellin and her sons moved into an apartment together, but they were evicted for nonpayment of rent, Michael said. They later moved in with Lenoir, and Ellin used her father’s recent passing and her mother’s sickness as an excuse to quit her job, Lenoir said.
Ellin had doted on her father, her brother Steve said, and had generally been incredibly helpful in his final days. And she did what she could to be there for her mother, going to play bingo with her, Thomas said. But by this point, Ellin couldn’t take care of herself, let alone anyone else.
Jacob, who is now 18 and just graduated from high school, said her health was “in the dumps,” and there were times that she “looked like a skeleton with flesh on it.” She frequently didn’t keep food in the house, and Lenoir would give her money for groceries that Ellin would instead spend on drugs. Michael believed Ellin would sell her Oxycontin, for which she had a prescription, for Oxycodone. There were times Ellin would take Jacob’s things and pawn them, he said.
Jacob said his mother didn’t like to show weakness, refusing to use a walker in the house despite her severe pain, and he remembers being scared when his mother described seeing shapes and temporary blindness. Michael speculated that Ellin didn’t seek more medical treatment for her litany of health problems because the two were locked in a custody battle and said that Ellin lacked healthcare coverage. Instead she pretended everything was fine, but Jacob and Lenoir — who lived with her — knew the situation was deteriorating.
Lenoir tried to take Ellin’s prescription and hide it inside her pillowcase so she could ration her daughter’s medication. Within two days, Ellin had ferreted out the pills’ location.
“She got to them without waking me up,” Lenoir said. “That’s when I said, ‘If you want to kill yourself, be my guest. I give up.’”
Other family members, including Steve, had reached their wit’s end as well, feeling like they’d done all they could for Ellin. Her brothers Steve and Ken, who owned their mother’s house, had allowed Ellin to stay there in exchange for modest rent and on the condition that she started taking care of herself and that Hunter didn’t stay there. She didn’t follow through on any front, but the situation reached a breaking point when the brothers learned that she was stealing from Lenoir, and they made the painful decision to kick her out.
Thomas wanted to invite Ellin to stay with her family in Richmond, but her husband didn’t agree. Ellin kept her opioid addiction from them, but they worried that Hunter — who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story — wasn’t in a good place with his own drug addiction. Thomas had been through something similar before — her brother was an addict and at one point left treatment. After Thomas decided not to rescue her brother, he eventually did turn his life around. Now “he’s doing great,” Thomas said, and she hoped the same would happen with Ellin.
“My husband said we weren’t helping her by [taking her in], and that she needed to pull herself up by her bootstraps,” Thomas said. “He called and told her it wasn’t going to work, which is something that I struggle with every day today.”
Thomas sent her some money to help her find somewhere to live, but still feels guilty she couldn’t do more for her close friend.
In early 2015, Jacob called 911 after his mother suffered a seizure. That’s when he asked to live with his father. In the month’s leading up to her death, Jacob and other family members including Steve stopped talking with Ellin. It was just too painful.
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