Damien Hughes was known as a young man with lots of jokes – always the ham and the funny guy in the crowd.
The party, unfortunately, went from the toney suburb of Westborough to the dregs of Methadone Mile – as he called it – or Mass/Cass Corridor as it is known officially. It was there on Mass/Cass almost two weeks ago that the jokes stopped, his opiate addiction having relapsed and a man he didn’t even know allegedly stabbed him multiple times and killed him in front of the Southampton Shelter.
His mother said she was told that the light-hearted, passive young man begged for his life – begged for others to help – as his alleged killer, Cesar Valentin, 34, from Chelsea, pursued him and stabbed him again and again and ended his life.
The jokes at that point were over.
Last Saturday, his mother Ashley Tenczar Curran laid him to rest at a funeral home and cemetery in Central Massachusetts, having tried multiple times to help him get into and stick with detox and sobering up for good. Herself a former addict clean for almost two decades, she lives in Jamaica Plain and tried to keep frequent tabs over her son on Mass/Cass when he would disappear for days on end – coming down to the Mile originally because there were no services in the suburbs for him and no help in Worcester County Jail where he served more than a year for stealing gift cards from cars.
“To be honest, I expected an overdose call,” said Curran. “I didn’t think it would be about violence or murder. I would have given that guy $10,000 if he would have left my son alone…My son died saying ‘I can’t breathe; I need an ambulance. Help me.’ He couldn’t breathe because his lungs were full of blood. He died in the ambulance half a block from the hospital. He died a horrible, horrible death and they found the guy who did it over at St. Francis House a little later calmly eating lunch. I just want to know why. I want to know why he needed to come back and stab him again and again – once in the neck and once in the side.”
Hughes, 27, was allegedly stabbed by Valentin just outside of the doors of the Southampton Shelter around 11:51 a.m. in broad daylight on July 31. Valentin has been charged with murder, but the story entails far more than street violence. Mostly, Hughes’s mother said, it’s a story about addiction and relapse and the difficulty in finding help in the suburbs and the dangerousness of trying to get help in Boston. Curren said it is often lost that the people on Mass/Cass are real human beings, as they are often in the throes of their addiction and they are sick. Seeing them that way doesn’t help a stranger to see them as a son – as Curren does – a young man who lovingly nursed her late husband in 2015 as he died of cancer, a young man who liked to play mini golf, and who was a constant funny man at home and even in the Mass/Cass area.
“He wasn’t just some random guy from Boston,” said Curren. “He was from the suburbs. He was raised in Westborough and went to Westborough High. My parents raised him. My mother put everything she had into him, the schooling and IEPs. He grew up in a very well-to-do area. He never really got into sports even though my parents tried everything. He started smoking weed and then he got into addiction. Addiction is a disease. He was sick. My son was no choir boy. He was hustling and his had a massive opiate habit…We struggled with that a lot, and I tried to take him to PATH on Albany Street – wading through addicts six-people deep to get to the door. We went together.”
Curren said she is familiar with addiction, being a reformed addict herself. She said she had Hughes when she was young, and she slipped into addiction as well – which is why her parents raised him in Westborough. More than 15 years ago she cleaned up and became a nurse, and at that time started keeping close tabs on Hughes. A few years ago, in Worcester County, he got caught stealing gift cards out of cars and spend two years in the county jail, she said. He was never a violent or aggressive person, his mother said, and jail was hard for him. There was no help for addiction there, so when he got out, Curren said they felt the only help they could get was in Boston.
“He ended up coming to Boston because I felt there were services here that weren’t in the suburbs and I could keep an eye on him,” she said. “Unfortunately, there weren’t good services in Boston either and it was dangerous down there. Where there are just so many drug dealers going in and out, you’re going to have violence…Eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore.”
The last time Curren saw her son, she had gone down to the Engagement Center – known as ‘The Tent’ – and found him nearby wearing an Uncle Sam top hat and making jokes with everyone, as well as being very high.
“He was always joking, even that day,” she said. “I look terrible in that picture because I was crying so much when I found him that way.”
Prior to that meeting, he had been at her JP apartment for several days and she was trying to get him into a detox and start the process again. However, he disappeared shortly after.
Part of the failure, she said, was the attitudes in places like Westborough – the denial of problems which leads to the rejection of any help or services. Many in those types of towns eventually turn to Boston – like Hughes did – and it’s a very dangerous place to navigate for a suburban kid without any street experience.
“The services are zilch,” she said. “They need to pay attention to their kids and stop denying it. It’s happening and they don’t seem to get it. They have a police officer at school in Westborough High School, but he’s not treatment. It would be nice if they had an addiction office…They need to understand these kids are coming into (Mass/Cass). They’re coming in from the suburbs. They haven’t been on the streets 20 years. They are coming from affluent areas. It’s gotta stop. It’s going to get bigger and bigger and spill over into all the neighborhoods. They have a perimeter set up now. I don’t know who orders that, but I’d like to know.”
Meanwhile, Curren said she’s focusing on the violence that has erupted in the area, and trying to draw attention to it so other kids from the suburbs – like her son – don’t fall victim to someone with a knife or gun. She said her son’s murder was captured on a Homeland Security camera, and Boston Police are working the case but aren’t sure if there’s any motive. Her son was simply standing at the door, and in two seconds he had been stabbed. He tried to get away, and the assailant followed him and stabbed him again.
“I want people to know he wasn’t some random guy,” she said. “He was a person, a human being and he had an addiction. People remember him for jokes and laughs and being non-violent. I don’t think he could even defend himself. He was so much more than the addiction.”
Last Saturday, Hughes was buried out in Westborough. Curren and her mother said their last good-byes to a young man that was once full of life and laughter.
Damien’s laughter, though, had been silenced by so many factors beyond anyone’s control.