“There was something about Justin, he would just draw you in,” said Jamie Hogshooter, Justin Lutz’s four-months-younger cousin. They spent their summers and many weekends together on the family farm in Rolla, Missouri next to the Ozark Mountains in the Eastern part of the state. “I didn’t like to play army or Indians, but Justin had a way of pulling you into his world.”
Justin’s parents Timothy Lutz and Connie Karnes divorced when Justin was three years old. He had a difficult relationship with his dad, Jamie said. Timothy Lutz was a farmer, a man of few words, who had a hard time handling his exuberant, talkative son. Jamie said that her Uncle Tim liked to communicate by doing things with Justin, showing him how to master farm tasks. When Justin saw the parts of the washing machine his father was trying to fix laid out on the floor of the barn, he didn’t want to fix it; he wanted to make a sculpture out of them.
The combination of being bored in school and having such a wild imagination led to trouble for Justin. Although Jamie doesn’t recall the charges against him, she remembered that he spent two terms in Boys’ Town, the local juvenile authority. After they released him the first time, they put him in “special class” at school, the class for the developmentally delayed. “He was so smart!” Jamie said. “Of course he was bored. What was the point of trying to do anything in school?”
This only led to more trouble. That year between his times at Boy’s Town, when he lived with his grandma Tiny Lutz and his dad, he refused to wash his hair. “They could control his time and what he did in school, but they couldn’t make him wash,” Jamie said. This, and some other mischief, led to him being sent back to Boys Town. He got out when he turned 18.
Jamie estimates Justin left home in 1999 and moved to Columbia, MO. Shortly thereafter he met Brianna Pearson, the mother of his first child, Evan, who was born in September 2000. By that time, he and Brianna had broken up. Justin met Kat Wise in June 2000 at 80s night at a bar where he was a bouncer. “He was the most beautiful person I’d ever known,” she said. He was very lean, 6’4” with many tattoos on his limbs.
“He was wearing combat boots, black jeans and a black button down shirt, carrying the head of a stuffed rabbit in his hand singing the Evil Bunny Foo Foo song,” Kat recalled. “You know? Evil Bunny Foo Foo running through the forest scooping up the field mice and SUCKING OUT THEIR SOULS.”
Kat knew him as Tin. He’d never felt his first name suited him, so he shortened it to just the final syllable. Kat was attracted to his dark humor, but she also saw in him much light. She loved his artwork, which he worked on alone and with her.
“He was self-educated and had a vast capacity for knowledge about everything,” she said with admiration.
They read constantly. At one point, they were reading the same book, a novel that featured a Latin phrase at the beginning of each chapter. Kat had taken two years of Latin in college. After she’d translated a few passages for him, he picked up a rough facility with the language. “Soon he could translate faster and more accurately than I could.”
Shortly after they met, she dropped out of her senior year in college. Being involved with him was very demanding, she said. “He had a hard time keeping relationships together because he was so sensitive and needy, seriously he could be really overwhelming.” They broke up briefly in 2001 before they married in June. This was after he’d had a romance with Tina Hudlow, the mother of his second son, who was born in October 2001.
Kat and Tin moved to Springfield Oregon, where they were for four years. They were chronically unemployed, spent much of their time subsisting. This world they created between the two of them became quite insular. At one point, Kat got a job and re-enrolled in school with the help of her mom. When she went out into the world again to meet these new responsibilities, people were looking at her with curiosity when she talked. “I realized we had developed our own language,” she said.
Being down on their luck didn’t help them weather all the arguments. “He drank a lot,” she said. “And there were other substances involved for me too. He tried heroin. For a while we were both on meth. It was very rough, but it was always me and him against the world,” Kat said. “I wound up losing everything in that marriage: my youth, my health, my teeth, everything I owned, my car and ended up living in a storm drain, among other places.”
Despite every hardship, when Tin was down on his luck, Kat always took him back in. “I had to get him back on his feet again,” she said, her voice cracking as she described the allure of rescuing him despite the costs to her. “Something you have to understand is he just cared too much and he didn’t know how to interact with people. He took things to heart when he should have brushed them off.”
Even after he and Kat split up, the pattern continued with Georgia Fullerton Tadlock, who met him at a bar called Bones in Omaha in December 2009. “It was pretty crazy pretty quick,” Georgia said. “I could tell him anything and we could talk for hours. He was smart and he always had an opinion on everything. And he was great with my boys.”
When they met they both had places to stay, and jobs. Georgia worked at Walgreens and Tin bartended at Bones, where he was known for making great drinks and great patter at the bar. But within 30 days they were homeless and scrambling to survive, bouncing from one friend’s apartment to another. It was hard for them to get up enough of a deposit to rent a place of their own because landlords reacted poorly to the way Tin looked. In November 2010 when Georgia’s ex-husband was released from jail, she believed he would come to make trouble for her and her two boys. She left the boys with her parents and hit the road with Tin.
First, they visited his mom and step-dad in St. James, Missouri, then to Oklahoma. They got stuck for a while when Georgia’s van broke down in Beaumont, TX, but they got it towed to New Orleans, a place that Tin had always wanted to see.
“Then we ran out of money and we ran out of luck,” Georgia said, although it sounds like luck was in pretty short supply generally for Tin. “We were sitting in the van and I was drained and didn’t feel like walking. He was mad because he wanted me to walk the French Quarter and figure out how to get money because we were done, we didn’t have any money. He reached over and grabbed my hands off his face. I took his stuff and put in on the curb and set off.”
When she got the money her parents wired to her at a Walmart, she headed home. It was December 17 when she arrived in Omaha. She had an ominous feeling about leaving Tin in New Orleans. Tin had always said he didn’t think he’d live to be 30, and his thirtieth birthday was coming up: December 29.
After the warehouse fire, Tin’s fractured family was even more profoundly shattered. His aunt Lea Joe Rector had died in a car accident November 15, then Justin died shortly before his birthday. His father, who never had known how to handle his son, withdrew even further from the world. Cousin Jamie said, “When I saw him after Justin died, that was the first time I ever felt close to him. I had taken Justin’s side on everything.”
The day of Justin’s memorial service, his grandmother Tiny found Tim, Justin’s father, dead in his room. Jamie believes it was suicide, but Tim’s death certificate doesn’t say that. “After we found out that Justin had died, I saw such sorrow and regret in my uncle,” Jamie said. “ He had no more hope of repairing that.”
Jamie and Justin hadn’t been in touch for years, even though she thought of him often, especially at the holidays. At the memorial service she met some of Justin’s friends and asked them if he’d ever mentioned her. “Among his papers they found a poem he had written for me,” Jamie said. “He felt like I did, that those were the happiest days of our lives. I walk the fields of the south twenty on the farm and see him there. That’s where I want to see him.”