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By the time Tom Wolf first encountered San Francisco Police Officer Rob Gilson, his addiction was spinning out of control. He was sitting in his car in the midst of a 10-day bender in the city’s drug-ridden Tenderloin district. Wolf believes that without Gilson’s compassion, he would most likely be dead by now.
“I was really at my worst,” Wolf recalled of his state in February of 2018. “I was smoking heroin every day. At that point, I was using cocaine as well.”
To Gilson, the signs were unmistakable.
“It was obvious that Tom had a drug addiction the first time that I spoke with him,” said Gilson, who ran Wolf’s identification at the time and learned he was listed as a missing person. “He was in one of our busier areas for drugs.”
Gilson asked Wolf if he needed assistance, but like many who are addicted to drugs, he refused help.
Gilson left and then updated the missing person report filed by Wolf’s wife. Later, Gilson called her to say he had come in contact with her husband.
“It was a very memorable conversation for me,” Gilson said of their first call, when he learned that Wolf had, until recently, been a pillar of his community, holding a job in service to others and supporting his family. “I just felt bad for her. I mean you have this poor lady on the other end of the phone crying and telling you how much she misses her husband – how much she wants him to get help.”
Impacted by their conversation and her palpable pain, Gilson told Wolf’s wife that he would keep an eye out for her husband.
“I see the Toms of the Tenderloin, but I don’t speak to very many wives of people who are still married to be in that position,” noted Gilson. From then on when he was in the area, Gilson would check to see if Wolf was on the block where he normally hung out. Gilson said oftentimes, he was there.
“I see a lot of faces every day,” Gilson said. “But Tom kind of stuck out to me because of my conversation that I had with his wife.”
Beyond the Call of Duty
Shortly thereafter, Wolf was arrested for the first time and received a court order to stay away from that particular block in the Tenderloin.
“When you see someone who’s never had an arrest record doing what Tom was doing, it’s obvious that their drug addiction was taking over their life,” Gilson said.
Wolf was arrested six times – four times by Gilson – and each time, Gilson had words for Wolf.
“Tom was more open to conversation, so I just remembered his wife and I just wanted to remind him,” Gilson explained.
Wolf recalled that every time Gilson would arrest him, “he’d be like, ‘What are you doing out here?’ He would just say that to me. ‘What are you doing out here? You shouldn’t be here. You have a family. Go home to your family.’”
In June 2018, the Tenderloin police station posted Wolf’s mugshot on Twitter. In the picture, he is disheveled, unshaven – his eyes glassy, his stare dull.
Along with the picture, police wrote:
“TL Officers continue to arrest Thomas Wolf… for… violating the court’s order to stay 150 yds away. Yesterday he was again arrested/booked violating the order. 103 bindles heroin & cocaine in a bag at his feet. Notify us if he is seen on this block.”
Four days later Wolf was arrested again, but this event was different. For the first time, Wolf was going to county jail. That’s when he finally heard what Gilson was saying to him all along.
“He came up to me and he said, ‘Look at you. You’re skinny. You’re dirty. Your clothes are dirty.’ He goes, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through. I don’t know if it’s a midlife crisis, but whatever it is, go get some help and get back to your family,’” Wolf recited. “And for some reason, the way he said that to me, it brought tears to my eyes because I knew, but I had numbed all those feelings of guilt and sadness.”
Wolf was in jail for nearly three months, forcing him to get clean. His brother offered to bail him out if he went into rehab. Wolf agreed and the next day his brother dropped him off at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco.
“That’s when my life really began to change,” Wolf stated. “This place was instrumental in saving my life.”
Salvation Army lead counselor Ken Johnson was the first to meet Wolf when he arrived for the six-month program. “He was completely broken. He was hopeless,” Johnson said of Wolf. “In fact, he was in tears more than once.”
But Wolf stayed focused on the process. “Tom just dove in head first, 100% and he never wavered throughout his whole program,” Johnson added.
Near the end of his six months at the Salvation Army, Wolf went back to that SFPD Twitter post of his mugshot to write his own message, which said: “I’m now in recovery. I have nearly 8 months clean and sober. I wanted to give a big thank you to the Salvation Army ARC for giving me a chance to get my life back together and special thanks to Officer Gilson of the TL Taskforce for pulling me out of there. You saved my life.”
Wolf, who was looking for a job, wanted potential employers who researched him to know he was back on his feet, but he was also hopeful that Gilson would see it.
“I’m really grateful for the kind of man that he is, for the type of work that he does and the fact that he actually listened to a distressed wife calling him on the phone,” Wolf said. “He really did save my life because toward the end – before the last time I got arrested – I was starting to use fentanyl. And I think if he hadn’t been on me so much to get me out of there, I might not be talking to you today. I might be in the grave instead.”
Gilson sees it differently, and adds that there were several police officers involved in getting Wolf off the streets.
“Tom’s the guy in the struggle. Tom’s the one who’s living on the street doing what he’s doing. That can’t be an easy life. So, to pull yourself out of that … that’s the really cool part,” said Gilson, who said he became a police officer because of his desire to help people. “I was able to kind of just give Tom a little bit of a push in the right direction I think – to change his perspective and really just hold him accountable. Tom’s the one that’s done all the hard work.”
Before drugs took over, Wolf had a good life with his wife and their two young children. He was a homeowner with a solid job. “I had a decent, just regular middle-class life,” said Wolf.
For nine years, Wolf was a child support officer for the city and county of San Francisco, getting absentee parents to pay child support. In fact, his team won an award for their efforts in 2015. Just two months later in May, Wolf had foot surgery.
From ‘public servant to a homeless drug addict’
“They gave me 10-milligram oxycodone pills and I started taking those,” Wolf explained. “Immediately after I took them I felt euphoria. The pain was gone and also all my worries went away too along with that. And I was like, ‘this is great.’ So, within a very short period of time – a couple of months – I was popping them like candy.”
“I flipped from being a public servant to a homeless drug addict in the Tenderloin in the span of four years,” Wolf said.
Eventually, he would need three or four pills just to get up in the morning. He refilled the prescription and plowed through that second bottle in about a week when it should have lasted him about a month.
The doctor wouldn’t prescribe him any more oxycodone. “I was addicted, and I didn’t like the feeling of the withdrawals,” Wolf remembered. “I felt like I had the flu times 10.”
But he recalled hearing of a place where he could buy drugs in the Tenderloin. “I went down there and sure enough, I was able to find 30-milligram oxycodone pills,” Wolf said.
“They’re $30 a pill, so I would buy 10 at a time. That’s $300 – and 10 pills used to last me about, you know, four or five days. Then it started lasting me three days and then two days,” Wolf explained. “Within a year of that, I was taking 500 to 600 milligrams of oxycodone daily.”
Just a block over from the San Francisco Police Department’s Tenderloin station is the heart of the drug trade. Describing the city’s drug problem, Gilson said, “to put it nicely, it is out of control.”
“There’s ‘pill hill’ – you can buy pretty much any prescription drug you want there,” Gilson stated. “But on the flip side – it’s literally just 15 feet away – on the other side of the street, you can buy heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, crack cocaine. You can buy fentanyl. You can buy whatever you want. It’s out there.”
“It does seem to be that the drug trade is getting worse. There’s no shortage of drug buyers. There’s no shortage of people who have an addiction,” said Gilson. “On the flip side, there is absolutely no shortage of people willing to sell drugs. That is something that goes on 24 hours a day, almost on every single block in the city – especially on the block that Tom was on.”
And along with the street trade comes violence and death. Toward the end of his time on the street, Wolf said he saw three people overdose on fentanyl and die.
“One of them died right in front of me with the paramedics giving him CPR and he just didn’t come back,” Wolf said.
Another time, he awoke to a man lying on the ground. Wolf recalled, “He was blue and stiff, and he had been dead for a few hours already. And there was a needle with a little bit of fentanyl in it next to him.”
“There’s overdoses all the time in the Tenderloin,” Gilson said, adding that there were two just that morning.
Finding a cheaper high
After his savings dwindled and he couldn’t afford the costly pills, Wolf moved to heroin, which was much cheaper. “I remember in April of 2017 is when I bought my first dime of heroin and I stopped using the pills at that point,” Wolf said, noting that his tolerance had built up, so he was using more often. That meant more trips to the Tenderloin.
He was sweating a lot. He would disappear for hours at a time, explaining it away by saying he went to the store. “But really what I did is I went down to score some drugs,” Wolf said.
Still, Wolf’s wife (who asked not to be identified by name to maintain her privacy) was in denial about her husband’s drug problem. “I think it wasn’t until my friends, and my family really, was like, ‘this is a problem’,” she said. “And it really even took longer than maybe it needed to take.”
In May 2018, Wolf’s wife filed a restraining order against him after a counselor pointed out that Tom would retain equal rights to their children in the eyes of the authorities if she didn’t officially declare that he was unfit to parent at that time. “They don’t know that he didn’t come home last night, or you saw foil all over and his hands are filthy,” she remembered the counselor explaining to her. “My kids didn’t understand, and I just told them, you both deserve the best dad ever. The dad you remember. Your dad right now, he’s sick.”
But that was nearly a year ago now. These days, the Wolf family is focused on healing. The restraining order was removed in February on the same day Tom completed rehabilitation. “Now that I’m in recovery, I see my wife every day,” Wolf shared, adding that he and his wife just celebrated 20 years of marriage. “I see my kids every day. We are working on rebuilding our lives in the hopes that I can move home.”
Wolf also has a new job. He’s now a case manager at a different Salvation Army location in San Francisco. It’s in a part of town where Wolf knows just how great the need is – the Tenderloin.
CNN’s Jason Kravarik contributed to this report.