George Gregory "Blue" Epps, a recovering addict and an addiction counselor whose struggle was depicted in "The Corner," the book which later became a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries, died of undetermined causes Nov. 15 at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The Highlandtown resident was 59.
"We are waiting for the results of an autopsy for a cause of death," said his wife of nine years, the former Valerie Bolling.
Mr. Epps was born in Baltimore and raised in West Baltimore. As a youngster, he showed a talent for painting and drawing.
He was a 1967 graduate of Carver Vocational-Technical High School, where he studied commercial art.
"Our friendship dates to the 1960s, when we were growing up in the same West Baltimore neighborhood near Fayette and Monroe streets," said Gregory L. Lewis, a Baltimore attorney.
"He was such a creative and sensitive fellow, and I remember when were teenagers how he painted the walls of his mother's basement and working in a design," he said.
Mr. Epps worked for the post office and then in the art department at what was then Catonsville Community College. He later became a professional sign painter.
For most of his life - nearly three decades - Mr. Epps struggled with drug abuse.
"There was a time when I didn't go near the old neighborhood because it had become so radioactive with drugs and users. George was a good guy who began doing bad things. He just got caught up in that world," Mr. Lewis recalled.
"He tried to get away, but you know, you just can't step away; but he eventually did and was able to redeem himself," Mr. Lewis said. "In the end, he probably just got tired of it. He found himself and stopped using drugs. He got married. He wanted to help people get to where he was."
Mr. Epps had been free of drugs since 1993, friends said.
Former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former Baltimore police homicide detective Edward Burns interviewed Mr. Epps for their 1997 book, "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood."
When the co-authors got to know Mr. Epps and his fellow addicts, they were using his mother's home as a shooting gallery, Mr. Simon said.
"Blue was a very quiet, subtle and smart man, and when he made his move to get clean, a lot of people didn't see it coming," said Mr. Simon. "He was near the bottom of the addiction struggle and made this move to get his life back."
Mr. Simon, who came to admire Mr. Epps, recalled meeting him on the street after Mr. Epps had been in jail.
"He looked great and he had gotten clean. As Ed [Burns] said in his eulogy for Blue the other day, 'Needles may have scarred his body but not his soul,' " Mr. Simon said. "He went back to work. He taught art to young kids and then got a paying job as a street cleaner and technician for the Downtown Partnership. And then he wanted to do outreach."
Mr. Epps began his professional counseling career as an outreach worker at Recovery in Community, a drug rehabilitation center, and later became a case manager at Carrington House.
"When you walked into Carrington House, you immediately saw George," said Bob Brown, who was interim director of the recovery facility for homeless men from 2004 to 2006.
"There are a lot of inspiring stories in a place like Carrington House but none more so than George Epps," said Mr. Brown.
"He was a person they related to. He was very universal," he said. "George was a quiet man and very slow-speaking. He was kind of a philosopher and thoughtful. He was real, and when he spoke, people listened."
Ron Pugh was a Carrington House program director and a case manager.
"I hired him in 2003. I liked his passion and the fact that he could relate. He was no-nonsense yet very compassionate," Mr. Pugh said. "You couldn't come to him with a lot of bull. He wanted them to get it right. He was a quiet but firm man."
Mr. Epps was played by actor Glenn Plummer in the miniseries. Mr. Epps played a drug counselor in the show and made a cameo appearance in "The Wire."
Mr. Epps was also a regular in the "loop group," for both "The Wire" and "The Corner." The actors who are members of the loop group overdub the soundtrack of a television program or film by providing background voices, said former Sun reporter and editor William Zorzi, now a professional associate of Mr. Simon's
"Most of the people that David Simon and Ed Burns talked about in their book later died. Blue was a survivor," Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Simon added: "Blue was an incredibly strong soul and also had a lot of wisdom about this core city problem."
At his death, Mr. Epps was working at Tuerk House in West Baltimore.
"There was nothing ever false about Blue. He had lived it and came out the other side," Mr. Simon said. "It was a real hero's journey."
Mr. Epps had been an active member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he had served as president and treasurer of the Freedom Now Ministry. He was also a member of the trustee board and steward ministry board.
Services were held at his church Tuesday.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Epps is survived by two sons, Kevin Epps and Dakarai Epps, both of Baltimore; two stepsons, David Robertson of Baltimore and Booker T. Braddy IV of Columbus, Ohio; two brothers, Bruce Rice and David Richardson, both of Baltimore; a sister, Janet Rice of Baltimore; and 10 grandchildren.