The last year of Linda Clary's life has been filled with uncertainty, but as her family inches closer to justice, there's one message the mother is confident in.
Clary's son, John Umberger, was found dead in his New York City townhouse during Memorial Day weekend in 2022 after a night out at an LGBTQ+ bar. While police originally believed his death to be an accident or possible suicide, Clary knew from the beginning that "something was off."
"It was presented to me as if John sat on the bed to tie his shoes and just fell over and died," she tells Stephen Walker of Our World. "And that did not make sense. John was only 33 that day."
John Umberger's mother has a message for the LGBTQ+ community
Clary immediately noticed the suspicious circumstances surrounding her son's death, the first being that "his phone indicated that he was still using it, but no one could reach him." Despite apps showing that he had been active on social media and that his messages were being read, his family was unable to get in contact with him.
More red flags arose when Umberger began missing previously scheduled social and work events. After contacting friends and coworkers, Clary found that no one had heard anything from her son. She reached out to the New York Police Department, who performed a a wellness check of Umberger's work residence, tragically revealing that he had died.
While it was quickly determined that her son's death was caused by an overdose, Clary did not believe it was a suicide as the police were insisting.
"Police wanted to present to us that John must have gone out and partied ... and someone robbed him at the club, and he just was so depressed, and came home and did a bunch of drug and overdosed," she explains. "That's not how my boy would have ever responded if something like that had happened."
Clary says that law enforcement's misconceptions "forced us to do our own detective work," including tracking her son's finances and last movements herself. After learning that Umberger's credit cards had been maxed out, Clary went to the precinct and "refused to leave" until she was able to speak with burglary detectives and "present to them our timeline to say this is not an overdose. This is something much more sinister."
Umberger's death also mirrored that of Julio Ramirez, a 25-year-old social worker whose tragic death occurred during a “drug-facilitated theft.” Autopsies revealed that both Ramirez and Umberger had the same drugs in their systems, including fentanyl, lidocaine, and cocaine. The realization that this had "happened to countless other people" allowed the pieces of the mystery to begin falling into place.
It was largely due to the advocacy of Clary and her family that Umberger and Ramirez's deaths were ruled homicides in March of this year. At least six people believed to be connected to the cases have been indicted, and police are now tracking down the men directly involved in their deaths, seeking to charge them with second-degree murder, as well as robbery, identity theft, grand larceny, and conspiracy.
While Clary and her family await justice, she notes that her son's case is "yet one more example of people taking advantage of the vulnerability within [the LGBTQ+] community." Even after his death, she is proud of her son for his achievements and identity, but wishes to warn other members of his community of the dangers that exist, even in environments that are meant to be safe spaces.
"You are a blessing. Please stick together and be safe and look after one another. Don't go out on your own," she says. "The old truth that our grandparents and great grandparents taught us of don't talk to strangers, sadly still holds true, even in a sexual context, whether you're heterosexual or homosexual. There are still laws of the universe that sadly exist that if you want to be safe."