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A new Dawn? Four years in the making

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I knew that following Dawn Nicole Smith’s progress through Fayette County Drug Court could take more than a year. That’s how long it takes most addicts to finish the intensive treatment program, if they finish at all.


Well, more than 8,000 photos, 10 hours of audio and three years after we met Dawn in March 2004, we’re publishing her story. We’re doing it in a six-part series using 18 inside pages in the newspaper and with 130 photos in a six-part multimedia presentation online.

Her story was far more complicated than I ever imagined. It tested me in ways I never predicted. There were occasional access issues. There were ethical dilemmas. There were scheduling problems. (How do I do my job on a regular basis and still find the time to spend with Dawn? How many times do I have to apologize to my wife and family for being with Dawn on our anniversary or a birthday?)

Dawn’s life – victimized by men and under the grip of addiction – was one I could only imagine a few years ago. Now having witnessed many of her most intimate troubles in person, I can say I have a new understanding – and compassion – for her and others like her.

Many of us know someone touched by addiction, whether to drugs or alcohol. But what we don’t understand – unless we’re living with the person – is the true degree of destruction it can have on a life.


Photographing Dawn throughout this story, sometimes when she was at her worst, was never easy. Her life was always in some kind of turmoil or chaos. But she never even hinted that she might not want her picture taken at one of those down times. She was very unaware of the camera, which is evident in many of the more intimate photos we published.

That brings me to one of the more telling photos I took during the course of this story. It is a picture of Dawn and her mother, Brenda Raines, in their Nicholasville home; they were on the brink of eviction. You can see in the body language how much alike the mother and daughter are. Looking from the outside, reporter Mary Meehan and I could see the traits, good and bad, passed from mother to daughter. We often wondered how much Dawn’s children would be like her.


This photo says a lot on its own. But I shot a number of photos that I thought revealed different aspects of their relationship. You can see the tension, the anger and the love between them.


Mary and I would frequently have discussions about where Dawn’s troubles started and how they could have been avoided. She later admitted that her life may gone down a different path had she lived with her father after her parents divorced.

No doubt, Dawn’s mother has had a huge impact on her life. Dawn would often complain about her mother’s behavior, yet we would see some of the same behaviors between Dawn and her children. We asked Dawn more than once if she saw the similarities, the continuing cycle. She couldn’t see it. Or maybe she didn’t want to see it.


For more about the story, you can read the editors’ blog, Behind the Headlines. All of the stories are available on, and the six-part multimedia will be rolled out as the series is published this week.

–David Stephenson

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7 Responses to “A new Dawn? Four years in the making”
  1. Rebecca Tyler says:

    David, Thank you so much to you and Mary for working on this long project, and piece on Dawn. Since I used to work at Chrysalis House as an admissions coordinator, Dawn has reminded me of other clients that came through while I was there. I have remembered their struggles and pain as they went through treatment, and lived for the first time in a LONG time without using drugs and/or drinking alcohol.

  2. Sue R. Chenault says:

    Thank you

  3. Renee says:

    First this story is great. Way to go David your pictures are truely wonderful. The pictures tell the story that Mary has written. At first Dawn is raped by Larry. Then she tries to get Tony to give her kids to Larry. Then she is pregnant with Larrys child and she and him are both in prison. What did Tony do in all this other than leave her for another woman? Why didn’t he work and help her with their kids. She lives the whole time with Larry and Brenda, not Tony and her having a home of their own? WHY? What kind of man is he? Larry supported his kids, now Larrys in jail. Who is supporting them now? THE STATE… What will happen to Larry’s child? Adoption? He isn’t the sick person, Dawn is. Why can’t she stop? She don’t want to. Brenda needs locked up for hurting her daughter and her grandkids. She always wants to die. Put her in a dark hole and let her sit there for a while. What will these kids grow up to be? If they grow up. In one of the photos, one of the kids have a gun held to David while he is taking the picture. That says it all right there.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Tough Ive never been a victim of drug abuse personally, I grew up in a family with several addicts. There were times throughout the story that I thought what the hell is wrong with her? Why won’t she just stop? Then I would think of my sister currently in prison and I know. She can’t. I felt compelled the whole time to find Dawn and offer the help she needs, not judges and case workers, not her drunk mother or her pos husband, just a friend. She has led life utterly alone. We are much the same. I will always have a place in my heart for her and I wish I knew where to find her. I just feel like I could do something for her.

  5. Leonetta Cook says:

    This was a very disturbing piece – one that is more common than we want to admit. The most disturbing picture was the child holding a gun–it was very telling.

    You have a piece of work to be proud of.

  6. Katrina says:

    I love reading through a post that will make people think.
    Also, thank you for allowing me to comment!

  7. Dawn smith says:

    This is dawn and the first time I actually looked at my story I did get my life on track and I am clean now own my own home and my kids r wonderful they plan on going to collage play sports in school and ain’t interested in a drug I’m very proud of them and I thank drug court for the tools I’ve learned cause it did help me when I got the support I needed to get better my life ain’t perfect and I’m not rich but I have a normal life now and my kids have everything they want and need and they r very respectful decent and focused on their goals .

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