TABERNACLE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Identical twins Pierce and Jacob Reed played South Jersey high school football, got hooked on prescription painkillers, held up local drugstores, went to prison, and found God.
But in 2015, Jacob died of cancer. He was newly married and just 29 years old.
“He was the oldest of the two of us by a minute and a half,” said Pierce. “Since birth, we were inseparable. We were always together.”
There’s much more to the story, of course, and Pierce, now 34 and off drugs for 11 years, tells it well. He speaks at churches, schools, and sober living houses to help others avoid, or find salvation from, the madness of addiction.
“The first couple of times I went out and told the story, it was hard,” he said. “I felt full of shame, about the people I hurt, and it still feels like a nightmare. I still remember the spot I was in, the despair. But over the years it’s gotten easier to talk about.”
Said his wife, Tara, whom he met in 2013 at the school where he shared his story publicly for the first time: “Pierce has a new life now, because of his faith, and because God saved him from the addiction.”
I met Pierce and Tara in March when he spoke at a Medford, N.J., sober living house. Earlier this month I visited the couple at their sunny Tabernacle Township home, where their artwork decorates the walls and their 17-month-old son, Jacob, romps.
Pierce is a baker and cake designer in Center City Philadelphia and Tara, 31, teaches math at Indian Mills Memorial Middle School in Shamong Township. They are members of Fellowship Alliance Chapel in Medford, where the website features them and Marty Berglund is the pastor.
“Pierce’s story is encouraging to people,” Berglund said. “They see this musclebound guy who’s all tatted up, humbly giving the Lord credit for changing his life. It’s (like) a contrast, life before, and life after.”
Pierce and his twin grew up in a middle-class family in Shamong, N.J., where their father was a bakery owner and their mother, a teacher. Both were talented athletes who loved football and later played for Shawnee Regional High School. Pierce was offensive tackle and Jake, an offensive guard, and together they helped their school win its first state football championship in 2002.
Pierce was a freshman playing football at Widener University in Chester, Pa., when he injured his shoulder so badly it required extensive surgery, effectively ending his athletic career. By late 2003, he was back home in Burlington County, working with his brother at the family bakery and taking prescription OxyContin.
“The [pills] made me feel great, and I introduced them to my brother. I wanted him to feel that great feeling, and he liked it,” Pierce recalled.
The prescription ran out in 2004. The brothers had become addicted, and when money was tight, they’d rob their dealers. By late 2007, Pierce, in a desperate state of withdrawal, robbed a pharmacy in Medford.
Jacob joined him for four more pharmacy heists in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties, before police showed up at the Reed family’s home two days after Christmas, 2007.
The twins were tried and convicted separately, with Pierce sentenced to nine years in state prison and Jacob, seven. No longer living in addiction, they were sharing a cell at the Burlington County Jail when Pierce’s former girlfriend mailed them Bibles and study materials that changed their lives.
“We made a pact to keep up the studies when he were sent to different prisons,” said Pierce.
By 2013, he was participating in a corrections program called Project Pride and speaking at his former middle school, where Tara was teaching.
“I saw one of my paintings on the wall there,” said Pierce. “I told the eighth-graders that [addiction] ‘could easily happen to you. I look like you, I lived in this town, I went to this school.’ I stressed how my decisions affected my family and my friends, how me stealing all these drugs and selling them was poisoning that community.”
Said Tara: “The story was very powerful. He spoke from the heart.” And after speaking to Pierce’s mother, she began corresponding with Pierce by mail.
The following year, while living in a Vineland halfway house, Jacob was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. He got an early release for chemotherapy treatment, but the cancer had spread, and on January 20, 2015, Jacob died.
“I said goodbye to him on Facetime, on my boss’s phone,” said Pierce, who by then was living at a halfway house in Camden. “I got out on Dec. 17, 2015 and proposed to Tara ten days later.”
He estimates he has spoken to about 70 audiences so far. He also speaks at the annual banquet for the Jacob E. Reed Memorial Scholarship at Shawnee. The recipient is “a football player like my brother, someone who has overcome something. A fighter,” he said.
“I beat myself up for a long time about what if I hadn’t gotten him addicted and roped him into those robberies, what if he was at home instead of in prison, they might have caught the cancer sooner. But my faith helped me get through that,” said Pierce.
“Jake inspires me. Basically, as he got sicker, his faith got stronger, and today, moving forward, I still carry that inspiration. I know that if Jake was here, he would be doing the same things, or greater things, than I am.”