Credit: Courtesy

In Memoriam | Ryan Leone: 1985-2022

It is not so much how long you live as what you do with the years you are here.

We all possess some type of genius, and Ryan Leone’s genius was his love of stories, particularly those portrayed in books or film. That love helped him turn his life around after his lifetime flirtation with drugs landed him in federal prison. During his four years of incarceration, he spent numerous stints in solitary confinement, arguably a counter-productive form of torture that has no place in our country’s penal system. He nonetheless wrote Wasting Talent, which sold approximately 400,000 copies after publication in 2012.

During his final year in prison, Ryan turned to a positive addiction, physical fitness, and coupled with exceptional nutrition became uncommonly healthy and strong. He resolved to address the outrages he experienced by working hard to change the world. His passions were twofold: to help addicts manage and not be shamed by their addiction and to call attention to the myriad injustices of our criminal justice system.

Ryan Harrison Leone was born August 3, 1985, in Framingham, Massachusetts, the only child of Diane and Frank Leone. The family moved to Santa Barbara in 1989. Ryan passed away on July 2, 2022.

Ryan was an exceptionally happy, active, and inquisitive youth. At the age of three he could quote long passages from his then favorite movie, Ghostbusters, as well as passages from the multitude of children’s books that he reveled in nightly. Ever creative, Ryan put together amazing costumes from common household goods. Later, as a youth baseball player, he became a catcher because, well, catcher’s uniforms were just so cool.

Ryan attended Monte Vista, Marymount Middle School, and Santa Barbara High. During those years he made friends easily and was universally viewed as a fun guy, loyal friend, great storyteller, and someone with an extraordinary sense of humor. He was a showman. An only child, Ryan was close to his parents, and loved his Labrador retrievers, Bogie and Brava.

Ryan travelled a great deal, both domestically and internationally, with stops on foreign soil in eastern Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, Japan, and China.

At the age of 15, Ryan began using drugs. He spent a cumulative eight years incarcerated for nonviolent drug offences. As a sweet, gentle person raised in a loving household, one can only imagine the horror of what Ryan saw and experienced during those years.

As a dear family friend said shortly after his passing, “Ryan was an extremely good person with an extremely bad disease.” Ryan handled his disease with dignity. He owned his space and did not run or hide from it. He steadfastly refused to blame anyone or anything.

Ryan was released from federal prison in 2013 and returned to Santa Barbara. He quickly became somewhat of a celebrity. In one short stretch he was featured in Penthouse magazine, the Huffington Post, Malibu magazine, and the Santa Barbara Independent.

Ryan instinctively knew how to connect with his target audiences, largely the marginalized and dispossessed who were dealing with the pain and humiliation of addiction and/or long-term incarceration. Rather than preach a generic gospel of sobriety and prisoner rights, Ryan reached his audience by entertaining them, telling stories, carefully weaving encouragement and hope into his narrative. Ryan developed a YouTube following numbering in the tens of thousands and had a significant presence on Patreon and other social media platforms.

Ryan was involved with numerous projects when he died: a documentary entitled Idiot Savant: the Savage Life of Ryan Leone; his second novel, Anti Heroes, which is in the editing phase; and a screenplay entitled “Florida,” co-written by actor and close friend Nick Stahl, that is now being reviewed by potential investors.

Ryan Leone was special. He had a huge and humble heart, unmitigated love for many, and was devoted to his domestic partner, Karina Franco, and their young sons, Nikko and Weiland.

Ryan left an indelible legacy. His scores of YouTube videos continue to influence many throughout the world. And a veritable army of friends and followers are poised to move forward to help Ryan’s two causes: a more humane approach to addiction and his quest to improve our criminal justice system.

Perhaps Ryan’s most enduring legacy will be the foundation he established during his final months: The Ryan Leone Foundation: Paul’s Project. The short-term objective of the foundation is to provide large amounts of Narcan, used to counter opioid overdoses, in high-risk areas.

Those of us who loved Ryan miss him dearly. But we find comfort in knowing how much he did to champion the cause of those most in need and how the shape of his legacy will allow his influence to endure for decades to come.

Donations to The Ryan Leone Foundation: Paul’s Project may be sent to Brooke Houk, 114 Magnolia Court Mountain Home, AR 72653.

Correction: The spelling of Ryan Leone’s partner’s first name is Karina and has been corrected.


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