January 28, 2008 12:00 PM

The first time he was busted—at age 15, for possessing cocaine and marijuana—actor Brad Renfro learned a lesson about taking drugs. “If you’ve never done it, don’t,” Renfro, who made more than 20 movies and struck many as a special talent, told PEOPLE after his 1998 arrest. “If you have done it, pray.”

Sadly, it is now too late for prayers. On Jan. 15 friends found Renfro dead in bed in an L.A. apartment after a night of drinking. The friends heard Renfro snoring early that morning, but when they checked on him shortly before 9 a.m., he wasn’t breathing. Given Renfro’s history of drug abuse—he had a string of drug-related run-ins with the law—the chance that his death was caused by an overdose “is obviously a possibility,” says Craig Harvey, chief investigator for the Los Angeles county coroner. “Right now all we have is the history of his drinking the previous night.” An autopsy was scheduled to be performed within days.

Raised in Knoxville, Tenn., Renfro was just 10 when picked to play a gutsy witness in a Mafia case in 1994’s The Client; the next year he won The Hollywood Reporter’s “YoungStar Award.” In recent months Renfro, who had just wrapped a part alongside Billy Bob Thornton in the drama The Informers, “had been working hard and was very focused on the future,” says his attorney Richard Kaplan. “He was a really good, warm person. I don’t think he had a bad bone in his body.”

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