Mothers fight for justice in their sons' overdose deaths



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MANATEE, Fla. (AP) — The day Scott Pallottini died, he had just gotten a job at Chris Craft Marina Boating.

He was an electrician by trade, but was working day jobs like yard work and maintenance. While on a lunch break Aug. 21, he told his mother Mary that he'd fill out his W2 form after her insistence, said "I love you" and that he'd talk to her later.

Mary Pallottini received the call at 8 p.m. that night from Scott's estranged wife, Tiffany: He had been found in the bathroom of his new rental with a needle in his arm.

He was 29.

On the day Tim Dionian died, officers reporting to the scene noted it was a cool and cloudy mid-February afternoon. The former paramedic was known for stealing fentanyl from his former employer; his mother Sue said he was both an addict and suffered from depression.

He had gone for drug addiction treatment for five days, but afterward the Manatee facility didn't have a bed for him.

On a stack of pizza boxes was a note, reading, "Mom, Please don't forget money for par. Thanks, love Tim." Operation PAR is an addiction treatment center. Turned over, Sue wrote, "Please use this for par. I will probably have to work late." Alone for nearly 12 hours, Sue found him at their apartment face down on his knees, blue.

He was 29.

Mary and Sue aren't alone in their grief. From January to April of this year, 13 people died of heroin-fentanyl related overdoses in Manatee and Sarasota counties, according to Dr. Russell Vega from the District 12 Medical Examiner's Office.

In Manatee County, four died from fentanyl, two died from heroin and one died from a heroin-fentanyl combination. In Sarasota, three died from fentanyl and three died from heroin.

More recent numbers have yet to be confirmed, but officials are noting another significant spike in overdoses and deaths in Manatee County, already the epicenter of Florida's heroin epidemic.

Law enforcement is trying to blunt the increasing overdose deaths by seeking out the suppliers, going undercover and charging them with possessing trafficking amounts of narcotics. But sometimes, especially to families who have been directly affected by the epidemic, drug trafficking charges just aren't enough. Those families of the addicted and deceased are searching for answers of why overdoses are written off as accidental, and why drug dealers aren't being charged with murder.

A meeting for the sick and tired

Manatee County Sheriff's Office Capt. Todd Shear recently stood in front of two dozen people at the Manatee County Central Public Library to talk about the latest heroin spike.

Some in the crowd were former heroin addicts, others were family members who had seen the drug take away their loved ones too soon. Seven wore purple shirts with the words "No Longer Silent," a local group fighting to bring awareness to the growing number of overdoses in Manatee County.

One of those in purple was Gerrie Stanhope, whose grandson Scott Pallottini and son Brian Miller both died of overdoses.

"Unfortunately, we're seeing overdoses peak higher than we saw even in 2015," Shear told them.

Before this year, July 2015 had been the worst month of the epidemic in Manatee, according to the sheriff's office. One indicator: Emergency Medical Services administered 281 doses of Narcan, the brand name of naloxone that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose.

In just the first two weeks of July 2016, EMS administered 289 doses of Narcan, Shear told the meeting attendees. From Jan. 1 to July 27, EMS administered 1,119 Narcan doses to 686 overdose patients.

According to incident reports posted to the sheriff's office website, deputies responded to at least 100 overdose calls during the first 13 days of July. Heroin was suspected in 63 of those calls. Five were overdose deaths.

The ages of those who overdosed range from 18 to 68. One person overdosed while getting his hair cut. Another left Manatee Memorial Hospital and overdosed for the third time that day, just two hours after he was released. Other overdose victims were found passed out in gas station bathrooms, malls, fast-food restaurants, behind the wheel, in homes and in hotels.

"We understand the disease of addiction," Shear said. "We're not looking for addicts."

That late Saturday morning, Shear tackled questions from people who were tired.

Tired of hearing about the heroin epidemic. Tired of waiting for a solution.

They asked why bond amounts differed for drug traffickers, what the county was doing to make sure there were more addiction treatment centers, why it took so long to bust a dealer, why a heroin dealer who was arrested a month ago was out on the streets again.

"Dealers go to great lengths to conceal their methods of operation," Shear said, alluding to the recent arrest of Javaris McCants, who was found with a trafficking amount of heroin, a wad of cash and a 9mm gun. Shear said he hit a patrol car and swerved in and out of traffic, doing anything to avoid arrest.

For the families with questions about their loved ones' investigations, Shear urged them to contact their detectives. But as investigations continue and arrests are made, the other side of the issue — successfully treating addicts — is the first hurdle Manatee needs to conquer.

"We will never, ever, ever arrest our way out of this problem," Shear said.

A state's decline

Manatee County has never successfully charged anyone with murder in relation to a drug overdose. It almost happened in 2010.

It is possible, as it's happened in other cities across the country. In March 2016, a Cleveland drug dealer was found guilty of manslaughter after supplying a combination of heroin and fentanyl that killed a 66-year-old man. Three months later, an Akron, Ohio, drug dealer was found guilty of killing a 20-year-old woman who thought she was doing heroin, but it was actually fentanyl. On July 28, a Portsmouth, Va., man pleaded guilty to giving heroin to a 27-year-old man who later died.

Drug overdose deaths are immediately sent to homicide detectives, and the sheriff's office is in constant contact with the state attorney. Manatee County Sheriff's Lt. Darin Bankert said the sheriff's office will investigate drug overdose deaths, interviewing families, talking to friends, looking at cellphones and computers to figure out who supplied the narcotics.

But in the case of 18-year-old Lindsey Stebbins, who died of an overdose in 2010, her death had all but one of the requirements for a successful murder charge.

The Sarasota teen was admitted to Manatee Glens, now called Centerstone, by her parents on Feb. 11 and released on Valentine's Day, unknown to her parents. According to the investigation report, she went home with two men with whom she used drugs.

When she was found blue and unresponsive, the two men refused to call 911 and propped her up on a stool in front of a neighbor's house.

The two men were initially arrested and charged with third-degree murder in connection to her death. But a mixture of methadone, cocaine and nordazepam were found in her system and the state declined to prosecute.

"If the elements of the crime are met, we are going to prosecute," Bankert said. "It's obviously very difficult to establish."

Bankert said the county currently has no drug-related murder cases pending.

The criteria for prosecution are all listed in Florida Statute 782.04. First, there has to be proof of death. Second, the death must result from an unlawful distribution of a controlled substance by someone 18 years or older. Third, the drug distributed by said person has to have been the proximate cause of death.

That means that if there is more than one drug in someone's system, a medical examiner can't determine outright which controlled substance caused the death. Shear said it's also difficult to determine what happened from the time a person bought the drugs to when they took them.

The sheriff's office has had more success in identifying the provider of the drugs, Bankert said, than proving those narcotics killed the victim.

Drug dealers think they're chemists. Long gone are the days where dealers cut their supply with baby powder and baking soda, Shear said.

Carfentanil is something the sheriff's office is starting to see more frequently. The opioid, typically used in veterinary situations, is an analog to fentanyl and, according to Shear, it's 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

"If you breathe it, you're going to find yourself in some serious trouble," Shear said.

A mother's helplessness turns into action

Mary Pallottini knew her son Scott was an addict. She said he turned to abusing prescription pills to numb the pain after his brother Shawn died in a drunk driving accident in 2006.

"I'm not in denial because I can accept that my son had an addiction," she said.

With what little money she has, she hired a lawyer to put up a reward of $2,500 for anyone with information resulting in an arrest related to Scott's death.

She's been in touch with the sheriff's office for nearly a year, working with detectives to see if wrongful death charges can be made. The statute of limitations on wrongful death charges is two years, and the one-year anniversary of her son's death is this August.

Pallottini says the story around her son's death doesn't add up. A family friend who dropped Scott off at what he thought was a halfway house said his new room was bare but clean, rife with the smell of Clorox. His new roommate said he was supposed to help Scott get clean and attend AA meetings together, according to the investigation report.

Scott's biological father drove him to a Winn-Dixie three minutes away to meet with an unknown person, but the father claimed he didn't know Scott was buying heroin. The sheriff's office investigated her son's case, looked at all possible suspects and as of now, it's closed as an accidental overdose. Only when they have proof that someone was responsible can they make charges.

Gerrie Stanhope, Scott's paternal grandmother, loved her grandson, but she's seen too many overdose-related deaths to think it was anything but an overdose.

"Scotty probably didn't know it was straight fentanyl," Stanhope said. Scott died of a fentanyl-mixed drug overdose.

Stanhope joined No Longer Silent after a Bradenton Riverwalk candlelight vigil last July. When it comes to arresting drug dealers with death-related charges, though, she isn't sure that would help fight the epidemic.

"If they start doing that, maybe the dealers would stop dealing," she said. "From what I understand, it's easy money. They just have to meet people and pass out their garbage."

Stanhope said drug dealers typically have addicts coming to them, not the other way around.

"The addict goes to these people and buys it just like we go to the store to get groceries," she said.

She points to the need for more treatment centers for addicts like her own children, who are in their 40s and have been dealing with addiction since their teen years. The treatment centers in Bradenton, Stanhope said, either don't have enough bed space for people to get the right treatment or they're lax with keeping temptation away from patients.

Centerstone has recently added six beds to the addiction center and offered an addictionologist to patients, all without additional funding.

"We've all been challenged to step up to a need," said Mary Ruiz, president and CEO of Centerstone. "Is it enough? No. It wasn't before the heroin epidemic."

Sometimes people seeking treatment don't know that there are levels of treatment, depending on how they are assessed, and patients sometimes think what they get isn't what they need, Ruiz noted. People are afraid of medicated treatment, and sometimes feel that they won't succeed in their treatment if they aren't locked up.

Florida is low on the totem pole as far as offering treatment. The state only has a 20 percent capacity if everyone who needed treatment sought it out. For something big to happen, Ruiz said it would have to start with legislation.

"I don't blame (families) for feeling like they've been failed," she said.

'Addicts don't ask to be addicts'

Sue Dionian adopted Albus, a 1-year-old Treeing walker coonhound named after the Harry Potter character, after her son Tim died of a fentanyl overdose in February.

Next February, the grandmother will travel with Albus on the annual Florida Cracker Trail Ride, an event where people ride horses across the state from Kibler Ranch in Myakka to Fort Pierce on the east coast.

Instead of riding a horse, she's going to run.

The annual ride falls on the one-year anniversary of her son's death. The nearly 141 miles that she will run won't only distract her from thinking about Tim, but will help her raise money for Shatterproof, a national organization whose ultimate goal is to end addiction.

She said she doesn't know how much she wants to raise, but she wants to have a place in Bradenton for people to stay clean after in-patient detox while they wait for a bed to open in a rehabilitation facility. Her son was in a detox facility but couldn't stay after five days. Tim stayed in her apartment, but she works as a corrections officer at the Hardee Correctional Institute and couldn't watch him all the time to hold him accountable.

"There's not a whole lot out there," Dionian said. "(Addicts will) come out (of recovery) and nobody will hire them because a lot of them have a record, and because they have a record they have no place to live and they're back out on the street again.

"People want to help," she added. "But they're afraid of getting down in the trenches where the help is needed."

She, too, wishes that law enforcement would be more apt to going after drug dealers.

"Even if they go after it and they lose, they're still sending a message," she said.

A Bradenton woman who asked not to use her or her son's name in fear of retaliation said she has been fighting with the state of Florida to press charges on the man who sold her 26-year-old son the combination of procaine and fentanyl that killed him.

She's written letters to the state, judges and prosecutors and is making her way up the chain of command at the sheriff's office.

Shear said 50 percent of a person's addiction compulsion is genetic makeup. The mother said her son had her genes and, as a recovering alcoholic and addict 14 years sober, she understands her late son's illness.

"Addicts don't ask to be addicts," she said. Her son struggled with an addiction to Oxycontin after he graduated from high school. "I know my son made a choice and it wasn't the right one."

The mother is certain the dealer intended for her son to die, that he was getting revenge for not letting him stay with her family. Unlike Stanhope's knowledge of drug dealer methods, the mother said she has messages between her son and the dealer that indicate he pestered her son to buy until he did.

But detectives told her they couldn't prove what the dealer sold her son killed him. The dealer was arrested on the day of her son's services, but on probation violation charges unrelated to her son's death.

"I have to fight for justice for my son," she said.

___

Information from: The Bradenton (Fla.) Herald , http://www.bradenton.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Hannah Morse

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