Connecticut U.S. attorney’s office working to help parents of fatal overdose victims

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This story originally appeared in the New Haven Register and was written by Anna Bisaro. 

HARTFORD >> Less than six months after her son died from an accidental overdose, Gina Mattei stood before a federal judge and spoke of the wife and children her son would never have because of the defendant sitting in the courtroom.

Louis Ahearn, 23, had big dreams for his future, and they were taken from him because of a pill he had been offered by the defendant, she said.

Speaking before a federal judge with most of her family sitting behind her was not something Mattei ever thought she would do, but giving witness to her son’s life was something she said she had to do after he died unexpectedly from a drug overdose.

“I felt determined,” Mattei said. “It should not be anyone’s destiny to be given poison freely.”

The defendant in the courtroom that day was Bradley Commerford, 20, who had been convicted of one count of heroin distribution to an individual under the age of 21. He was sentenced to more than six years in prison in August for selling drugs that led to three accidental overdoses in February. The only fatal overdose in the case was Ahearn.

“It was so reassuring when that the federal people got involved,” Mattei said, of the nightmare that ensued after Ahearn died. “In a way, that carried me through the early part.”

Mattei is not the only parent to cooperate with a federal investigation that resulted from the fatal overdose of a child this year, thanks to a new initiative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office where federal prosecutors are targeting alleged dealers after accidental overdoses. Since January, the office has arrested close to 40 individuals for their believed roles in distributing opioids to victims of accidental overdose, according to Tom Carson, a spokesman for the office. This new initiative is one way the U.S. Attorney’s Office is fighting the opioid crisis plaguing the state, which the state medical examiner predicts will claim more than 800 lives before the end of the year.

U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly said in the cases introduced to federal court this year involving overdoses in the state, the office has seen spouses lose their partners, mothers lose their children, and children lose their parents from drugs.

“This is touching everyone and it’s very sobering,” she said. “This has been everywhere in the state and they are tragic, tragic stories.”

Though the law is not completely clear on whether family members of overdose victims are also to be treated as victims in drug cases, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Spector said the office has chosen to treat family members as victims anyway. With that treatment comes an opportunity to become a part of the federal court process, meet with federal prosecutors to provide testimony and letters to the court on their loved one’s behalf, and even testify in court proceedings, Spector said.

“Most of it is listening to them tell their story,” Spector said of his interactions with families. With the parents he has dealt with, he said sometimes they are aware their children were longtime users, and others have no idea their kids were even experimenting with drugs. But, regardless of their knowledge of their kids drug usage, Spector described all of the parents he has worked with so far this year as loving and caring.

“These are all parents that were involved in their kids’ lives,” he said.

Most of interaction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office comes from victim-witness coordinators such as Ines Cenatiempo, who has been very involved with families of overdose victims throughout the year.

Cenatiempo said after an arrest has been made of an alleged dealer in the case, she will reach out to parents, or other family members, in the event of a fatal overdose. Cenatiempo said she lets the families know they can talk to her and will help them navigate the process if they wish to be a part of the court proceedings. Many parents and families choose not to be involved and she said the office respects that and does not push for involvement in the process or testimony at court hearings. She said she also refers family members to therapists and support groups.

“You’re dealing with people who’ve buried a child and it’s the worst kind of pain,” Cenatiempo said.

One Fairfield County mother working with Cenatiempo, who chose not to be named to protect her son’s identity, said that she has been grateful for the kindness and support from the U.S. Attorney’s office and she has attended hearings pertaining to her son’s alleged dealer.

“I don’t think there’s anything that will help me heal,” the woman said of her son’s passing in late April. “But, we need to do something. As difficult as this is, it’s something that needs to be done.”

While the federal government doesn’t often deal with cases with such small amounts of distribution, Daly said that the office felt it was an imperative that they begin prosecuting cases relating to the growing number of fatal drug overdoses happening across the state.

There is a federal statute that allows the government to push for a 20-year minimum prison sentence, Daly said, but prosecutors would have to show direct causation and prove that the victim died as a direct result of the drugs the accused offender sold. Daly said the office has yet to prosecute under that statute since beginning this year to take on cases where a fatal overdose victim has been involved in a drug transaction.

As a result, because the amount of drugs sold in these instances is relatively small, offenders are receiving much shorter sentences than perhaps some of the victim’s parents and families would want, Spector said. He added that the government cannot prove that a victim died as a direct result of heroin if the medical examiner’s office notes in the autopsy that another drug has also been found in the victim’s system. He said almost every case this year has involved a victim that has had multiple substances in their system at the time of death.

“Across the board, they are not happy with sentences,” Cenatiempo said. “When you’ve lost a child, you want someone to go away for the rest of their lives.”

But while parents may not be happy with the sentences, Spector said many parents he has talked to appreciate being able to go through the process so they can better understand why certain sentences were handed down the way they were.

“I find when they go through the sentencing process, it changes their view in a positive way,” Spector said.

As the office has only been prosecuting these low-level cases for less than a year, it’s too early to tell what the level of impact has been, Spector said. But, he added, prosecuting low-level dealers has helped the office “work up the chain” in some instances and arrest other dealers with a wider net.

Daly has said throughout the year that despite the intense focus by her office on this initiative, she does not believe they can “arrest their way out of this problem.” Awareness is a key component of the fight against the opioid epidemic, she said, which is why the U.S. Attorney’s office is also traveling to high schools around the state to hold assemblies that focus on the dangers of opioids.

Targeting schools is a way to make “prescription pills the new cigarette,” as most heroin addictions begin with prescription pills, Spector said.

Now that her son’s case is over, Mattei does sometimes share her son’s story in parent discussion panels held by the U.S. Attorney’s office. But she doesn’t always speak at the panels, she said, and she allows herself not to do so on days when it’s just too difficult to talk about her son.

“For every one of me, there’s 10 more mothers that are going through exactly what I’m going through right now,” Mattei said.

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