This teen snorted the heroin, but did someone else kill her? Wrestling with drug friends' culpability

News-DemocratSeptember 17, 2011 

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Shannon Marie Gaddis, 17, died of a heroin overdose on Jan. 12, 2011. She was a senior at Triad High School. Her obituary listed her as a very caring person, always looking out for others and for the welfare of animals.

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Triad High School was off for two snow days in mid-January.

Shannon Gaddis spent the first day with two friends. They bought heroin in St. Louis, police reports state.

Just after midnight she snorted a dose and a half by herself. Later that morning one of them, Taylor Kennedy, woke up to find Gaddis lying prone across her bed, and he called 911, police said.

Toxicology tests later showed Gaddis died on Jan. 12 from an accidental overdose of heroin. She was 17 and a senior.

Five months after Gaddis' death, Kennedy, 20, of Troy, was charged with drug-induced homicide. The charge states he purchased and provided the heroin that killed Gaddis, and if convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

Kennedy was the first of four suspects in three separate overdose deaths to be charged with drug-induced homicide by the Madison County State's Attorney's office since May. Before this year, the county's prosecutors only filed that charge three times ever.

Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons said the charge against Kennedy was part of a new crackdown on drug overdoses in the metro-east. It was announced March 17 by local law enforcement officials and U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton.

"There is a false belief that you have to be a major drug dealer to be prosecuted," Wigginton said then. "If you give drugs, you'll be treated like a drug dealer, prosecuted like a drug dealer and convicted like a drug dealer."

That is what is happening to Kennedy. He isn't accused of being a heroin dealer or even intending to kill Gaddis. In fact, investigators said she may have taken the heroin while Kennedy was passed out. But he is accused of being part of the chain that led to the drugs that killed her.

No one else was charged with Gaddis' death, and Kennedy remains in jail on $200,000 bail as he awaits trial.

Chicago attorney Ronald Menaker said people like Kennedy were not the intended targets when the drug-induced homicide law was enacted.

In 2005, Menaker tried to challenge Illinois' drug-induced homicide law, making the point that the law was supposed to target drug dealers and not youths who happened to share drugs at a party. His challenge failed but he still contends the law is vague and said prosecutors should have to prove someone intended to kill the person and not just that they intentionally provided the drugs.

"It's very difficult to tell who is violating the law," Menaker said.

Dealers have been targeted under a similar federal statute that carries an even steeper penalty: 20 years to life in prison.

Tavis Doyle was tailor-made for that charge, according to his lawyer John Stobbs.

"His house was a drug den," Stobbs said.

The East St. Louis man was sentenced to life in prison Aug. 25, six months after being convicted of distributing the heroin that killed an Effingham man. Doyle also was convicted of giving large amounts of crack to a 17-year-old female runaway.

Stobbs said he thought Doyle's was the case on which Wigginton decided to make a stand.

"You are going to think twice about running a drug house," Stobbs said.

Stobbs said juries may not see things as prosecutors do when it comes to charging addicts with their friends' drug deaths.

Andrea R. Fields, 29, of Belleville, was charged with killing David L. Roth, 56, because she injected him with heroin. A federal jury recently acquitted her.

According to police and prosecutors, Roth drove Fields and her boyfriend, Scott Weldon, to East St. Louis to get heroin. Weldon bought it. Fields split the drug into thirds and injected herself and the men.

Three months after Roth died, and hundreds of hours into the investigation, Fields and Weldon were indicted on the federal felony charge of distributing heroin resulting in a death.

Jurors were not convinced she distributed a controlled substance.

The jury asked the judge, "Does the injection of a controlled substance constitute 'distribution?'"

The judge said that was for them to decide. Fields was cleared within hours.

Field's public defender, Neal Connors, said he tried the case because the distribution part of the law is unclear.

"You never know what's important to a jury," Connors said. "You don't have an ear to the deliberation room. But you could conclude, reasonably, since there was a note in which the jury keyed upon, that it would have been a significant question."

Weldon pleaded guilty and admitted he purchased the drugs. He was sentenced Friday to eight years in prison, as requested by the U.S. Attorney's Office, instead of the mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.

Jim Porter, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, stated in an email, "Our job is to not only prosecute, but to do justice. Given all the facts in this case, we believe that the sentence was a just one."

Madison County prosecutors have been successful in getting guilty pleas in the past by offering deals to defendants who were not drug dealers. One of those was another of Stobbs' clients, Nathan Rynders, who is serving 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2009 to drug-induced homicide for the overdose death of 30-year-old Jamie Fennell. Stobbs said both men were addicts.

"Prosecutors have to do something to slow this down," he said.

Why not sooner?

Why did prosecutors just this year announce this new approach after metro-east residents for the previous five years were dying by the dozens?

It could be because the most recent victims, like Gaddis, were young.

"It wasn't an old junkie dying anymore," Madison County Chief Deputy Coroner Roger Smith said.

Some said law enforcement changed its general attitude toward overdose victims.

"The attitude was 'good riddance,'" said Madison County Coroner Stephen Nonn, a former lieutenant with the sheriff's investigations unit.

Now officers realize these are good people with families, and they are victims.

Also prosecutors were not previously supportive of drug-induced homicide charges.

"I think with the old attitude about these cases it didn't encourage people to look at them as homicides," prosecutor Gibbons said.

Granite City Police Chief Rich Miller agreed with the new approach but said overdose investigations are time-consuming and tricky. He may send a half dozen officers to investigate a suspected heroin overdose for a week but then a month later toxicology reports could come back showing the person died of cocaine or prescription pills.

"It's not easy to prove," Miller said.

Police are also dealing with a group of sometimes "surly" witnesses who don't want to admit what happened, Miller said. Or in the case of 18-year-old Amber and 21-year-old Josh Morgan, there were no witnesses. The married couple died together on Sept. 11, 2010, of heroin overdoses. The only one around was their infant child.

"How do you find out where they got their drugs from?" Miller said.

Sometimes the defendants don't make it to trial.

Michael Bovinett was charged last year with drug-induced homicide, concealment of a homicidal death and obstructing justice in connection with the heroin overdose of 29-year-old Chad Bell. Bovinett dumped Bell's body in a Troy cemetery, police said. Before he was put on trial, the 37-year-old Bovinett was bailed out of jail and died two days later of a heroin overdose.

"It takes more than us to stop this," Miller said.

At the same time overdoses are rising, the state announced millions of dollars in cuts to substance treatment funding, costing some treatment centers 30 percent of their funds, said Sara Howe, chief executive officer of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, a lobbying group for treatment centers across the state.

The state cuts will probably be coupled with federal cuts this fall, Howe said. The cuts are being made even though it is much more cost-effective to treat addicts instead of putting them in prison, she said.

"It is really horribly concerning," she said.

Criminal solution

This spring, after Wigginton's announcement, the Illinois Senate passed a bill that would provide legal immunity for people who seek medical attention for someone who is overdosing. The overdose victim would also receive the same limited immunity from prosecution if he, too, possessed drugs.

The bill was promoted by the Illinois Drug Consortium at Roosevelt University, an organization that supports the reform of the state's drug laws. It awaits passage in the House.

"The No. 1 reason people don't call 911 is they are afraid of getting arrested," said consortium Director Kathie Kane-Willis.

She said the problem with using drug-induced homicide to deter overdoses is that it doesn't address the critical juncture when a person is overdosing.

"Drug-induced homicide is a criminal justice solution to a health problem," she said.

But Amy Warren, the clinical supervisor at Gateway Foundation Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Belleville, said something has to be done to stop the supply side and deter people from selling heroin.

"You have to make it harder to get," she said.

Whatever the laws, drug overdoses have not let up. As of June 15, there were 22 confirmed overdoses in Madison County, 12 caused by heroin.

Dr. Rachelle Leach has not seen a let-up in overdoses in the emergency room at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville.

"We have seen a lot, more than normal," said Leach, the hospital's emergency medical director.

What did she think the solution was to stop overdoses?

Most of the drugs are illegal already, she pointed out. When one is made illegal, people find a new drug to abuse. The synthetic stimulant bath salts, a recent example, was suspected in two metro-east deaths.

"I see it as an ongoing issue that is never going to go away," Leach said.

Better off behind bars

Jennifer Parker's daughter, Melissa Barnes, was the other friend who was with Shannon Gaddis the day before she died. The childhood friends texted each other as Gaddis snorted the heroin that killed her.

Nine months later, Barnes hasn't changed her ways, Parker said, despite her best friend's death and Kennedy's incarceration.

"I think she is far beyond being woke up," Parker said. "I mean, it's really sad. It's either I am going to be burying my child or seeing her behind bars. And I'd rather see her behind bars."

What did she think about Kennedy being charged with Gaddis' death?

"I think something needs to be done about it. But I don't think he should be alone," she said. "He is just another screwed-up kid like she is, you know. They are all screwed up on this (expletive). And I don't think it is fair for him to be going away for 30 years for something that he did while he was under the influence of drugs, you know. These kids need more than prison -- what do they do with them?"

Parker was there when Barnes told police the story of what happened the day before Gaddis died.

After they bought the heroin, the three were driving around St. Louis when Kennedy started overdosing. The girls, who had yet to take any of the heroin, called for an ambulance and grabbed the remaining buttons, a personal use amount, off Kennedy's lap as he was passed out. He was taken to a local hospital where he was revived with Narcan.

The girls went their separate ways and snorted the heroin on their own, Barnes told Parker. Police were told Kennedy was sleeping when Gaddis took the heroin.

Parker wonders why St. Louis Police neither searched the group's car nor called the girls' parents when they had the chance that afternoon.

"That girl went home and died," Parker said. "If we would have had a chance to pick our children up, who knows? Maybe this would have turned out differently."

She wasn't sure who bought the heroin. She figured it was Kennedy because her daughter wasn't charged with a crime, but her daughter previously bought heroin.

"No telling whose it was," she said.

Parker said Gaddis was the "sweetest" girl. She had been attending Narcotics Anonymous classes and was trying to get her friends to clean up. But her daughter didn't change. Four stints in rehab have failed, Parker said.

Parker said prison is her daughter's best hope.

"It's going to kill me when I see her behind bars but I'd rather do that than be going to another funeral," Parker said.

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