What is justice in overdose fatalities? Heroin Bulletin 

Where is the Justice in Overdose Fatalities

Billy Guysinger holds photos of his son Chase Guysinger who died of a drug overdose on Dec. 1, 2016. He believes Chase was unaware he had taken fentanyl and is pushing for charges to be filed against the dealer who sold it to his son. (Photo: Submitted by Billy Guysinger)
Billy Guysinger holds photos of his son Chase Guysinger who died of a drug overdose on Dec. 1, 2016. He believes Chase was unaware he had taken fentanyl and is pushing for charges to be filed against the dealer who sold it to his son.
(Photo: Submitted by Billy Guysinger)

 

CHILLICOTHE – Billy Guysinger can’t bring himself to come home from working third shift at the paper mill at the same time anymore. Not since the December morning, his two cats failed to meet him at the door. The morning he peeked into his adult son’s room to find what he often feared he’d find.

“The only thing I could say was, ‘Why, son,?’” Billy said.

Chase Guysinger, a 28-year-old father of one, looked like he’d simply gone to sleep, likely not long after Billy had left for work the night before. A toxicology report revealed he had cocaine and fentanyl in his system. Just a few granules of fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is upwards of 100 times more potent than heroin, is enough to cause an overdose within moments of ingestion.

Billy is convinced his son had no idea he was taking fentanyl, and he’s pushing local officials — from the police department to the prosecutor’s office — to do something they’ve yet to do — file manslaughter charges against the person who sold the drugs to his son.

“Why aren’t we charging these people if you know where stuff is coming from? A lot of times they don’t know, but if you have the information right in front of you, it’s not rocket science. Families want to see something done about it,” Billy said.

Suspicion vs. Evidence

Ross County Prosecutor Matthew Schmidt (Photo: Gazette file)
Ross County Prosecutor Matthew Schmidt
(Photo: Gazette file)

Between 2003 and 2015, there have been 274 deaths from drug overdoses in Ross County and none of them have resulted in involuntary manslaughter charges. A handful of cases have been taken by the Chillicothe Police and the Ross County Sheriff’s Office to County Prosecutor Matt Schmidt to consider for charges, but he’s declined to pursue a case thus far.

“I get a lot of calls from friends and family members, and we hear a lot of rumors about who did it and we know who did it, but actual proof is a lot more difficult to come by, particularly when it’s a person who is a constant user, to prove the drugs that killed them came from one source is very difficult because they often go through so many (dealers) over the course of a very short period of time,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt is looking into possibly partnering with federal authorities to pursue a different way to charge someone in an overdose fatality. Under federal law, a specification can be added onto a drug trafficking charge that the drug trafficked resulted in the death of another. The specification carries up to 15 more years in prison, which is four more years than Ohio’s maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

However, the case would still need the same type of evidence, Schmidt said.

No Excuses

Billy doesn’t hide in denial. He knows his son had been battling addiction for several years, having apparently gotten hooked on pain pills prescribed after a football injury. He’d been well-liked, evidenced by the scores of people who funneled through his visitation – high school friends, teachers, coaches, and even the lunch lady, Guysinger said.

“He was a great kid. He was focused on what he was supposed to be doing, but that stuff had a hold on him,” Billy said.

Chase had been a functional addict.

“He went to work, he did everything he was supposed to be doing, and hiding it,” Billy said. “If you’re not on top of them all the time, you don’t really notice that stuff, I guess. Well, I didn’t.”

Eventually, they began to pick up on small signs, and Chase admitted he had a problem. He went to a Suboxone clinic in Circleville about four years ago, but he relapsed. Then he took a Vivitrol shot, which blocks the brain from getting high from opiates, and moved to Michigan with his mother.

Chase had just moved back to Chillicothe in an effort to comply with drug testing to maintain visitation with his son when he died of a drug overdose on Dec. 1, 2016.

Chase Guysinger holds his son Conner David Guysinger. Chase had just moved back to Chillicothe in an effort to comply with drug testing to maintain visitation with his son when he died of a drug overdose on Dec. 1, 2016. (Photo: Submitted by Billy Guysinger)
Chase Guysinger holds his son Conner David Guysinger. Chase had just moved back to Chillicothe in an effort to comply with drug testing to maintain visitation with his son when he died of a drug overdose on Dec. 1, 2016.
(Photo: Submitted by Billy Guysinger)

“He always said no (I’m not using), but I’m not stupid. I know what he looked like when he was doing things, and some days he looked like that, but he just said he was tired,” Billy said. “Until they are going to say flat out, yea, I’m using again, what can you do? There ain’t nothing you can do.”

Chase would come back to Chillicothe to see his son and moved in with Billy just a few weeks before he died. The move was to comply with orders to maintain visitation with his 4-year-old son Connor, Billy said.

At 10:15 p.m. Nov. 30, Billy talked with Chase before leaving for work and remembers Chase saying he’d see him in the morning because he had to get out and find a job. His girlfriend in Michigan last heard from him at 10:38 p.m., leaving Billy to suspect he died soon after. Billy found him in bed at about 7 a.m. Dec. 1.

“I just tell people God prepared me for that day for over a year because I repeatedly told my mom, ‘Mom, I’m going to find him dead if he don’t do something or somebody’s going to find him.’ I didn’t realize he was preparing me to be the one to find him,” Billy said.

Police began investigating right away, he said, but he’s worried it won’t be enough to convince Schmidt to pursue charges.

“I don’t think I’m going to get the results I want out of the information the prosecuting attorney has … It’s not over with yet, but as of right now, I’m not pleased,” Billy said.

Planets Aligned

Talk to any investigator, officer, or prosecutor, and they’ll all tell you investigations can often take longer than anyone would like, particularly those directly impacted. In March, the Pickaway County Prosecutor’s Office had a fatal drug overdose case end with a guilty plea to involuntary manslaughter, but it was a case that began with the death of Jessica Lillie 16 months before on Dec. 16, 2015.

Lillie had heroin along with her prescribed oxycodone in her system when she died.

Although the case ended up as a win for Prosecutor Judy Wolford’s office, Wolford said it was a unique situation. Lillie was one of 10 Pickaway County residents who died of a drug overdose in 2015 and one of 63 between 2010 and 2015, yet her death was the only one of those that led to an involuntary manslaughter charge.

“This was a case where I hate to say the planets aligned, but the planets aligned. Everything just kind of fell into place … I don’t know that we’ll ever have one that’s like this again,” Wolford said.

Like Chase Guysinger, Lillie was a functional addict – she had a college degree and was a supervisor at FedEx – and her addiction began after she was seriously injured in a car crash in September 2014. She died in her father’s home, her bedroom door blocked with a cane and her 7-year-old son asleep in the bed.

“This was a case where I hate to say the planets aligned, but the planets aligned. Everything just kind of fell into place … I don’t know that we’ll ever have one that’s like this again”
JUDY WOLFORD, PICKAWAY COUNTY PROSECUTOR
Right away, investigators had something often lacking in fatal overdose investigations – an untampered scene and an accommodating, credible witness. Her father had noticed Lillie sneak outside the night before when she turned off the porch light, which was matched with text messages between her and Dwayne Dawson who lived down the road with her grandfather.

“Part of the deal seemed, he didn’t work, so she would buy the heroin and give him a little extra money so he could get his own as well,” Wolford said.

Investigators also found Dawson’s DNA on the heroin packaging from Lillie’s room, Wolford said.

Even in a seemingly strong case, it took about seven months before it was presented to a grand jury and Dawson was indicted. The kicker in the case came while Dawson awaited trial.

According to Wolford, he confided to someone in jail he’d been on the phone with Lillie when she was shooting up the night she died and had warned her to be careful because it was the same heroin she’d overdosed on the week before.

The guy took notes on the conversations not because he wanted a deal, Wolford said, but because he had a relative who had overdosed and was “freaked out” by Dawson’s admission. Phone records corroborated his story, Wolford said.

The Pickaway County Sheriff's Office crime report to the prosecutor on the overdose death of Jessica Lillie summarizes their findings, including an interview with Dwayne Dawson denied seeing Lillie the night of her death and said he hadn't provided her drugs in a "long, long" time. (Photo: Jona Ison/Gazette)
The Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office crime report to the prosecutor on the overdose death of Jessica Lillie summarizes their findings, including an interview with Dwayne Dawson denied seeing Lillie the night of her death and said he hadn’t provided her drugs in a “long, long” time.
(Photo: Jona Ison/Gazette)

They also had a statement from the man who dealt Dawson the drugs, Steve Stanton II, who was granted intervention instead of a conviction on a fifth-degree felony trafficking heroin charge.

On the morning of Dawson’s December trial, he agreed to a plea agreement with Assistant Prosecutor Heather Armstrong recommending a three-year sentence. Pickaway County Common Pleas Judge Randall Knece rejected the recommendation in March and sentenced the 49-year-old Dawson to the maximum 11 years.

“When the words ‘I wasn’t her supplier’ and ‘she put it in herself’ came out of his mouth, it wasn’t going well,” Armstrong said of the sentencing.

At sentencing, Knece mentioned the fentanyl-involved overdoses in Ross County and how “it’s killing them like flies,” according to a Circleville Herald story.

“You bring this poison around and spread it around, and you got caught. So you’re going to pay the price and let the message go out that if you do this stuff in Pickaway County and you get caught, you’re going to prison,” Knece said.

Justice Denied?

Guysinger spoke out during a March town hall, asking officials why they aren’t filing charges, pointing to the Lillie case in Pickaway County and a January case in Pike County where a man was charged for his wife’s fatal overdose.

Although charges were filed against 51-year-old Peter S. Kidnocker, the case may be on the verge of being dismissed because it hasn’t been presented to a grand jury for indictment. Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk was required to show cause by April 21 why it shouldn’t be dismissed due to lack of prosecution.

Depending on how a judge rules on a dismissal, charges could be brought in the case again.

According to Junk, the charges filed by the Pike County Sheriff’s Office were done a bit preemptively because he can’t present the case for indictment without autopsy and toxicology results proving her cause of death, which can take months.

During a March 20, 2017, town hall hosted by Cheryl’s House of Hope, Billy Guysinger questions why no manslaughter charges have ever been filed in Chillicothe for a fatal drug overdose like some other places in Ohio. Guysinger’s son died from a drug overdose on Dec. 1, 2016.
(Photo: Jess Grimm/Gazette)

“When you don’t have those, and you arrest someone, you can’t hold them in jail forever because you run out of speedy trial time,” Junk said. “Unfortunately, when you arrest people (without the necessary results) all you are really doing is inconveniencing people for a few days.”

If a similar situation happened in Ross County, Schmidt likely would’ve dropped the case already.

“They’re not going to force a case on me,” Schmidt said, saying he doesn’t think the sheriff or police chief would try to do so. “If they charge somebody with involuntary manslaughter without the appropriate evidence to do it, I’ll dismiss the case. It’s that simple. I’m not going to push ahead a case if we don’t have evidence to prove it.”

Either way, Schmidt is unsure what kind of impact such cases would have on the big picture: stemming the flow of opiates and subsequently the overdoses.

“It’s not going to deter it. The benefit to higher level trafficking charges or potentially an involuntary manslaughter charge if we can make that, the lone benefit is to remove one bad apple from the community, one person who is dealing,” Schmidt said. “But the truth of the matter is, even as we take off these lower level dealers and even mid-level and higher dealers, it only gives a reprieve to an ongoing problem. It’s not going to, even if I could bring ten involuntary manslaughter cases this year, it’s not going to stop the problem or stem the flow of heroin into our community.”

Chase and his son
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