ANDY’S LAST SECRET — (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)

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The Cleveland Plain Dealer (OH)

May 28, 2005

Author: Joanna Connors, Plain Dealer Reporter

Previously: Shaker Heights psychiatrists Jim Psarras and Elaine Campbell Psarras continue to pursue the case against the dealer who sold heroin to their 19-year-old son, Andy, but complications arise. Part 7 of 7.

Every Tuesday, Dr. Jim Psarras went to the office of his wife, Dr. Elaine Campbell Psarras, for lunch. He always brought her soup.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2004, he brought something else ­- news he did not want to give her.

He waited until they had eaten, and then he told her: “They didn’t take the case.”

Jim knew how much Elaine needed this prosecution to help heal her grief for their son, Andy, who died the previous winter after using heroin. He believed she saw it as something she could do for her son, a legacy of sorts. She had been putting more and more time into Andy’s Foundation, another legacy, but he knew she was counting on giving Andy his day in court.

Jim’s feelings were different. If they took the case, and convicted the dealer, yeah, he would be happy.

But so what? Jim still would come home on a Saturday afternoon, and it would be 3 o’clock, and he’d think, “Is Andy coming home?” And Andy would not be coming home.

His son was dead. Nothing anyone could do would change that.

That evening, Elaine sent an e-mail to Rick Bell, the supervisor of the major trials unit at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.

Andy, she wrote, was not a heroin addict. She insisted he was just experimenting that night before he died; doctors said his blood level of heroin was not even toxic.

“Our message to parents, teens and educators is that heroin can kill at low doses, and drug dealers are still not accountable for selling these drugs,” she wrote. “We chose to pursue this prosecution knowing that we might not win, but our efforts might send a message to drug dealers.”

When Bell copied the e-mail to Blaise Thomas, the assistant prosecutor who had reviewed the case, he put a bracket mark next to the sentence, “knowing that we might not win.”

To Bell and Thomas, this was not a matter of “might not win.” They had looked at the case the way a defense attorney would, the way a jury eventually would, and they were certain they could not win the case. There was no way they could recommend it to their boss, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason.

Meanwhile, Elaine and Jim tried to figure out their next step.

“I won’t take no for an answer,” Elaine said. “If we have to, we’ll get picket signs that say, ‘Bill Mason Supports Drug Dealers’ and parade down at the Justice Center.”

Elaine was fired up; the refusal to prosecute didn’t make sense to her. “So individuals can sell heroin to kids, and the kids can die from it, and nobody will do anything? In the end, this will just be Andy’s stupidity?”

“Well, that’s another issue,” Jim said quietly.

On the morning of Nov. 8, Jim and Elaine went to the Justice Center to make one last attempt at what they saw as justice for Andy.

Bell had agreed to a meeting. Jim carried his briefcase, where he had kept Andy’s autopsy report for almost seven months.

Elaine held a 1998 ruling by the Supreme Court of West Virginia that she had found on the Internet; it upheld the murder conviction of a drug dealer who sold morphine to a man who died several hours later of an overdose.

The key facts were remarkably similar to the case Elaine and Jim wanted brought against the drug dealer, including the presence of other substances in the blood.

Bell and Thomas knew they had to handle this meeting gently. These were grieving parents, and the prosecutors knew from their e-mails and voice mails how much the case meant to them.

It was tense at first. Jim said the attorneys were defensive, that they spent the first hour making excuses for why they couldn’t prosecute. He accused them of playing politics.

Elaine cried, hard. It embarrassed her, but after that she sensed that the prosecutors softened. They tried to explain the holes in the case: Ben was a weak witness; Andy took the drug voluntarily; it would be hard to make an argument that the drug sale led to the death, since more than eight hours passed after Andy snorted the heroin. A defense attorney could attack on any one of these issues.

Bell saved the most damaging point for last. He was careful about bringing it up; the last thing he wanted to do was add to these parents’ pain.

He took some printouts of information Thomas had dug up and laid them on the desk in front of Jim and Elaine.

Report after report issued strong warnings about the drug Andy had been taking for depression.

A BBC News story said that between 1993 and 2002, 118 people in England and Wales had died while taking Effexor, or venlafaxine .

The British Medical Journal said, “Some data show that venlafaxine in particular may not be as safe in overdose as other . . . drugs, with reports of deaths, arrhythmias and seizures.”

Elaine argued that two doctors had told them they would testify the Effexor did not have anything to do with Andy’s death.

It didn’t matter if it did or not, Bell explained. All that mattered was what a defense attorney could do with the information; even a bad one would have a field day.

Even worse, the defense would put Elaine on the stand and let the jury know that she, not a psychiatrist outside the family, had given Andy the Effexor – and that he had told his parents he was feeling depressed, and they had allowed him to increase the dosage just two days before he died.

This took Bell back to the question Sgt. Marvin Lamielle had asked on Jan. 16, 2004, the day Andy died and his friend Ben Fuerst swore that he had inhaled the same heroin – but even more of it – that Andy had.

Why did Andy die and his friend Ben Fuerst live that day?

The defense attorney would have a credible answer for the jury, enough for reasonable doubt. The Effexor might not have killed Andy, but it did kill the case.

Elaine had been dreading Christmas all year. The family always did the holiday up big, and this year she didn’t have the heart for it. But she and Jim did it for Peter and Molly: the huge tree, the lights outside, everything. They added orange lights and ribbons to the red and green decorations. Orange, her dead son’s favorite, was now the official color for Andy’s Foundation.

They had been working harder on the foundation, a drug-education effort to prevent other kids and parents from going through what they went through. When a Mary Kay distributor who worked at Elaine’s office suggested a fund-
raising party, with all Mary Kay profits going to the foundation, Elaine decided it would take her mind off the case. The prosecutors had promised to reconsider; she and Jim were waiting for their final decision.

Elaine planned a big buffet and asked Ben Fuerst to help. Andy and Ben’s old friend Grace Corbin came along, and on Dec. 12, while more than 100 of Elaine’s friends bought skin creams and lipsticks, Grace and Ben stood in the kitchen, stuffing chicken salad into pastry cups. Ben looked good. He was still clean, working 70 hours a week at two restaurant jobs, living with his dad.

While they worked, Grace and Ben talked about high school friends. Grace said a friend of theirs was in deep trouble with Ecstasy; she thought they should go talk to him about it. Ben wasn’t sure he could do it.

“It’s weird to think about being that guy,” Ben said. “To be the one telling him to stop doing what I love to do and would love to do.”

As Jan. 16, 2005, the anniversary of Andy’s death, approached, the case of the State of Ohio v. The Drug Dealer was dead.

Elaine and Jim still insisted it was a good case, but they now were focused on lobbying for what they were calling Andy’s Law. It would make selling a drug that leads directly to a death not involuntary manslaughter, but murder, with a penalty of 15 years to life. Rick Bell had written the proposed language for them, and offered his support through the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Elaine sent a flurry of e-mails to state senators and representatives, called the governor’s office, set up meetings. Maybe this was all for the best, she said. This law would do more to combat drug dealing, and save more kids, than prosecuting Andy’s death.

She also ordered orange wristbands, like the popular yellow Lance Armstrong wristbands for cancer research. She had them stamped with “Y.E.S.” for Youth Embracing Sobriety, an idea that came from Phish, Andy’s favorite band; they had a song called “YEM,” for You Enjoy Myself. Orange ribbon pins were already on order.

The evening before the anniversary of Andy’s death, Elaine went to his room and opened the brown bag that the Shaker Heights police had given them months ago. She took out Andy’s khaki pants, the ones he wore the night he went out with Ben Fuerst to buy heroin, and held them to her chest.

They smelled like Andy. She knew it looked silly, but she didn’t care; she held those pants all night, like a child with a special blanket.

A year had come and gone. She thought things might get better as time went on, but they hadn’t. They were worse.

She thought about Ben. Poor Ben. She knew her sisters still couldn’t understand why she didn’t blame him. But she followed her heart, and her heart hurt for Ben. Part of him had to have died with Andy, too.

She called Ben at work. He said he was getting ready to go to his second job, so they didn’t talk long. Neither of them mentioned the anniversary, or Andy.

When it was time for goodbye, Elaine said, “Ben, I just want you to know I’m thinking about you tonight.”

“Thanks, Mom,” he said.

On May 4, Jim and Elaine made their first appearance for Andy’s Foundation, speaking to the morning assembly at University School, in front of teenage boys, teachers and a few parents.

From the time they started the foundation, Elaine had worried about appearing in public. Wouldn’t parents look at her and think: What can you tell me? Your son died, and you’re a psychiatrist.

So Elaine talked to the boys instead. She told them about a national survey she had read, where teenagers grade their parents. Most years, she said, they gave their parents A’s for things like academic support. But this year, for the sixth year in a row, parents had received an F for communicating with their kids about drugs and alcohol.

“Up until Andy’s death, I would have given myself an A,” she said. “Now I realize I have to give myself an F.”

Jim said he still blamed the drug dealer but also felt he had failed Andy.

“We’re both psychiatrists, and we didn’t know what questions to ask him,” he said. “If my son hadn’t died, I would never, for the rest of his life, have asked him if he used heroin.”

Andy’s 21st birthday fell four days later, on Mother’s Day. When Elaine and Jim went to Lake View Cemetery, it looked like a garden festival.

Under cherry and crab-apple trees heavy with blossoms, the sons and daughters of Cleveland carried spring bouquets to their mothers. Cars lined both sides of the narrow roads, slowing the passing traffic to a processional pace. At Garfield’s monument, a large family gathered at a table for a picnic.

The knoll where Andy lay was far from the crowd. Only one other person was there, a woman with a pink wreath, walking up and down the rows shouting into a cell phone: “Nobody else is here yet! I can’t find it! Where? Oh, HERE it is.”

Jim and Elaine had planted tulip bulbs in the fall, and they had come up in a splash of bright orange, covering Andy’s grave in a display so sunny it seemed almost cheerful.

Jim cleaned Andy’s headstone with a towel. Someone had left two polished stones and a teardrop-shaped crystal on it. “He’s had visitors,” Elaine said. It mattered that Andy’s friends still remembered him.

It was at just this time of day, May 8, 1984, that Elaine went into labor with Andy. He was born two hours later. He was so easy, the easiest of her three children. He was such a happy baby.

The woman on the phone stopped talking, and then Jim and Elaine were surrounded by quiet.

The months and months they had pushed for their case, and then for Andy’s Law, were etched in deep lines on their faces. Their shoulders slumped.

They had accomplished so much. Their two older children, Molly and Peter, had stopped doing drugs; Peter would be applying to medical school soon, and Molly was working toward a degree in psychology. She wanted to work for Andy’s Foundation.

Ben was still struggling, but made the decision to return to rehab, his father, Tom Fuerst said. Before that, Ben was talking about moving to Columbus with his brother and working in the AmeriCorp City Year program.

Andy’s death had saved Molly and Peter, and maybe Ben. Perhaps other kids could be saved, too.

Still . . .

“I wish we could have gotten our day in court,” Elaine said.

Jim nodded and put his arm around her.

They stood on the knoll, a mother and father wearing orange shirts, orange wristbands and orange ribbons. They stood with their son, who no longer had any secrets.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: jconnors@plaind.com, 1-216-999-5483
Caption: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSHUA GUNTER THE PLAIN DEALER Elaine Campbell Psarras, her face reflected in a portrait of her son, Andy, listens to her husband, Jim Psarras, speak to students at University School in Hunting Valley about the dangers of drugs. It was their first appearance on behalf of Andy’s Foundation, which they started after Andy’s death from heroin, to help prevent other families from going through the same kind of loss. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSHUA GUNTER THE PLAIN DEALER Jim and Elaine Psarras don’t go into Andy’s room much. “Once I went in, and I started feeling a little panicky because his smell is still there,” Elaine said. “It’s so hard sometimes when I let my guard down; I’m scared to death about facing the loss of Andy. It just hits me like a knife ripping right through me.” Elaine and Jim Psarras had Andy’s portrait etched on his headstone, along with a Bird of Paradise to symbolize Hawaii and the words, “We’ll see you in our dreams.”

Record Number: MERLIN_3795325
Copyright, 2005, The Plain Dealer. All Rights Reserved. Used by NewsBank with Permission.