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Jim Kenyon: A raw deal for people with addiction

  • Jacob M. Rillo in a Feb. 2017 state police booking photograph. (Vermont State Police photograph) Vermont State Police photograph

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/7/2020 10:31:56 PM
Modified: 3/7/2020 10:31:54 PM

Around 2 a.m. on a Saturday in August 2016, after overdosing on heroin, Jessie Boardman died in the back of an ambulance en route from the Tunbridge area to Gifford Medical Center in Randolph.

Six months later, Vermont State Police arrested Boardman’s friend Jacob Rillo, who was charged with “dispensing a regulated drug with a death resulting.”

Under Vermont law, it didn’t matter that Rillo’s involvement in the drug trade was to support his own heroin addiction. If convicted, he was looking at up to 20 years in prison.

A medical examiner’s autopsy report indicated the heroin that killed Boardman was laced with fentanyl, a synthetic drug that can be 50 times stronger than heroin.

On Aug. 28, 2018, Rillo pleaded guilty to multiple drug-related charges, including providing the fentanyl-tainted heroin that killed his friend.

 Rillo’s attorney, Colin Seaman, of Waitsfield, Vt., argued for him to serve a minimum of two years at a state work camp, where    he could have a job and “give back to the community.”

At the time of his sentencing, Rillo had been clean for nearly a year, Seaman said.

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office, which handled Rillo’s prosecution, argued for a much stiffer sentence. Superior Court Judge Howard VanBenthuysen ultimately agreed. He sentenced Rillo to five to 10 years.

Last Wednesday, the Vermont Supreme Court took up Rillo’s case during its annual road show to Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

Attorneys for Rillo argued his conviction should be reversed and, at the very least, granted a new sentencing hearing. Or, as it’s known in legal parlance, another bite of the apple.

On what grounds?

At his 2018 sentencing hearing, Rillo said he “absolutely did not know” the heroin that killed Boardman was mixed with fentanyl, Josh O’Hara, a staff attorney with the Vermont Defender General’s Office, told the five justices.

O’Hara argued “making sure the person admits to sufficient facts to justify the conviction is an inextricable part of the court’s duty to make sure a plea is voluntary.”

In other words, Rillo didn’t thoroughly understand what he was pleading guilty to at his sentencing. (O’Hara is overseeing Rillo’s appeal, but wasn’t involved in the earlier sentencing phase.)

Paul Barkus, an assistant attorney general who has been in charge of Rillo’s prosecution from the outset, disagreed that this was a case of a “false guilty” plea.

“The elements in this case are quite simple,” Barkus told the court. “There was a knowing and voluntary act of selling a regulated drug with death resulting.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling isn’t expected until this summer. If the court rules in Rillo’s favor, it could mark a sea change in the way that Vermont looks at cases involving drug-related deaths.

I don’t hold out much hope, though. The state’s highest court has taken on a more conservative bent in recent years.

While many Vermonters think of themselves as progressive-minded, the state, like most others, is still under the misconception that it can win the war on drugs by locking up street dealers and people with addiction.

The state law that Rillo, who was 24 at the time of his arrest, was charged under dates back to 2003. Last month, The New Yorker magazine wrote about how in the last two decades nearly every state has started to exercise the “overdose-homicide option.” The magazine reported “addicts who share a lethal dose of drugs are being prosecuted as killers.” Sentences range from one year to the death penalty.

But Rillo’s case is more than a legal matter. It’s a window into how heroin and prescription painkillers are ravaging rural communities in the Upper Valley.

At the time of his death, the 26-year-old Boardman lived in Chelsea, where Rillo also resided for a time. A week before his death, Boardman’s girlfriend suffered an overdose. She survived. Rillo testified that he had also overdosed more than once in recent years.

Before the sentencing hearing, Boardman’s mother, Betty Jones, put her thoughts down on paper. While sitting in the Washington County courtroom, she asked Barkus to read them.

“I’m not ashamed of how Jessie died,” Jones wrote. “He struggled with addiction and prided himself with the thought that he wasn’t an addict.”

Jones also addressed Rillo. “I pray for you and your family that you will find the right path in your life,” she wrote. “The best way you could atone for Jessie’s death and all of the other lives that you have affected would be to learn self-respect and your self-worth.”

Last week I read the transcript of Rillo’s sentencing hearing. It’s 106 pages. The addiction battle — often a losing one — fought by Rillo and his friends “really opens the door and allows all of us who are not involved in that world to see it all too clearly,” VanBenthuysen said.

Here’s the storyline that I picked up from the court transcript:

Rillo, who grew up in central Vermont, had a “relatively decent upbringing.” He was a high school graduate who, according to testing after his arrest, showed “average and above-average intelligence.”

But John Donnelly, a longtime Vermont psychologist, testified that Rillo had “waxed and waned with depression for several years” in his early 20s. It was about that time when Rillo tried Percocet, a prescription painkiller that contains the powerfully addictive opioid oxycodone. Slowly, he became hooked.

“I did not know what I was getting myself into,” Rillo said. “I didn’t know it was going to take over my life and make me physically need it.

“I had used other drugs before and was able to stop without a problem. But when I started using painkillers, it was impossible to stop.”

Compounding his family’s problems, Rillo’s brother was “already hooked on heroin because it was cheaper and easier to find.”

Eventually, Rillo said, he “got turned on to heroin” while he floated from one low-paying restaurant job to another. “After things got really bad, I finally admitted to my parents that I needed help,” he said.

In June 2015, Rillo entered a substance-use treatment center. Even with an $800 co-payment, his insurance covered only a seven-day stay. Two weeks after he had “graduated” from the program, he was shooting up again. “I ended up moving down to Chelsea with some friends who all used,” he said.

Rillo later ended up homeless, living in a friend’s car at a central Vermont park-and-ride for two months.

Opiates have a “way of hijacking the brain,” Donnelly said.

“It can really take over, and that’s what happened in Mr. Rillo’s case,” he said. “It’s also a physical dependence because the withdrawal one goes through physically can be very immense and overwhelming.”

The pains associated with withdrawal, or being “dope sick,” as it’s called, terrified Rillo.

“The hardest part was the fear of being sick while being homeless and not having a place to stay at night,” Rillo said.

To support his addiction, Rillo became a “runner,” who transported heroin from Holyoke, Mass., and other opioid hotbeds to Vermont.

“I never sold drugs to make a living,” he said. “I only sold because I was homeless and if I wanted a place to stay, people would expect stuff.”

Barkus, the state prosecutor, didn’t buy the argument that people who deal to feed their addictions deserve less severe punishment.

“The trafficking of heroin, be it low-scale or small-scale or large-scale, is about one thing, and that’s about money,” Barkus told the judge.

In early 2017, a state drug task force nabbed Rillo in an undercover operation, after he allegedly sold 40 small bags of heroin for $550 to a confidential police informant.

“That’s not small-time,” Barkus said. “You can have all the boats and all the kilos that you want down in Miami, they’re not going anywhere until you have people like Mr. Rillo opening the spigot, putting the heroin in the hands of the addict.”

Barkus also questioned why Rillo continued to deal after Boardman’s girlfriend nearly died.

“I honestly thought the stuff I was getting was lower-quality than the weekend before when Jessie’s girlfriend had overdosed,” Rillo said. “I never would have thought there would be fentanyl in it.”

Before handing down his sentence, VanBenthuysen told Rillo, ‘there’s no evidence that you were a dealer. You weren’t driving fancy cars. ... You weren’t displaying a lot of jewelry. You weren’t stashing money away.

“You, I think it’s clear, were basically doing this to survive. To get yourself through the next sickness and to get yourself to the next high.”

The potential for rehabilitation — giving offenders the chance to overcome their criminal behavior — is often the most important goal of sentencing, the judge said.

But from what VanBenthuysen had heard in the courtroom, Rillo had already started “on the road to becoming rehabilitated.”

In Rillo’s case, a lengthy prison sentence was less about rehabilitation and more about punishment and deterrence. Seeing what happened to Rillo should give “other people pause when they set out on a career of being runners,” VanBenthuysen said.

After the Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday, I stopped by Bobby Sand’s office on the VLS campus. Sand, a former Windsor County state’s attorney, is founding director of VLS’ Center for Justice Reform.

People who are battling substance use disorders are often leading such “chaotic lives that they’re not thinking about the consequences,” Sand told me. “They’re not being deterred.”

In his experience as a prosecutor, “the majority of people who get busted for selling were selling to support their own habits,” Sand said.

Rillo is currently behind bars at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt. According to the Department of Corrections website, he could be released as early as August 2022.

But even then his legal troubles could continue. Rillo is scheduled for trial in September on another “dispensing a regulated drug with a death resulting” charge.

In February 2017, Jesse Kampen, 23, of Brookfield, Vt., died of an overdose from fentanyl-laced heroin. Police say Rillo supplied the drug that killed Kampen. Rillo has pleaded not guilty.

At his sentencing hearing 1½ years ago, Rillo acknowleged that he must take some responsibility.

“I understand addiction is a disease, but it is also a choice at the beginning,” he said. “And I made the wrong choice.”

The same could be said of Vermont and other states that mistakenly think being tough on people who deal drugs to feed their own addictions is justice.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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