Father's heart aches over daughter's overdose death
BRATTLEBORO — Brianna Radcliffe was too young for her heart to stop.
Radcliffe was only 21 years old when she collapsed on the floor of the bathroom at the Dunkin Donuts on Putney Road last June. The door was locked. A syringe was next to her arm when her father finally got the manager to open the locked bathroom door, close to midnight. She was passed out.
Brianna finally came to and pleaded with her father not to call the ambulance; she was on probation for an earlier drug conviction and she didn't want to be "violated" by her probation officer, her father remembered.
No one had Narcan, the emergency treatment for opioid overdose. It turns out valuable minutes were lost while her father finally convinced her to let him drive her to the hospital.
During the short drive, she lost consciousness again, and Ray Radcliffe lives with that regret.
His daughter was resuscitated at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and then transferred to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., but the damage was done: the drugs had stopped her heart and as a result her brain had been deprived of oxygen and blood for too long.
Her father, who had found her and thought he could rouse her and save her, had to make the heart-breaking decision to end life support three days later, on June 12, 2018. A New Hampshire autopsy and analysis later showed that she had fentanyl, norfentanyl and morphine in her system. Heroin is derived from morphine.
According to Radcliffe and Brianna's girlfriend Jennifer Pineda, 44, who also struggled with addiction, Brianna had met the woman who sold her the fatal dose of dope in rehab.
Rehab — and life — is like that, they both said, the better with the bitter.
Brianna Trinity Radcliffe was one of the cases in 2018 that gave Windham County the dubious distinction of having highest number of overdoses — 24 — out of a total of 110 overdose deaths in Vermont.
Ray Radcliffe can list off the different rehabilitation and treatment centers his daughter had attended since she started using alcohol and drugs as a teenager: "Valley Vista, Valley Vista, Valley Vista, Valley Vista, Dublin, the Retreat, jail, Serenity House, the Tapestry program, Phoenix House."
She would stay sober and clean for a while but relapse many times, her father said. "She had a sponsor and went to the AA meeting at noontime at the old Baptist Church on Main Street," he said. She chose the noontime meeting because she worked nights at Dunkin Donuts.
Despite her addictions, she was an ordinary teenager who enjoyed hip hop music and liked looking good. She liked ham and cheese sandwiches, with lettuce and pickles. She liked lasagna, and pizza. He can also still list off his daughter's favorite candy, which she craved while in rehab. "She liked caramel Werther's, and Fast Break, Reese's peanut butter cups, and green mints in a wrapper. She ate candy," he said.
He's that kind of father.
Her death and emotional suffering had more than one victim. "I'm broken," he said recently, a year after her death. "But I'm not broke."
Brianna's diaries, which Ray Radcliffe shared, are full of hope after treatment and getting sober. "Changes I've made since being sober: my attitude, outlook on life — more interested in life. Being more open and honest (still working on it tho). Actually care about myself and my future. Wanting to be sober," she wrote in an undated entry. "Really trying to finish school, start college by making plans and taking action," she wrote. "Not letting the people who have wronged me have control of my future too," she wrote.
But Brianna was also coming to grips with demons.
Ray Radcliffe said his daughter had had a hard life for someone who was only 21. Ray and Brianna's mother split up when she was young, and she landed in foster care in Bennington. She was sexually assaulted by the son of her grandmother's neighbor in the Bennington housing project where they lived.
No charges were ever filed in connection with his daughter's assault, and he says with hindsight that that was the beginning of a downward emotional spiral.
"We had many fights in her teenage years," he said. "It was very difficult. She was unmanageable and she spent six months in foster care," he said.
She dropped out of Mount Anthony Union High School during the ninth grade, attended some classes at Arlington High School, and in 2014 moved to Brattleboro. In 2015, she was making progress toward getting her GED at the Community High School of Vermont, which is run by the Department of Corrections. "She wanted her diploma," her father said.
But the demons persisted.
"There's a story inside of me and it's screaming to be let out. But I don't know the words to this story. The story of my life. The story of the little girls inside of me. There's an 18 year old girl with the mind of a 30 year old woman and a five year old child. Either way, it's very conflicting and the little girl keeps screaming for me to let her free. I want to be free and not let anyone control me," she wrote while at Valley Vista in Bradford, Vt.
And then she wrote a list of candy she wanted her father to bring her: "Bag of chocolate lollipops, Almond Joy, Hersheys, Butterfinger, KitKat."
Last month, charges against the former Brattleboro woman, who police say sold Brianna the fatal dose, were filed in Windham Superior Court after a lengthy investigation. But the woman named in court documents, Alicia Kelley, hasn't been seen in Brattleboro since the winter and Brattleboro police believe she is now living in Florida.
And Pineda, herself a recovering heroin addict, died of acute fentanyl overdose in February, a day before her 45th birthday. She had told police that it was Kelley who sold the drugs to Brianna, and then she handed over Brianna's cell phone and the access codes so police could see the trail of text messages, setting up a buy of drugs. And a syringe. The deaths of both women, who lived together in West Brattleboro for more than a year, were from the same deadly cocktail of drugs: fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl, which is what the Department of Health calls an analog of fentanyl, and heroin. Death was within minutes, Pineda's death certificate said. Neither had Narcan.
Pineda, in a series of interviews last fall, said she had suspicions that "Bree," as she called her, was using drugs again. Radcliffe had gotten busted by her probation officer when they ran into each other at the Hinsdale, N.H., Walmart, where Radcliffe had gone to buy a pair of pants for work. "She was very picky," said Pineda.
She wouldn't wear capri pants because her probation ankle bracelet would show, Pineda said.
Radcliffe wasn't supposed to leave the state of Vermont without state permission. The encounter with the probation officer unnerved her, Pineda said, and undermined her tentative sense of balance and recovery. Brianna was hoping to get off parole in the summer of 2018.
She would smoke marijuana, but Pineda said it was a source of worry and tension between them. "Bree thought she could smoke weed safely," she said.
The two women, more than 20 years apart in age, had met at a different Dunkin Donuts in Brattleboro. And according to Pineda, there was an immediate connection, despite the obvious age difference. Pineda said she was in recovery. Brianna was 17, and had already spent some time in rehab, but for alcohol, not for heroin, her father said. Maybe, she said, Brianna felt in their relationship the relationship she never had with her mother, and had wanted.
They used heroin and crack cocaine together.
"We'd use once or twice a week, it was not an everyday thing," Pineda said.
Brianna would also use prescription drugs, Pineda said, such as percocet, a mix of oxycodone and acetametaphine. Their relationship was volatile as a result, she said. "I kept threatening to leave her," Pineda said. Brianna's relapses tested their troubled relationship. "I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life," Pineda said. "I try not to blame myself so much," she said.
"She changed me," said Pineda. "She changed me because I know now what it's like to be truly loved by someone."
The two women's bond was forged tighter in July 2015, when they were pulled over by Vermont State Police in Bennington County with 495 bags of heroin, worth $5,000 on the street in southern Vermont. Police had first pulled them over for speeding on Interstate 91 in Guilford. They told the police they were on their way to Hartford, Connecticut to see Pineda's daughter and grandchild. But the cop's suspicions were aroused beyond speeding. The police later saw the same car, this time headed north, and followed it for miles, waiting for a traffic violation. Eventually they pulled it over on Route 9 in Searsburg.
Pineda, who had a criminal record, went to jail for two years as part of a four-year sentence. Radcliffe did not have a record and got a suspended sentence. She returned to Brattleboro, and tried to communicate while Pineda was in prison, writing letters to another inmate, who would turn the letters over to Pineda since direct contact with co-defendants was prohibited.
"They had a normal, messed up relationship," Ray Radcliffe said. "I've seen the love."
He also could tell when his daughter and Pineda were using, and he said as a result sometimes they shut him out of their lives, which was very upsetting to him.
Pineda said once she got out of the state prison for women in South Burlington, she was more than motivated to stay clean, and she regularly went to meetings and also went to the "hub" in Brattleboro for treatment, for suboxone. Pineda, who lived with various family members in neighboring apartments on Marlboro Road, said if she screwed up again and got in trouble with the law, she was afraid she could go to jail for the rest of her life.
"We kinda met through our addiction," she said. "I wanted to be sober with her," said Pineda. They were working the second shift together, Pineda recalled. "She'd flirt with me, a lot," she said. "She was young and had a wonderful smile," said Pineda, who had a son and daughter older than Radcliffe. "I thought it was a young girl's crush."
Pineda had an on-again, off-again relationship with an old boyfriend, she recalled, and Brianna would be upset. "I loved her very much," she said. "She was very, very mature for her age, very smart and insightful," she said.
They worked together for two months before they got involved.
"We were using together, and we went to the Retreat together," she said. "She was so scared about disappointing me," she said.
The two women started making trips to Hartford, Connecticut area, where Pineda was from, because the drugs were much cheaper there. She would buy drugs for friends too.
"It's all part of the sickness," she said. "You can hustle. It's a hustle either way." At the time of their arrest on July 8, 2015, she said, they were each using two bundles of heroin a day, which is 20 to 30 bags a day.
When she got back from prison, Pineda said she could tell that Brianna was trying hard, but relapsing. "Every time she relapsed, it scared me," she said.
The time in prison gave Pineda insight. She said she realized that the addiction was to more than just the drugs. "You get addicted to the chaos," she said.
But more and more people she knew were overdosing and some dying, she said last fall. "Every other day someone is overdosing," she said.
"I wanted to keep her from ruining the next 10 to 20 years of her life," said Pineda.
She comforted herself that the last thing they said to each other the night Brianna collapsed was strong and positive. "The last thing we said to each other was 'I love you,'" said Pineda.
She said she would coach Brianna about the effort needed to stay clean. "I would tell her, 'don't give up, don't give up. It's hard work. You'll fall, but you'll get back on your feet,'" she said. But often, Brianna felt defeated, she said. Her death was not an intentional suicide, she said. "I don't think that at all," she said. "The addiction gets a hold of you," she said.
Pineda knows all about addiction: she said she was 5 years old when she started smoking cigarettes, and 8 years old when she had her first drink. She lived in the projects of Hartford, Connecticut and that behavior wasn't unusual, she said. "Addiction is progressive. I didn't know it would ruin your life and ruin your soul," Pineda said. "I'm not normal, and I'll never be normal again."
Pineda died at the couple's apartment on Marlboro Road. She was discovered by her son, Aaron Pineda, who lives across the hall.
Ray Radcliffe came back from Maine for Pineda's funeral, and never went back to Lewiston. He said he still doesn't know why Pineda started using heroin again. But then he thinks and wonders if she ever stopped. He said Brianna told him that Pineda liked to do something different for her birthday, and maybe that yen for something different led to her death.
Brattleboro police said the investigation into Pineda's death is still ongoing, and declined to release any documents about her death.
Radcliffe had moved to Lewiston, Maine, in January, to follow his longtime job at Country Kitchen, which closed its bread operation in Brattleboro in December 2018. It proved to be a mistake, he said. He's been living back in Brattleboro, with his sister Mary, since March, when he came back for Pineda's funeral.
His major comfort now, besides living in his adopted hometown of Brattleboro (he is originally from Bennington, and that's where Brianna is buried), is his daughter's dog Cassie, an impish and very barky dog that is a cross between a Jack Russell terrier and a poodle. The dog was the last point of contention between Ray and Jennifer, as both wanted the dog after Brianna died. Pineda ended up keeping Cassie. But a chance visit by Ray to Pineda and his daughter's former apartment on busy Marlboro Road in West Brattleboro found the door to the apartment open and Pineda gone. He took Cassie to keep her safe, he said, and he refused to give her back to Pineda and now he's glad.
Radcliffe said he's looking for a job, but too many of the jobs that are available to him require more physical labor than he's now capable of. Following Country Kitchen to Maine was a mistake, he said, because he lost seniority and was working the third shift with young, inexperienced guys. He's glad to be back in Brattleboro, even if it means for the time being that he's job hunting.
He thought of going back to Bennington, where he could live with his brother or another sister, but his family in Brattleboro provided more comfort and support, he said.
So Ray Radcliffe, a year later, is coping with the death of his only child, and bouncing between the normal emotions of grief: anger, regret, anger, sadness and acceptance. Maybe all in the course of an hour.
A year ago, about a month after Brianna's death, he often couldn't stop crying, and he had created a shrine to his daughter in his sister's apartment off Canal Street. Hundreds of pictures of Brianna, from childhood to young adulthood, surrounded her father and aunt.
The sadness won't leave Radcliffe.
There's something persistently sad about Ray Radcliffe, but it's not that he feels sorry for himself. He's just sad. He misses his daughter. The sadness is palpable to strangers: when he went to investigate buying a second-hand car for $1,000 on the New Hampshire seacoast a couple of months ago, the couple sensed that and ended up giving him the car after they arranged a private fundraising effort in their church.
The year since Brianna's death has given her father some perspective and calm from the heartbreak. And he misses Pineda too, although he admits he fights not getting angry with her, since it was Pineda who introduced Brianna to heroin.
"I respect my daughter, I loved her," said Radcliffe. "But Jen taught her the needle."
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