Mother of Chicago overdose victim suing to get daughter’s death reclassified as homicide
Chicago police have made just 2 arrests in a decade for drug-induced homicide. In just the past 2 years, at least a dozen people have been charged in the collar counties.
The mother of a North Side woman who died of a drug overdose is waging a legal battle against the Cook County medical examiner’s office over its decision to classify her death an accident rather than a drug-induced homicide.
In late 2016, Valerie Teper, 33, was found dead in her apartment in the 1900 block of West Belmont Avenue. An autopsy found she died of poisoning from fentanyl, a powerful drug that dealers sometimes use to boost the potency of heroin.
Teper’s family says her death should be classified as a homicide under Illinois’ drug-induced homicide law.
Calling her death an accident stigmatizes Teper because it implies she died from a bad choice, says attorney Terry Slaw, who is suing the Cook County medical examiner’s office on behalf of his wife Irene Rodik, who is Teper’s mother.
“The fact is that Teper did not die by choice,” Slaw says in a court filing. “She was murdered by someone who delivered her furanyl fentanyl.”
He says the police might take fatal overdoses more seriously if the medical examiner were to rule those deaths to be homicides.
“If these things are rubber-stamped as accidents, where’s the incentive for the police to do their work?” Slaw says.
Teper and her family immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, and her father later got sick and died.
She graduated a year early from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and studied psychology at Loyola University Chicago but never completed a degree. She became addicted to painkillers after she was prescribed medicine for menstrual cramps, according to Slaw.
“Very bright, obviously troubled,” he says.
In 2015, Teper overdosed on heroin and was found slumped in her car. Police revived her with an overdose-reversal drug. She was jailed for about a week and later convicted of a drug charge, placed on probation and ordered into drug treatment.
“That’s when we knew she was very sick,” Slaw says.
But her addiction problems continued. In November 2016, she overdosed on a bus, was revived with a reversal drug and taken to a hospital. After being released, she went home, where she overdosed again and died.
Her young son was living with his father, Slaw says.
A form letter from the hospital was found in Teper’s apartment, warning her that she could die if she took ever drugs again, Slaw says.
In early 2017, the medical examiner’s office ruled Teper’s death was accidental.
Last September, her mother sued in an effort to get that ruling changed, arguing that her daughter’s death was a homicide based on the autopsy results and a state law passed in 1988.
The law says that when anyone provides illegal drugs to someone who dies from injecting, inhaling or ingesting any amount of it, that’s a drug-induced homicide.
The law doesn’t address whether the person delivering the drug must know that it could be deadly.
A conviction carries a prison term of up to 30 years.
The county’s lawyers say that, despite that law, the medical examiner’s office still has the discretion to decide whether the manner of death is accidental, homicide or suicide.
In a letter Feb. 5, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, offered condolences to Teper’s family but said, after a review following the request to reclassify her death, that it would not be ruled a homicide “based on the information available to us.”
“In essence, the fatal outcome was unintentional,” Arunkumar wrote.
Slaw says the drug-induced homicide law doesn’t give the medical examiner the leeway to consider whether an overdose death was unintentional.
Attorneys for the medical examiner’s office are asking Cook County Circuit Judge Sanjay Tailor to dismiss the lawsuit.
The Chicago police began an investigation of Teper’s death based on text messages they found on her cellphone between her and the people who sold her drugs. Teper’s dealers kept texting her phone even after she died. That allowed investigators to identify them and arrest them on drug charges, according to a police source, but the police couldn’t directly connect anyone to the fentanyl that killed Teper. So no charges have been filed in her death.
The lawsuit against the medical examiner is part of an ongoing controversy over drug-induced homicide laws in Illinois and elsewhere. Some argue that a fear of getting locked up on a homicide charge keeps people who sell or otherwise provide drugs from calling 911 when they see someone overdose.
Slaw says Illinois law should be changed to keep such “Samaritans” from being charged.
But he and parents of overdose victims have banded together to demand that Illinois’ drug-induced homicide law be enforced as a way to target high-level dealers.
“I believe bigtime drug dealers need to be taken out,” Slaw says.
In Chicago, the police have made just two arrests in the past decade under the drug-induced homicide law.
In one case, a woman injected a 31-year-old man with heroin in 2015 on the North Side, according to the police. The medical examiner classified his death as a homicide, and the woman was charged with drug-induced homicide, but the case was dropped.
In the second case, an 18-year-old woman died after taking ecstasy, a recreational drug. She fatally overdosed at her parents’ home on the Southwest Side. The medical examiner classified her death as accidental. But the man who provided her with the drug was charged with drug-induced homicide and sentenced to six years in prison.
In three other drug-induced homicide cases in the Cook County suburbs, the medical examiner’s office also ruled those deaths were accidental, records show.
Drug-induced homicide cases are more common in the collar counties. In just the past two years, at least a dozen people have been charged with that crime in Lake, DuPage, McHenry and Will counties.
Officials in McHenry County have said they believe their enforcement of the law has deterred drug sales and reduced the number of deaths from overdoses.
The Chicago Police Department’s new chief of detectives, Brendan Deenhihan, is considering creating a task force to investigate drug-induced homicides, a police spokesman has said.
In Cook County last year, at least 1,151 people died of poisoning from opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, according to the medical examiner’s office. That was a slight increase over 2018.
“This is a terrible, terrible problem,” Slaw says. “We’re forcing a Cook County judge to take a stand.”
Contributing: Andy Grimm