Families endure pain, seek justice as sons' alleged pusher stands trial
Max Tillitt shot up heroin in front of his fiance, Holly Schulz, and 2-month-old son, then immediately started throwing furniture. He fell to the floor and vomited before he stopped breathing, Schulz testified in the murder trial of Max's alleged pusher. He died the next day, Sept. 26, 2015.
In the years before his death, his addiction compelled the people who loved him to watch him constantly. "I would send out an email to my family members: 'OK, who can watch Max?' Like he was 2 instead of 20," DeeDee Tillitt, Max's mother, testified this week.
Prosecutors say Beverly Burrell, 31, sold Max Tillitt and Lucas Ronnei fatal doses of heroin. She is facing third-degree murder and drug sale charges in each of those cases.
The trial has forced to the surface candid details of the struggles of people addicted to heroin. It's also revealed the toll the drug takes on the families and friends of the people who are hooked on it.
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Just before his death, Max was on a drug to suppress his cravings for heroin, and his mother said he also participated in a treatment program that appeared to be working. But he had to stop, when the program lost funding.
In general, health insurers and funding sources don't keep up with demand for the kind of treatment that's needed to stem the crises posed by opioid abuse, Tillitt said. The Tillitts are seeking legal action against the insurer that withdrew the funds.
"The [Mental Health] Parity Act was supposed to cover it," DeeDee Tillitt said. "The large insurance companies don't really. They think everybody could do outpatient. When you finally get somebody who's ready to be sober, good luck."
Burrell pleaded not guilty to the charges. She opted for a trial in front of a judge instead of a jury. During the trial, her defense attorney questioned witnesses as to whether they could say for sure that the heroin the men allegedly bought from Burrell was the same drug they overdosed on.
Judge Paul Scoggin has seven days to announce his verdict in the case involving Luke Ronnei. Burrell's defense may possibly call a witness next week in Max Tillitt's case. That trial is not expected to close until July.
Colleen Ronnei testified about what happened just before her son Luke took his last dose of heroin.
On Jan. 6, 2016, Luke returned from a three-week trip to Australia. She said, in the car on the way home from the airport, Luke showed signs of progress in his fight against addiction.
"He was so excited about the rest of his life and getting back down to Arizona and doing a study abroad in Australia," Ronnei recalled. "And so you go, 'OK, that's not even where his head's at. His head is not on trying to use.'"
That changed almost as soon as he got home. Ronnei said Luke announced that he was going out with a friend for about an hour. Over the years living with Luke's addiction there were often moments of hope and anxiety, and she said she had a bad feeling about his hourlong trip.
"When your kid is well, when they're doing good, you're almost as scared as when they're in active addiction," said, "because you're waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Ronnei and her husband Dave found Luke unconscious in his bed the next morning. Photos of Luke's body and the death scene were shown in court.
"Listening to the Ronneis when they were on the stand talking about that night that Luke had come home, just brought back all those horrible memories...," DeeDee Tillitt said.
Families of three other men who overdosed on heroin allegedly purchased from Burrell await their days in court. Those trial dates have not yet been set.
Whatever the verdict, Max's father, Stephen Tillitt said he just wants Burrell to stop.
"I'm not really invested in a conviction," he said. "I want to see this woman never sell drugs again."