A Whitewater man is not guilty of reckless homicide following another man’s drug overdose death in 2017, a Walworth County jury decided Thursday.
Moments after the team of doctors had left the room at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, then 13-year-old Aleena Lopez looked at her mother, Heather.
“Mom,” she asked, “am I going to die?”
Heather and her mother, Marilyn—Aleena’s “nana”—still were in shock.
Just days before, it had been a normal summer for Aleena, Heather and Heather’s boyfriend of nine years, Ramon Miramontez.
Then in late July, Aleena began having headaches in the back of her head. She felt dizzy when she rose from sitting.
A family doctor checked her vital signs. Normal.
The doctor asked if she had double vision. She did not.
Without any other symptoms to go on, the doctor told Heather to monitor the situation.
On Aug. 2, Aleena attended a slumber party at a friend’s house. The headache returned. She threw up.
During the weekend, Aleena asked, “Mom, are my eyes crossed?”
She was seeing double of objects in the distance.
Heather took her back to the doctor that Monday.
An MRI showed a growth in her head.
Aleena was put into an ambulance and taken to American Family Children’s Hospital.
That Thursday, Aleena and her family were told it was cancerous. Because it is in Aleena’s brain stem, an operation is not possible.
“I don’t care what we have to do, we cannot lose this child,” Heather’s sister April posted on Facebook that day. “We can’t. This is not an option.”
For the next 37 days, American Family Children’s Hospital was home for Aleena and Heather. Mother never left her side, sleeping next to Aleena’s bed in a recliner as her daughter struggled with the pain associated with her treatments.
Aleena underwent four surgeries. One inserted a drain from her brain.
She received nourishment from a feeding tube that went through her nose. Aleena had a difficult time swallowing, which limited her ability to talk.
Aleena stayed strong.
On Aug. 20, she got the OK to eat her favorite french fries.
After sessions of physical therapy, she regained her strength to sit up, then to walk with a walker.
A few UW-Madison football players visited her Sept. 6, delivering a UW T-shirt and signed card from the team.
Finally, on Sept. 10, Aleena and Heather got to return to their Janesville home to rejoin Aleena’s 18-year-old brother and Heather’s son Chase.
The next day, Aleena turned 14. She celebrated by visiting her classmates at Marshall Middle School.
Last Monday, a Gazette reporter visited.
“Fine,” she said quietly when asked how she was doing. She sat back in a recliner in her family’s living room, covered in a blanket.
Aleena admitted she was down during portions of her hospital stay.
“But now I’m, like, normal, I guess,” she said.
Heather attributed Aleena’s emotional moments to the steroids she had to take.
“She’s now on a maintaining mode because she’s doing so well on the steroids,” Heather said.
“She’s not much of crier; doesn’t really show her feelings much, but she really struggled with that.”
Aleena gets most of her nourishment through a “G tube” inserted into her stomach.
She takes up to 18 doses of medication a day, all charted and distributed by Heather, who is on unpaid leave from her job at Grainger.
Another one of Aleena’s favorite foods—cool ranch Doritos—have to be chewed carefully.
One thing hasn’t changed. Aleena’s phone is always by her side.
“That’s like her lifeline for her friends’ support,” Heather said.
Her friends visit. Three of them—Alayna Blevins, Anna Grover and Addi Wobig—created a “Team Aleena” GoFundMe page that as of Friday had raised $3,860. The goal is $4,000.
When she arrived home from her last radiation treatment Friday, there were dozens of cards for her, thanks to a card drive initiated by family relative William Case. Those were added to the many she had received while in the hospital.
It was just one display of the support Aleena has received the past six weeks.
The Janesville YMCA eighth-grade volleyball team opened its season a week ago Thursday. Instead of being one of the top players on the court as she has been since the fourth grade, Aleena watched on the sidelines.
Teammates gave her a green T-shirt with “Aleenastrong” on the back. They all signed a volleyball that she took home.
Now that her six weeks of radiation treatments are done, Aleena and family will wait about a month before another MRI to check the status of the tumor.
“All we can do is take it one day at a time,” Marilyn said.
Aleena is now part of a team bigger than the volleyball team she had looked forward to playing with this fall.
“I always remind her there are a lot of people praying for her and thinking positively for her,” Heather said. “People she doesn’t even know.”
Friday’s sentencing hearing began with a family’s tearful longing for Joshua R. Syck—a father, boyfriend, best friend—two years after his drug overdose death.
Despite the financial assistance that came from his death, one of Syck’s children told the filled courtroom the family would rather live in a cardboard box in the rainforest if that meant having Syck in their lives.
Syck’s brother David asked for the maximum penalty against Jeremy D. Meyer, whom a jury in July convicted of delivering drugs and taking Syck’s wallet. But the jury did not find Meyer guilty of delivering the drugs that killed Syck.
Syck’s former wife, Melissa, who’d known him since she was 13, looked at Meyer and forgave him. But she said the night when police came to her door still plays over and over in her head.
Jessica Gault, Syck’s girlfriend at the time of his death and the person who found his body on the UW-Whitewater campus with Meyer, said through tears that the images from Sept. 2, 2017, won’t leave her mind.
But one of Meyer’s defense attorneys, Jason Sanders, began his argument by noting the collages set up in the Walworth County courtroom Friday displaying photos of Syck. Two courtroom TV screens showed a portrait of Syck, one screen facing the courtroom audience and the other turned to face Judge Phillip Koss.
Sanders said he had prepared remarks, but he was “disheartened” with how the hearing was going for the case that involved two addicts who had drugs controlling their lives.
“I’m currently in the middle of a homicide sentencing for a man who a jury says did not cause the death,” Sanders said. “And I don’t really know how to argue against that.”
But Koss said the facts of the case—including Syck’s death—were relevant, and he sentenced Meyer, of Whitewater, to six years in prison on charges of delivering heroin and theft from a corpse.
Sanders brought up that what the Legislature deemed the most serious charge in this case—the delivery—is committed by every addict in some fashion. He said every county has a least one delivery case resulting in a defendant being sentenced to probation.
Koss crafted his sentence, however, by giving four of the six years of prison on the theft charge and two on the delivery charge. The judge also sentenced Meyer, who also has convictions of possessing drug paraphernalia and child neglect from this case, to six years of extended supervision.
Sanders passionately criticized District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld for asking for a 10-year prison sentence, split between five-year terms for two charges—which Sanders said meant Meyer would have to wait five years before getting treatment in prison.
“Why?” he asked. “Why does the DA’s office in my home county feel the need to try to address 21st-century problems with 20th-century solutions?
A Whitewater man is not guilty of reckless homicide following another man’s drug overdose death in 2017, a Walworth County jury decided Thursday.
“Because God knows if there is anything you want to give opiate addicts, it isn’t treatment,” he said, sarcastically. “I’m sorry for my tone, sir, but I’m honestly flabbergasted. I don’t understand it at all.”
Sanders read from a report examining Meyer’s risks of reoffending to hammer home the point that probation was appropriate.
“Violent recidivism risk? Low. General recidivism risk? Low. Criminal involvement? Low. Criminal violence? Low. Criminal associates, peers, opportunities, social isolation—all unlikely,” he said. “Criminal personality? Unlikely. Criminal thinking? Unlikely. Anger? Unlikely.”
Wiedenfeld said Meyer was a “selfish drug user who chose to put his addiction ahead of the safety of others by dealing drugs,” adding that Meyer’s use put his children at risk, too.
The county’s top prosecutor called Meyer “a liar” and said he couldn’t be trusted. He asked what kind of person sees his friend overdosing (as they suspect Syck did the night before his death at Meyer’s home) and kicks him out?
Both Meyer and Syck, Sanders said, were good humans and decent fathers who were beloved by many. The defense lawyer questioned what the case’s narrative would be—and who receives sympathy—had their roles been reversed.
Those closest to Joshua Robert Syck remember a tall, funny man who cared deeply for his family and matching his clothes from head to toe. Josh died of a heroin overdose last year.
“Why are we acknowledging that addiction can have this overriding, controlling factor that is distinct from your character if your picture is on the wall but not if you’re sitting in a chair next to an attorney?” Sanders asked.
Wiedenfeld asked Koss to make a condition of Meyer’s supervision that he not enter the UW-Whitewater campus, which Koss denied and Sanders called “a meaningless rule” to potentially get Meyer in trouble.
Sanders also said he could not more vociferously object to another condition Wiedenfeld requested—that Meyer have no contact with children without a probation agent’s approval (Koss also did not adopt this condition).
Addressing the court, Meyer said he was an addict who “allowed drugs to take over” his life. He entered treatment, found a job and said he reached the final phase of family drug court and had only 60 days left.
His future in the program is not immediately clear after his sentence Friday, which was his 38th birthday. Meyer and Gault found Syck just minutes before Syck’s 35th birthday.
It had been exactly one year since Jessica Gault held her boyfriend, Joshua Robert Syck, after he died of a heroin overdose in Whitewater. It’s a moment she can’t escape.
Gault remembers the last time she saw Syck alive, when he left their apartment and walked toward the part of campus where he died and his body presumably sat for hours.
After Syck’s death, Gault’s young son, Dayton, would look out the same patio door where his mom last saw Syck and whisper to the glass, “Dada.”
Whatever Meyer’s sentence, Melissa still won’t have a great answer when another of her kids asks who will teach them about superheroes.
“Jeremy, your kids have lost things in this whole ordeal, and that makes me sad as well,” she said. “But your children can still visit you and talk to you through glass. However, my children have to visit a headstone to talk to their dad through a patch of grass.”
Joyce M. Allen
Thomas P. Sayre
Tina Sterken Shafer
Young people afraid for their futures protested around the globe Friday to implore leaders to tackle climate change, turning out by the hundreds of thousands to insist that the warming world can’t wait for action.
Marches, rallies and demonstrations were held from Canberra to Kabul and Cape Town to New York, and German police reported that more than 100,000 turned out in Berlin.
Days before world a U.N. climate summit of world leaders, the “Global Climate Strike” events ranged from about two dozen activists in Seoul using LED flashlights to send Morse code messages calling for action to rescue the earth to Australia demonstrations that organizers estimated were the country’s largest protests since the Iraq War began in 2003.
“Basically, our earth is dying, and if we don’t do something about it, we die,” said A.J. Conermann, a 15-year old high school sophomore among several thousand who marched to the Capitol building in Washington.
“I want to grow up. I want to have a future,” Conermann added.
In New York, where public schools excused students with parental permission, tens of thousands of mostly young people marched through lower Manhattan, briefly shutting down some streets.
“Sorry I can’t clean my room, I’m busy saving the world,” one protester’s sign declared.
And in Paris, teenagers and kids as young as 10 traded classrooms for the streets. Marie-Lou Sahai, 15, skipped school because “the only way to make people listen is to protest.”
The demonstrations were partly inspired by the activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who has staged weekly “Fridays for Future” demonstrations for a year, urging world leaders to step up efforts against climate change.
“It’s such a victory,” Thunberg told The Associated Press in an interview in New York. “I would never have predicted or believed that this was going to happen, and so fast—and only in 15 months.”
Thunberg spoke at a rally later Friday and is expected to participate in a U.N. Youth Climate Summit today and speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit with global leaders on Monday.
“They have this opportunity to do something, and they should take that,” she said. “And otherwise, they should feel ashamed.”
The world has warmed about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since before the Industrial Revolution, and scientists have attributed more than 90% of the increase to emissions of heat-trapping gases from fuel burning and other human activity.
Scientists have warned that global warming will subject Earth to rising seas and more heat waves, droughts, powerful storms, flooding and other problems, and that some have already started manifesting themselves.
Climate change has made record-breaking heat temperature records twice as likely as record-setting cold temperatures over the past two decades in the contiguous U.S., according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
Nations around the world recommitted at a 2015 summit in Paris to hold warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit more than pre-industrial-era levels by the end of this century, and they added a more ambitious goal of limiting the increase to 2.7 degrees F.
But U.S. President Donald Trump subsequently announced that he was withdrawing the U.S. from the agreement, which he said benefited other nations at the expense of American businesses and taxpayers.
Trump called global warming a “hoax” before becoming president. He has since said he is “not denying climate change” but is not convinced it is manmade or permanent.
New York protester Pearl Seidman, 13, hoped the demonstration would tell the Trump administration “that if they can’t be adults, we’re going to be adults. Because someone needs to do it.” At least one Trump supporter waved a large “Trump 2020” flag as the demonstrators marched in Manhattan.
In Florida, high school students shouted “Miami is under attack” in Miami Beach, where some worried about losing their homes to rising water. On the West Coast, student-led protests drew in some Google and Amazon employees.
Amazon, which ships more than 10 billion items a year, vowed Thursday to cut its use of fossil fuels, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai told the Financial Times in a story published Friday that eliminating the company’s carbon emissions by 2030 didn’t seem “unreasonable.”
Friday’s demonstrations started in Australia, where organizers estimated 300,000 protesters marched in 110 towns and cities, including Sydney and the national capital, Canberra. Demonstrators called for their country, the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquid natural gas, to take more drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Joining hundreds of thousands of demonstrators around the globe, Janesville and Rock County residents worried about global climate change gathered outside the Rock County Courthouse for their own climate strike.
Students and other activists gave speeches at the strike, which were followed by a march in downtown Janesville.
Many of the global demonstrations were organized by high school and college students who want political leaders to take action to address climate change, and the Rock County gathering was no different.
Kenneth Forbeck, a senior at Craig High in Janesville, organized and spoke at the local strike. Several dozens of people turned up to the Janesville event; in Madison, authorities estimated that 3,000 people gathered for a climate strike around the state Capitol.
In his speech, Forbeck said he should have spent his Friday night playing with the school pep band or hanging out with friends. Instead, he led the protest because he is scared for his future.
The government and society has let down Forbeck’s generation by not acting sooner to prevent climate change, he said.
Brittany Keyes, a Beloit physical therapist who ran against state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, for Loudenbeck’s Assembly seat last fall, said she was inspired by the young organizers.
But she also expressed her anger over her children growing up in a world where temperatures and carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, Keyes said.
Global leaders are scheduled to meet Monday in New York for a United Nations climate summit. The U.N. wants the world’s carbon pollution to be cut by 45% in the next 10 years, The Associated Press reported.
Citing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, AP also reported the world has warmed nearly a degree and that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased 15% since global leaders first met in 1992 to discuss climate change.
Keyes urged people to reach out to their elected officials, vote in every election and be the change they want to see. Her call to action echoed other speakers.
Beloit City Council member Clinton Anderson also spoke and praised the activists.
Others encouraged attendees to contact Gov. Tony Evers’ office and demand he declare a climate emergency for the state.
“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic,” Forbeck said. “Act like your house in on fire, because it is.”