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Why 14 overdose deaths in 2017 led to no charges


About 21 hours before Jeff W. Hanson was found dead in a Janesville hotel, he sent a text to a woman he knew.

“I left the money under the seat.”

The woman, according to police and text messages included in their reports, went to South Beloit, Illinois, bought what she thought was heroin and gave it to Hanson.

Early the next morning, Oct. 28, 2017, Hanson, 37, was found dead—his body cold to the touch, his face and upper chest tinted in shades of purple—in a bathroom at a Janesville hotel.

Police didn’t arrest the woman suspected of giving Hanson the drugs, but they recommended the district attorney’s office charge her with delivering heroin. After tests showed other substances—including fentanyl but no heroin—in Hanson’s system, the Rock County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the case.

Hanson was one of 14 overdose deaths in Janesville in 2017.

None have resulted in prosecutions.

Of the 14, police made one arrest, but prosecutors declined to file charges. Police requested arrest warrants in three additional cases, but no warrants were issued, according to the Janesville Police Department.

Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary said drug cases, especially those involving a death, are tough to prove.

“One of the most difficult and heart wrenching decisions that the prosecutors in my office face are when we do not have sufficient evidence to prove a crime that we suspect occurred,” O’Leary wrote to Hanson’s father last month.

Hanson’s father, Jeff M. Hanson, said the family wants “justice,” the case reopened and more efforts to end the opioid epidemic.

“I don’t want Jeff’s death to go for nothing,” his father said. “We don’t want his story to die.”

Anthony Wahl 

A shadow box that display photographs of Jeff W. Hanson and some of his favorite sports teams inside the home of his brother and sister-in-law.

‘Impossible to prove’

The younger Hanson was one of 48 overdose deaths—including 37 connected to opioids—in Rock County in 2017. All 14 of the Janesville deaths in that year involved fentanyl.

When the Hanson family looked at the police reports, they saw the woman had admitted to picking up drugs and giving them to Jeff, and there were text messages obtained through a search warrant to back that up.

Janesville police, in asking for a warrant and charges to be filed, apparently believed there was enough evidence to support an arrest.

But the family wondered, and to this day still wonders: Why was that not enough?

The woman accused of delivering the drugs in this case is not being named here because she was never arrested or charged.

In an interview with The Gazette, she denied the allegations against her. She said she used to have substance abuse problems but has since turned her life around.

What is likely the most serious charge someone could face after a drug overdose death is first-degree reckless homicide by delivering drugs.

Such a prosecution comes from the case of Len Bias—a No. 2 overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft who died from a cocaine overdose just two days after the draft. His death led to more strict punishment for drug cases across the country.

According to instructions given to juries on this charge, the prosecution’s burden is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  • The defendant delivered a substance.
  • The substance was a controlled substance.
  • The defendant knew or believed that the substance was the controlled substance.
  • The victim used the substance alleged to have been delivered by the defendant and died as a result of that use.

It’s the last element that can make the cases so challenging to prove. When drug users have multiple substances in their system, which one and from what source caused the death?

The autopsy said Jeff died from the combined effects of acro fentanyl, hydrocodone, dehydrocodone and alcohol.

Large lapses in time between a drug’s delivery and potential use also create challenges for prosecutors trying to prove what drug caused the death, O’Leary said.

“It’s very difficult to prove those cases,” he said.

David O’Leary

Len Bias cases are relatively rare. Janesville has seen this prosecution recently, however.

Rock County prosecutors charged Taylor Fraunfelder of Janesville in December with first-degree reckless homicide in the March 2018 death of Derek Kraabel, also of Janesville.

In the Hanson case, police did not recommend prosecutors charge the woman under the homicide statute. They asked for a delivery of heroin charge.

In O’Leary’s response to Jeff’s father, he said that because the woman thought she delivered heroin and there was no heroin in Jeff’s system, “It is impossible to prove what exactly she gave to your son.”

O’Leary in an interview with The Gazette said he would only talk about drug cases in general and not about any case specifically.

First, witnesses in drug cases are not the most reliable or cooperative, he said. There can also be a lack of verifiable information, such as users knowing dealers only by a nickname.

In this case, according to police reports, the woman bought drugs from someone known as “Jay” and/or “Cuz.”

Additionally, when a case involves a death, one of the best potential witnesses is no longer alive.


Chad Woodman

There’s one jury instruction that is included in every case: “If there’s a plausible explanation for how this happened other than the way the state is telling you it happened, you must find the person not guilty,” O’Leary said.

“We lose,” he said. “That’s the major problem in those cases.”

Broadly speaking, O’Leary said, prosecutors consider whether a suspect is worth going after with a criminal prosecution. Is the person a drug dealer in it for profit or a person just looking for another high? Are there alternative treatment sources someone could go into instead of getting locked up?

Given prosecutors’ burden of proof, O’Leary said it’s “routine” for them to not file charges in cases police submit to them. He said a “ballpark” estimate was 10 percent to 15 percent of instances.

Janesville Police Officer Chad Woodman, who has been with the department since 2000 and investigating drug cases for about 3½ years, said police made their recommendation to the DA’s office, and it was ultimately the prosecutors’ call.

While police in some cases cut deals with low-level drug offenders to go after bigger dealers, Woodman said that did not happen in the Hanson case.

Anthony Wahl 

Anna Hanson closes a shadow box devoted to her deceased brother-in-law Jeff W. Hanson after showing its contents inside her home on Wednesday, Jan. 24.

‘It seems clear cut’

Jeff had the craziest laugh. It was more like a cackle, his father remembers.

He liked to have fun, his brother Josh Hanson said in his town of La Prairie home.

He liked fishing, boating and snowmobiling, his father said.

Josh’s wife, Anna Hanson, said Jeff was “like a child himself.” He was always smiling.

Submitted Photo 

A family bonfire held the night before the one-year anniversary of Jeff W. Hanson’s death. He died of a heroin overdose on Oct. 28, 2017.

Jeff loved bonfires. While celebrating the last Fourth of July before he passed, he saw an old piano in Anna and Josh’s garage. He wanted to burn it.

So, Anna said Jeff “rolled that sucker” out to the bonfire and threw it in.

He then saw an old couch the family didn’t need, so he took all but one piece of the sectional and tossed it into the blaze.

On Oct. 27 of last year, the day before the one-year anniversary of Jeff’s death, the family burned the last piece of the couch.

Jeff’s father said he heard some of his son’s issues with addiction started during his time at Milton High School.

When he died: “It took the wind out of my sails for a while,” Jeff’s father said.

Jeff W. Hanson

The family knows Jeff is not blameless. His son’s death was not a “total shock” because he knew he had overdosed before.

On Jan. 11, the Hansons lost another sibling. Josh and Jeff’s sister, Sarah Teague, died of cancer at 37—the same age as her brother when he died. Jeff and Sarah were two of their father’s five children (he also has one stepson.)

Anna said Sarah told her the first thing she would do after dying would be to punch her brother because she had told him to stay away from that junk.

The elder Jeff Hanson, a 60-year-old pastor and former General Motors line worker, has written to others besides O’Leary about the case: Scott Walker when he was governor and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin got letters, too. He asked for more attention to his son’s case and to the opioid epidemic.

He still wants some accountability.

“I liken it to this, this person arranged purchase of a gun, bought the gun with its ammunition, loaded the gun, and then gave it to my son,” he wrote to O’Leary. “My son ultimately pulled the trigger, but it would never have happened without another person’s assistance.”

The family has questions. How can a case that seems so clear get shut down? Was every relevant person interviewed? Was everything searched as soon as possible? Are police frustrated like they are?

“To us … it seems clear cut,” Anna said.

The family does not think those who provide drugs should get off free.

“What do I tell my daughter?” Anna asked. “Like, ‘(the woman) doesn’t get in trouble, honey, because she thought she bought heroin, but since it was fentanyl, oh, it’s fine.’”

Anna said she has gotten strange looks from friends, asking why they are still going on about Jeff’s case.

“His death is not the end of it,” she said.

Every decision is ‘personal’

More and more over the last 30 years, O’Leary said he looks in the mirror and sees his father.

The decisions take their toll.

“With all my grey hair and the wrinkles and the bags under my eyes,” O’Leary said. “Every decision that is made is personal. We do not forget that there are human lives impacted by our decisions.”

For Woodman, it’s unfortunately part of the job. It’s “frustrating” to see the sadness and other emotions families go through.

But prosecuting is “not my lane,” he said. All he can control is doing his job—making sure the investigation is done correctly and fighting for “justice” on behalf of the victims and their loved ones.

“I wish the family didn’t have to incur this loss,” Woodman said. “That’s ultimately what I wish for.

O’Leary knows the final decision sits with his office.

“It does happen where you can’t prosecute one—and good, bad or otherwise, we’ve gotta ... we’re responsible for making that decision,” O’Leary said.

“So, not easy.”

Auschwitz survivors pay homage as world remembers Holocaust

WARSAW, Poland

The world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday amid a revival of hate-inspired violence and signs that younger generations know less and less about the genocide of Jews, Roma and others by Nazi Germany during World War II.

As survivors of Auschwitz marked the 74th anniversary of the notorious death camp’s liberation, a far-right activist who served time in prison for burning an effigy of a Jew placed a wreath there with about 50 other Polish nationalists to protest the official observances.

Piotr Rybak said the group opposes the annual ceremony at Auschwitz to mark the camp’s liberation by the Soviet army, the event that gave rise to the international Jan. 27 remembrance. Rybak claimed it glorifies the 1 million Jewish victims killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death complex and discounts the 70,000 Poles killed there.

“It’s time to fight against Jewry and free Poland from them!” Rybak said as he marched to the site, according to a report by Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on its website.

Rybak’s claim is incorrect. The ceremony at the state-run memorial site paid homage Sunday, as it does every year, to all of the camp’s victims, both Jews and gentiles, while Christian and Jewish religious leaders recited a prayer in unison together. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also stressed that the Third Reich targeted Poles as well as Jews.

Since last year’s observances, an 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was fatally stabbed in Paris and 11 Jews were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat services, the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Human Rights First, a U.S. organization, recalled those killings and warned that “today’s threats do not come solely from the fringe.”

“In places such as Hungary and Poland, once proudly democratic nations, government leaders are traveling the road to authoritarianism,” said Ira Forman, the group’s senior adviser for combating anti-Semitism. “As they do so, they are distorting history to spin a fable about their nations and the Holocaust.”

Former Auschwitz prisoners placed flowers early Sunday at an execution wall at Auschwitz, paying homage before the arrival of the nationalists at the same spot. They wore striped scarves that recalled their uniforms, some with the red letter “P,” the symbol the Germans used to mark them as Poles.

Early in World War II, most prisoners were Poles, rounded up by the occupying German forces. Later, Auschwitz was transformed into a mass killing site for Jews, Roma and others, operating until the liberation by Soviet forces on Jan. 27, 1945.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned in an op-ed in the weekly Welt am Sonntag that across Europe populists are propagating nationalism and “far-right provocateurs are trying to downplay the Holocaust.”

“We shall never forget. We shall never be indifferent. We must stand up for our liberal democracy,” Maas wrote.

Over the past year, Germany has seen a rising number of often violent attacks against Jews carried out by neo-Nazis and Muslims, prompting the government to appoint a commissioner against anti-Semitism and to start funding a national registration office for anti-Semitic hate crimes.

The appearance by nationalists at Auschwitz comes amid a surge of right-wing extremism in Poland and elsewhere in the West. It is fed by a broader grievance many Poles have that their suffering during the war at German hands is little known abroad while there is greater knowledge of the Jewish tragedy.

However recent surveys show that knowledge of the atrocities during World War II is declining generally.

A new study released in recent days by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Azrieli Foundation found that 52 percent of millennials in Canada cannot name even one concentration camp or ghetto and 62 percent of millennials did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Its findings were similar to a similar study carried out a year before in the United States.

In Britain, a new poll by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust found that one in 20 adults in Britain do not believe the Holocaust took place.

The poll of more than 2,000 people released Sunday also found that nearly two-thirds of those polled either did not know how many Jews had been murdered or greatly underestimated the number killed during the Holocaust.

“Such widespread ignorance and even denial is shocking,” chief executive Olivia Marks-Woldman said.

Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs said in its Global Antisemitism Report released Sunday that 13 Jews were murdered in fatal attacks in 2018, marking the highest number of Jews murdered since a wave of attacks on Argentinian Jews in the 1990s.

The report found that around 70 percent of anti-Jewish attacks were anti-Israel in nature and that most of the attacks were led by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Obituaries and death notices for Jan. 28, 2019

Jeremy Lee Jorgenson

John McConnell Wood

Tyler C. Sather

Trump sets odds of reaching deal on wall at less than 50-50


President Donald Trump said Sunday that the odds congressional negotiators will craft a deal to end his border wall standoff with Congress are “less than 50-50.”

As hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers prepared to return to work, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he doesn’t think the negotiators will strike a deal that he’d accept. He pledged to build a wall anyway using his executive powers to declare a national emergency if necessary.

“I personally think it’s less than 50-50, but you have a lot of very good people on that board,” Trump said in an interview with the newspaper.

The president was referring to a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers that will consider border spending as part of the legislative process.

The president’s standoff with Democrats on Capitol Hill is far from over and the clock is ticking. The spending bill Trump signed on Friday to temporarily end the partial government shutdown funds the shuttered agencies only until Feb. 15.

It’s unclear if the Democrats will budge. Trump seemed girded for battle over the weekend, sending out a series of online messages that foreshadowed the upcoming fight with lawmakers. “BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!” he tweeted.

Is Trump prepared to shut down the government again in three weeks?

“Yeah, I think he actually is,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said. “He doesn’t want to shut the government down, let’s make that very clear. He doesn’t want to declare a national emergency.”

But Mulvaney said that at “the end of the day, the president’s commitment is to defend the nation and he will do it with or without Congress.”

The linchpin in the standoff is Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for his prized wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, a project Democrats consider an ineffective, wasteful monument to a ridiculous Trump campaign promise.

Asked if he’d willing to accept less than $5.7 billion to build a barrier on the southern border, Trump replied: “I doubt it.” He added: “I have to do it right.”

He also said he’d be wary of any proposed deal that exchanged funds for a wall for broad immigration reform. And when asked if he would agree to citizenship for immigrants who were illegally brought into the U.S. as children, he again replied, “I doubt it.”

California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the leading Republican in the House, said Democrats have funded border barriers in the past and are refusing this time simply because Trump is asking for it.

“The president is the only one who has been reasonable in these negotiations,” he said.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership in the House, said his colleagues are looking for “evidence-based” legislation.

“Shutdowns are not legitimate negotiating tactics when there’s a public policy disagreement between two branches of government,” he said.

Jeffries said that Democrats are willing to invest in additional infrastructure, especially at legal ports of entry where the majority of drugs come into the country.

“We’re willing to invest in personnel. We’re willing to invest in additional technology. ... In the past, we have supported enhanced fencing and I think that’s something that’s reasonable that should be on the table,” he said.

Trump has asserted there is a “crisis” at the southern border requiring a wall, blaming previous presidents and Congress for failing to overhaul an immigration system that has allowed millions of people to live in the U.S. illegally.

Last month, he put that number at 35 million, while on Sunday he pegged it at 25.7 million-plus—figures offered without evidence. “I’m not exactly sure where the president got that number this morning,” Mulvaney said.

Both are higher than government and private estimates.

His homeland security chief cited “somewhere” between 11 million and 22 million last month. In November, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported 10.7 million in 2016—the lowest in a decade.

The president also tweeted Sunday that the cost of illegal immigration so far this year was nearly $19 billion; he didn’t cite a source.

Compare that with research in 2017 from a conservative group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for less immigration: $135 billion a year or about $11.25 billion a month—a figure that included health care and education, plus money spent on immigration enforcement.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. said that he thinks a compromise is possible.

“The president went from talking about a wall along the entire southern border at one point during the campaign ... to let’s have barriers where they work and let’s have something else where barriers wouldn’t work as well,” Blunt said.

The partial federal shutdown ended Friday when Trump gave in to mounting pressure, retreating from his demand that Congress commit to the border wall funding before federal agencies could resume work. The bill he signed did not provide the money Trump wanted for a barrier, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called “immoral” and has insisted Congress will not finance.

Mulvaney said Trump agreed to temporarily end the shutdown because some Democrats have stepped forward, publicly and privately, to say they agree with Trump’s plan to better secure the border.

Mulvaney said they told Trump they couldn’t split with Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and work with the White House if the government remained closed.

“Everybody wants to look at this and say the president lost,” Mulvaney said. “We’re still in the middle of negotiations.”