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.”
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.”