Pill providers sentenced in two Hernando County drug deaths

BROOKSVILLE — In both cases, a young man died of a prescription drug overdose. In both cases, the medical examiner determined the cause of death was "methadone toxicity."

And in both cases, authorities tried virtually unprecedented means in Hernando County to hold someone responsible for the deaths. Dawn Jennings and Charlene Marie Nadeau each faced charges of third-degree murder in the unrelated cases.

But their respective cases were resolved much differently Thursday.

Jennings was sentenced to two years of house arrest and 13 years of probation, while Nadeau received a sentence of 40 months in state prison.

"These were very serious offenses," said prosecutor Erin Daly, who handled both cases. "We're in the midst of an epidemic in this county. If you sell pills to someone and they die, you should be held accountable."

At the time of Jennings' arrest, Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee said it was the first case of its kind that he had handled since coming to Hernando County. Other longtime court observers also said the legal tactic was new to the county.

Jennings came to the attention of investigators not long after Joseph Banks was found unresponsive in his family's Spring Hill home on Sept. 6, 2008. He was taken to Spring Hill Regional Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

After the medical examiner ruled that Banks died of methadone toxicity, detectives learned that Jennings had a prescription for methadone. Jennings' daughter also told detectives that her mother had admitted giving Banks the methadone pills.

Jennings later admitted to detectives that she gave Banks at least six 10 milligram methadone pills the day before he overdosed.

But attorneys said Jennings avoided prison time because of doubts about the source of the methadone that actually led to Banks' overdose. Jennings' attorney, James Brown, and prosecutors reached a plea deal Thursday that included probation and $11,000 in restitution to Banks' family for funeral expenses.

Jennings pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of sale of methadone.

Brown said Jennings and Banks were both addicts who shared drugs; she didn't sell them to him.

"She has been torn up about this thing since it happened," Brown said. "But we're glad that everyone was spared the trauma of a public trial. It would have been hurtful for everyone."

On the other hand, Nadeau was accused of selling 10 methadone pills at $6 each and three Xanax pills at $3 each to Terry Joe White at Nadeau's home last April. White ingested the pills and was found unresponsive the next day at his Weeki Wachee home. He was pronounced dead at Oak Hill Hospital.

Nadeau later told an unidentified witness that she had sold her prescription methadone to White, according to court documents, which added that authorities confirmed Nadeau's sale of prescription drugs through controlled drug buys at her home.

David Bauer, Nadeau's public defender, said a plea agreement including prison time was reached because the evidence was much stronger in this case.

"I think the case ended with a fair and equitable resolution, considering the facts," Bauer said.

Later, outside the courthouse, the family of Joseph Banks quietly seethed as Jennings walked briskly past them to the parking lot. The family had wanted Jennings to spend time in prison even though they signed off on the plea deal.

"I didn't want my son to die in vain," said Banks' father, Martin Banks, his eyes filling with tears. "We didn't want her to get off and away free. At the least, she's a convicted felon now."

The cases closed one week after the Hernando Sheriff's Office noted that seven people died from an overdose of prescription medications in March, an unusually high number, and that more people had died of drug-related reasons (135) than traffic accidents (127) over the past 3 1/2 years in Hernando.

Authorities said they would continue their aggressive crackdown on prescription drug abuse.

"We're going to continue doing what we've been doing on these cases," said sheriff's Chief Deputy Michael Maurer. "We have to try every angle that we can to do something to quell this. People need to know it's against the law."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120. You can follow Anderson on Twitter at twitter.com/jandersontimes.

Pill providers sentenced in two Hernando County drug deaths 04/15/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 15, 2010 8:46pm]

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