Friday, June 22, 2018
Public safety

She cared for her dying son for eight years. Now she faces his killer — and life without him.

ST. PETERSBURG — Susan Hood still grimaces at the bedsores, the way her son’s skin could swell and blister and rot through all its layers down to the bone.

She would dress the wounds herself with bandages she’d sometimes swipe from hospitals and stuff in her purse. Wound care is an expensive habit for a woman who had, up to this point, sold crack cocaine and waited tables for a living.

So she cleaned the wounds, wrapped them with the contraband and waited for the day that finally came.

Her son, Aaron Reny, 37, died Jan. 13, almost eight years after being shot in his neck and head. It started that day in February 2010 with what Pinellas sheriff’s investigators said was a fight over drugs in Lealman and ended with paralysis from the neck down for Reny and death for John Roland, 24.

The shooter, James Riddle, now 42, faces a new charge of murder after the medical examiner traced Reny’s death to the gunshot wounds eight years before. Lawyers say such a delayed charge is infrequent, but not unprecedented.

Hood, 55, is relieved that her son’s pain is over, although she feels selfish saying it. And she feels a sense of justice that this eight years of disinfecting and lifting and feeding has amounted to something.

Maybe it’s redemption, too. Hood says she’s clean now, trying to find honest work to fill the days without her son.

If she could go back, she said, she’d change everything.

• • •

Hood and her family are no strangers to law enforcement. The arrest records for her and her four children span pages. Hood, of St. Petersburg, has been to prison for charges ranging from selling cocaine to using counterfeit money. Reny, who uses Hood’s maiden name, was first arrested at 15. It continued from there, up until three months before the shooting.

Hood can pinpoint when things went wrong. Born in Maine 20 years after the rest of her siblings, she moved to Lake Wales with her parents, who were retiring from their livelihood as farmers and owners of a gas station. Her new neighbors did drugs, she said. So did a man she moved in with as a teenager who turned out to be abusive.

"It wasn’t even that I was addicted to drugs," said Hood, who is divorced. "I was addicted to money."

So she sold, and when years later Reny started, too, she didn’t protest. He was headstrong, and charming, always with a girl on his arm.

Reny had a daughter in 2005. Four years later, child welfare workers took her into their custody, Hood said.

By then, Reny and Hood were into pain pills, flipping prescriptions on the street. But life without his daughter changed something in Reny. He started parenting classes and got a job at a deli.

"He was trying to change his life," Hood said.

As it turned out, life would change him only weeks later.

Hood declined to discuss details of the shooting because she was a witness in the reopened case. But she still remembers trying to stem the flow of her son’s blood while they waited for the ambulance. It was the first of many times she came face to face with parts of a child a mother should never have to see.

• • •

Any number of complications can result in a delayed death.

Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, pointed to bladder infections, organ damage and sepsis as issues that can lead to death years after trauma.

"It’s not regular, but it’s not rare," Pellan said.

For example, medical examiners traced the death of Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, back to a gunshot wound he sustained more than 30 years prior during an assassination attempt of the president.

While prosecutors didn’t bring forth a murder charge for Brady’s shooter, they can in Riddle’s case, said Robert Heyman, a former assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Double jeopardy, or the prosecution of someone twice for the same offense, doesn’t apply because Reny was still alive when Riddle, who declined a request for an interview, pleaded guilty to murder (of Roland) and attempted murder in 2012.

"I’m thinking the state will not have a difficult time with the medical examiner establishing that the gunshot wounds were directly the cause of the victim’s death," Heyman said. "It just took eight years."

Hood saw her son’s deterioration first-hand. It started in the first hospital, where a doctor said paralysis was a possibility, then a certainty. He would also need a ventilator. And, years later, his hands and feet would be amputated after complications from a blood pressure medication. His pinky finger fell off in his mother’s hand.

"I’m surprised I’ve got my mind — the things I saw," Hood said.

As Reny bounced from hospitals to nursing homes in three states, Hood stuck with him when she could, renting rooms and working odd jobs. Once, in Ohio, she walked into Walmart and bought a tent for $25. She camped out in the woods across from Reny’s nursing home, using his bathroom and microwave.

Between his spurts in facilities, he lived in apartments and homes around St. Petersburg with Hood, sometimes with a mobile nurse or doctor, sometimes without depending on insurance. She took classes on how to work the ventilator and disinfect his wounds. She learned which way to prop his many pillows and how to portion his food. Skittles were his favorite. He could eat them on his own.

But she couldn’t avoid the tug of her past. She spent about two years in prison amid caring for Reny, sentenced first for a forged bills charge she picked up before the shooting, then for spice possession after. She had started opioid addiction treatment at a clinic, she said, but spice was new and available in stores.

During that second sentence, she had no choice but to detox.

"I saw the devil getting off methadone," she said. "That’s when I got clean."

• • •

In hindsight, Hood said, she should have seen it coming.

Reny had his wits about him until the end, and he could be mean, to the nurses and doctors especially. Some days he didn’t want to talk at all. But his demeanor changed last month. He apologized for being such a burden, thanked his family. "For what?" Hood would ask.

"It’s your son," she said. "You do things when it’s your kid."

The grandkids had gathered for a sleepover at Hood’s house the night of Jan. 12. But a bladder infection had spread through Reny, a familiar occurrence by then. Reny said his goodbyes and headed to a hospital once again.

When Hood got the call the next day, something about a massive heart attack, she gave the cab driver a $50 bill to get her there in five minutes, she said. Her son was already zipped up in a bag when she arrived, a lump the size of a child.

Remnants of him are still scattered around the house: a metal container of his ashes, a hospital bed Hood and her daughter take turns sleeping in, a court date reminder.

"That’s what really sucks about all of this is after eight years, after trying to get past seeing your son get shot," she said, "you have to bring it all back up."

But she has choices now, choices she never had when the drugs, then Reny’s 24-hour medical demands, decided for her. And she’s stronger now, she said, for her other children, for their children.

She has an idea on what to do for work, too. She wants to take care of someone else on a ventilator. She wants to help them breathe.

Times senior new researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

Editor’s note — This article has been changed to reflect the following correction: An article Monday under the headline "Years caring for dying son bring a chance for justice" included an incorrect age for John Roland. He was 24 when he died.

 
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