RIDGE MANOR — Lori Michelle Puentes, seemingly overwhelmed by drugs or alcohol, struggled to tell a 911 operator where she lived as her 12-year-old son approached death.
The boy, authorities would later learn, had found a bottle of his mom's prescription pills in a clothes pile the night before. As Puentes and her son's teenage friend sat in the living room and watched movies just after midnight March 27, he took three Xanax, two Somas and one pill he didn't recognize.
He was breathing as Puentes, who'd been sleeping all day, made the emergency call that afternoon, but he was unconscious and coughing up an orange substance. The boy, infected with scabies, lay next to a blanket on her otherwise bare bedroom mattress that was smeared with dog feces.
Her son had overdosed, but as a desperate Hernando County sheriff's 911 dispatcher pleaded with Puentes for information about what was happening, the unemployed 40-year-old woman — later charged with child neglect — could hardly form complete sentences.
"What is the address of your emergency?" the operator asked.
"Umm, I, uh, I don't know," Puentes slowly said, her voice barely intelligible.
"Where are you?" the operator asked again.
"I'm sorry," Puentes mumbled. "I don't. … I don't know what, what's wrong."
"Okay, where are you?" the operator asked again. "Where are you? Tell me your address."
Puentes eventually said she lived on Cornerstone Drive, though she actually lives on Hardstone Drive, a connecting road.
As the dispatcher heard someone talking in the background, she pleaded with Puentes four times to give him the phone, but Puentes never responded to the appeals.
"I just woke up," she mumbled, "and my son is really. …"
As a second dispatcher came on the line, Puentes strained to pronounce the word "ambulance" and again said she'd just woken up.
"My son is throwing up, throwing up, throwing up," she mumbled.
"Your son's throwing up, throwing up, throwing up?"
"Okay, how old's your son?"
"How, how old is he?"
Then, three times, the dispatcher asked Puentes if her son was the one who needed the ambulance.
Eventually, "yes," Puentes muttered.
In a later call, the boy the first dispatcher heard in the background — a teenage friend of Puentes' son — called 911 and told the operator where they were.
Sheriff's Detective Bryan Faulkingham, who worked the case, later said the teenager had woken Puentes up that afternoon because her son was clearly ill. If the friend hadn't been there, Faulkingham said, Puentes' son likely would have died.
"My friend is like passed out," the teenager told the operator. "And he's not waking up at all."
He told the dispatcher he had no idea why his friend had passed out, adding that he was coughing up "orange stuff over and over … he's foaming out of his mouth."
Over and over, the dispatcher asked what the boy had done before he passed out. What had caused his sickness? The teenager said he didn't know.
"I have to go," he said. "I have to go hold him over on his side. His mom can't do it."
"Okay," the operator said. "Is the mom okay?
"Yeah, she's fine"
"The mom is drunk?"
When Faulkingham interviewed Puentes after the incident, he said she seemed lethargic and kept insisting she was thirsty, leading him to believe she was under the influence of something. The woman, convicted on a DUI charge last year, told them she had recently filled her prescriptions, but was missing 158 pills.
In the house, investigators said they found about a dozen prescription pill bottles among nearly 100 empty soda cans and piles of dirty dishes. An uncovered ham decayed in a grimy refrigerator. Dog excrement spotted the furniture and the floor.
Pinkish, green mold had begun to consume portions of the home from the floor up. In some places — including near the boy's bedroom — Faulkingham found the mold nearly 2 feet up the wall, thick enough to scrape off.
When detectives spoke to the boy in the hospital, he told them he smoked pot, often in his house, at least every other day. The boy, now living with a relative, also told the detective he knew what he had taken that night.
"It makes you think," Faulkingham said Wednesday, "it probably wasn't the first time he ever took them."
From the Hernando County Detention Center, Puentes declined to be interviewed Wednesday. Her husband, who's living with a neighbor, could not be reached for comment.
While prescription pill abuse, and its ripple effect, has long been the top challenge for Hernando authorities, this was among the first times they've seen it nearly take a child's life.
"We've seen children orphaned thanks to prescription narcotics," said sheriff's Lt. J.R. Hutchinson. "But I believe this is the first time we've seen an overdose of a child this young."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.