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Hernando mom arrested in methadone death

BROOKSVILLE — In September, a drug-addicted 23-year-old man overdosed on methadone in a Spring Hill hospital. On those details alone, there was nothing remarkable about Joseph Banks' death.

Except for the response by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

As part of a new initiative to curb prescription drug abuse, Hernando detectives vigorously sought out the source of the methadone that killed Banks and centered their investigation on the mother of one of his friends.

On Tuesday, they made an arrest.

Dawn Jennings, 45, was taken into custody and booked into the Hernando County Jail on charges of third-degree murder and unlawful distribution of a controlled substance.

"What she did was wrong and resulted in a young man dying," said Hernando Capt. James Walker, who is leading the local enforcement effort. "We're going to run these cases hard. It's just an example of us bringing this one to a successful close."

At the State Attorney's Office, prosecutor Don Barbee said this would be the first case of its kind that he's handled since coming to Hernando County.

Walker said the Sheriff's Office has made arrests in three similar cases, including one other that resulted in death. That fatal overdose happened in August after a Spring Hill man allegedly gave his 15-year-old son a cocktail of powerful prescription drugs to show him "how to party right."

The new crackdown in Hernando comes after 47 people died from overdoses related to prescription medications in 2008 — a jump of 21 percent from the previous year. But the problem of prescription drug abuse has not been limited to Hernando.

More than 3,300 Floridians fatally overdosed on prescription drugs in 2007, according to numbers provided by the United Way of Broward County's Commission on Substance Abuse.

"Typically (overdoses) are classified like a sick-person call," Walker said. "But my supervisors are scrutinizing these reports as they come across. We tell them that these questions need to be answered, and the ball starts rolling."

Which is essentially what led to Jennings' arrest Tuesday.

The arrest report said Banks was found unresponsive in his family's Spring Hill home on Sept. 6. He was taken to Spring Hill Regional Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Afterward, investigators learned Banks got pills from his friend and later identified Jennings as a suspect in providing the man with methadone.

Detectives said Jennings initially lied to them about the drug she had given Banks, who was a friend of her daughter. During an interview in September, Jennings told detectives she had supplied Banks with oxycodone tablets to help him deal with pill withdrawal.

But after the medical examiner ruled in November that Banks died of "methadone toxicity," detectives learned that Jennings had a prescription for methadone and not oxycodone. Jennings' daughter also told detectives that her mother had admitted giving Banks the methadone pills.

On March 17, Jennings finally admitted to detectives that she gave Joseph Banks at least six 10 mg methadone pills on Sept. 5.

Jennings has no previous criminal record. A message left at the home of Banks' mother wasn't returned Tuesday.

Barbee said he likely wouldn't have been able to pursue charges against Jennings without her confession.

"Once we got the confession, we decided to go forward," Barbee said. "This is one of the many times where the best piece of evidence in a case is the confession. The (deputies) did a good job."

Walker expects to see similar arrests in the future, especially with the continued emergence of prescription drug abuse.

"We're hitting it from every angle," Walker said. "It's a big effort from a lot of people and everyone recognizes the problem. I don't know how it went under the radar for so long."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Hernando mom arrested in methadone death 04/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 10:35pm]
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