RIDGE MANOR — In the Ridge Manor house where the 12-year-old boy overdosed on his mom's prescription pills and nearly died, every window was covered.
Old newspapers were taped across the glass lining the garage's top. What looked like a shower curtain was hung behind a front window. To the transom above the front door, someone had pasted Transformers wrapping paper.
Hidden behind it all was a scene that a 20-year veteran detective on Wednesday described as among the worst he's ever witnessed.
"It was filthy," said Hernando County Sheriff's Detective Bryan Faulkingham. "You just wonder how people can live like that, especially with kids in the house."
After an investigation, the boy's mother, 40-year-old Lori Michelle Puentes, was arrested April 12 on a charge of child neglect.
Just after midnight on March 27, investigators say, the boy didn't feel well. So, while Puentes and her son's teenage friend stayed in the living room to watch movies, the boy stepped into his mom's bedroom to sleep.
He threw up, then looked for a shirt to change into on his mom's bedroom floor, Faulkingham said. In a clothes pile, he found a bottle of pills. The boy took three Xanax, two somas and one pill he didn't recognize.
Later, investigators said, Puentes told them she had recently filled her prescriptions, but was missing 158 pills.
With a lone blanket, the boy swallowed the medication and climbed onto Puentes' bare mattress — smeared with dog feces — and drifted to sleep.
The next morning, Puentes heard her son cough and went into her bedroom to check on him. Puentes later told investigators she rubbed his back and returned to the living room, where she fell back to sleep.
Hours later, the friend awoke just after 4 that afternoon. The teenager went into Puentes' bedroom. He saw vomit on his friend's mouth. He couldn't wake the boy up, so he told Puentes and she called 911.
"I think if that friend hadn't been there to wake the mom up," the detective said, "he would have died."
When Faulkingham walked into the house, he said the air was thick and foul.
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 it nearly 2 feet up the wall, thick enough to scrape off.
When Faulkingham interviewed Puentes, he said she seemed lethargic and kept insisting she was thirsty, leading him to believe she was under the influence of something.
After three days, when the boy was healthy and coherent enough to talk to investigators, they interviewed him in his hospital bed at University Community Hospital in Tampa.
He told Faulkingham he smoked pot, often in his house, at least every other day. The boy also told the detective he knew what he had taken that night.
"It makes you think," Faulkingham said, "it probably wasn't the first time he ever took them."
Twice, in fact, the Department of Children and Families have investigated the Puentes family under similar circumstances. According to a report, Puentes' husband, Douglas, was in rehab at the time of the overdose, and she was the only adult in the home.
In June of last year, a report said, Puentes signed a DCF safety plan that stated she would keep all of her prescription medicine locked up or hidden from her children.
"The agency had worked with the family just last year on similar concerns related to substance abuse," DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said in an e-mail. "The family had agreed to secure all medications in the home as well as to refrain from misusing prescription drugs. Clearly, that issue has not been resolved."
The 12-year-old is now living with a relative, she said. Faulkingham said Lori Puentes also has a 16-year-old daughter, but she had moved out before the incident.
Puentes was charged with child neglect after she'd already been arrested on a count of violation of probation. In February of last year, she was convicted on a DUI charge.
From the Hernando County Detention Center, she declined to be interviewed on Wednesday. Her husband, who's living with a neighbor, could not be reached for comment.
This case, Sheriff Al Nienhuis said, highlights what an enormous problem prescription pill abuse is in Hernando County.
"To say it's an extreme example is an understatement," he said, "but at the same time, it illustrates that this isn't just about people who are addicted to drugs"
Based on early 2011 figures, he said, twice as many people in Hernando are dying from prescription drug overdoses than car wrecks.
"We need to make it socially unacceptable to take these drugs when they're not absolutely necessary, because they're just too dangerous," he said. "It's not a political platform for me. It's a reality. People are dying."
News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We need to make it socially unacceptable to take these drugs when they're not absolutely necessary, because they're just too dangerous. It's not a political platform for me. It's a reality. People are dying."
Sheriff Al Nienhuis