Dealer tried to warn buyer about dan­ger­ous drugs, but it was too late

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY AMES ALEXAN­DER

aalexan­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

On a warm Me­mo­rial Day week­end in May 2017, 24-yearold Billy Bul­labough was in a cheer­ful mood.

He had grilled steaks dur­ing a fam­ily cookout that Sun­day, and he was plan­ning to shop the next day for birth­day presents for his soon-to-be-4-year-old son.

Bul­labough’s mother, Theresa Helms, woke up at around 2 a.m. that night in the Hun­tersville home that she and her hus­band shared with Bul­labough.

The light was still on in her son’s bed­room, so Helms went in to turn it off.

Some­thing wasn’t right. Her son was face down on his bed. His skin was pale.

She called his name, but he didn’t re­spond.

Helms called for her hus­band, who found Bul­labough had no pulse. He had a cell­phone in one hand, a syringe in the other.

Helms later found a mes­sage on Bul­labough’s Face­book ac­count. It was from Amanda Allen, a woman who had sold Bul­labough heroin.

“Hey Billy, I was sup­posed to cut that run and I didn’t,” Allen’s au­dio mes­sage said. “So be care­ful. Don’t do too much of it. I think it’s got a lit­tle fen­tanyl in it. Just be care­ful.”

By then, it was too late.

‘MO­MENTS I AM NOT PROUDOF’

An am­bu­lance rushed Bul­labough to the hos­pi­tal, where he died from a lethal dose of fen­tanyl — a syn­thetic opi­oid far more pow­er­ful than heroin.

Sev­eral months later, Hun­tersville po­lice charged Allen with sec­ond-de­gree mur­der.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials are in­creas­ingly fil­ing mur­der charges against deal­ers whose drugs prove fa­tal. No one keeps track of how of­ten that hap­pens in North Carolina, but pros­e­cu­tors have brought at least 20 cases in the last two years.

Some vic­tims and pros­e­cu­tors say the ap­proach helps hold deal­ers ac­count­able. But some drug pol­icy an­a­lysts point to re­search show­ing that harsh pun­ish­ment doesn’t de­ter drug crimes.

In Oc­to­ber, af­ter serv­ing more than a year in jail, Allen wrote to

an Observer re­porter. She be­gan her let­ter with a head­line, in all cap­i­tal let­ters: “I AM NOT A ROLE MODEL”

“Noth­ing in my life thus far has been a shin­ing ex­am­ple to oth­ers as a model of suc­cess, great achieve­ment, or even ac­cept­able hu­man be­hav­ior,” she wrote.

She said she be­gan “trav­el­ing down the wrong road” around age 13.

For 27 years, she said, she has suf­fered from bipo­lar dis­or­der and a se­vere drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion. North Carolina court records show she has been con­victed of more than 20 crimes, many of them drug of­fenses. She was home­less be­fore last year’s ar­rest, she said.

“They say life is made up of a se­ries of mo­ments and I can look back now and see where I made split-sec­ond de­ci­sions, with­out much thought that have per­ma­nently im­pacted not just my own but the lives of oth­ers. Those are the mo­ments I am not proud of.”

But Allen said she didn’t de­serve to spend the rest of her life be­hind bars for mur­der.

“I try to un­der­stand the con­cept of charg­ing drug deal­ers for crimes hold­ing them re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of their con­sumers but in all re­al­ity are peo­ple who suf­fer from the dis­ease of ad­dic­tion re­ally be­ing ‘mur­dered’ by their al­leged sup­plier?” she asked.

‘YOU’VE DE­STROYED MY LIFE’

On Nov. 29, bailiffs es­corted Allen — shack­led and wear­ing a red jail jump­suit — into a fifth-floor court­room at the Meck­len­burg County court­house.

There, pros­e­cu­tors told a judge what she had done: She had sold Bul­labough $20 worth of metham­phetamine, and $20 worth of heroin mixed with fen­tanyl.

More and more, fen­tanyl is the drug that is killing over­dose vic­tims. Last year, 543 North Carolini­ans died from fen­tanyl or its ana­logues — even larger than the num­ber who died from heroin, ac­cord­ing to the N.C. Med­i­cal Ex­am­iner’s Of­fice.

Meck­len­burg As­sis­tant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Desmond McCal­lum, who pros­e­cuted Allen, said he doesn’t think most peo­ple un­der­stand how dan­ger­ous fen­tanyl is.

“The tox­i­c­ity of it is just off the charts,” he said.

At the sen­tenc­ing hear­ing, Bul­labough’s mother wept as she watched the pro­ceed­ings. She turned to face Allen: “You’ve de­stroyed my life.”

Then Helms told Su­pe­rior Court Judge Hugh Lewis: “I don’t care how much time you give her. It will never be enough.”

Pros­e­cu­tors of­fered Allen a plea deal. They dis­missed the mur­der charge and al­lowed her to plead guilty to in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter and a drug dis­tri­bu­tion charge. Now 40, Allen will spend more than 10 years in prison.

Allen ini­tially for­got to tell Bul­labough that the heroin she sold was mixed with fen­tanyl, her at­tor­ney told the judge. When Allen re­mem­bered, her at­tor­ney said, she sent a mes­sage to Bul­labough to warn him. But by that time, he had al­ready over­dosed.

Ad­dress­ing Judge Lewis at the sen­tenc­ing hear­ing, Allen told him it was an ac­ci­dent.

“If I could change my life to­day for (Bul­labough’s), I would,” she said. “I will never forgive my­self for this.” Then, she tear­fully turned to face Helms: “I’m so sorry,” she said.

‘GOOD KID ... BAD CHOICE’

On the day af­ter Allen was sen­tenced, Helms told an Observer re­porter about her son.

Bul­labough loved to take things apart as a boy — his scooter, the lawn­mower — just to see if he could put them back to­gether. He didn’t al­ways suc­ceed.

The old­est of Helms’ two chil­dren, Bul­labough had al­ways loved ad­ven­tures — the dan­ger­ous kind. As a boy, he had to get stitches af­ter back­flip­ping on a tram­po­line. He took an­other trip to the emer­gency room for an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion af­ter he and his friends threw rocks at a hor­nets nest — and got stung.

“He al­ways loved to live on the edge,” Helms said.

As an adult, he liked to joke around, but worked hard, his mother said. He worked the night shift at a ware­house in Hun­tersville, load­ing trucks and driv­ing a fork­lift.

But Helms knew her son had other tal­ents. He was a gifted artist who could draw lions, fairies and myth­i­cal beasts, his mother said. He even de­signed his own tat­toos, in­clud­ing one of an an­chor on his foot.

“Mom, this is my way of try­ing to an­chor my life into the world,” Bul­labough told her.

“I al­ways won­dered if he could have gone to some sort of art school,” Helms said. “I think some­one would re­ally have liked what he was do­ing with his art. But he never got that far.”

Helms said she knew her son had been drink­ing too much since break­ing up with the mother of his child. But she didn’t know he had a drug prob­lem, she said.

“He was a re­ally good kid,” she said. “He just made a re­ally bad choice.”

Helms doesn’t like the plea deal that Allen re­ceived. She wanted to see her con­victed of mur­der. But it has been a year and a half since her son’s death, and Helms said she needed to “close that chap­ter so I could move for­ward with my life.”

Now Helms hopes her son’s death will send a mes­sage to other drug deal­ers: “There will be con­se­quences if you do this kind of thing to some­one’s loved one … Maybe they’ll un­der­stand you will pay for what you did to some­one’s life.”

Alexan­der: 704-358-5060; @ame­salex

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