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Deal with OxyContin maker leaves families angry, conflicted

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Among the families who lost children and other loved ones in the nation’s opioid crisis, many had held out hope of someday facing OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and its owners in a courtroom.

That prospect all but vanished Wednesday after a bankruptcy judge conditionally approved a settlement worth an estimated $10 billion. It was a deal that left many of those families feeling they didn’t get what they really wanted.

There was no apology from members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, they weren’t forced to give up all of their vast fortune, and there was no chance to confront them face-to-face about the lives lost to opioids.

Instead, the individual victims, thousands of state and local governments and other entities that sued Purdue Pharma agreed to a deal in which the Sacklers will pay $4.5 billion and give up ownership of the company, which will be reorganized.

The company’s profits and the Sacklers’ contribution will go toward fighting opioid addiction through treatment and education programs. Also, victims of drug addiction can receive payments ranging from $3,500 to $48,000.

The conclusion to the case left families conflicted, deflated and still angry.

“Am I happy they don’t have to admit guilt and give up all their money? Of course not,” said Lynn Wencus, of Wrentham, Massachusetts. “But what would that do? It doesn’t bring my son back and it doesn’t help those who are suffering.”

In the first years after her son Jeff died of an overdose in 2017, all she wanted was vengeance. While her anger remains, she is hopeful the settlement will finally bring help to communities ravaged by overdoses.

“I know people disagree with that and want the Sacklers to suffer,” she said. “But the reality is we need money to get into the states, into education, into treatment.”

A half-million Americans have died from opioids over the past two decades, a toll that includes victims of prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin and illicit drugs such as heroin and street-grade fentanyl.

In one of the hardest-fought provisions in the settlement, the family will be protected from any future opioid lawsuits. While the Sacklers weren’t given immunity from criminal charges, there have been no indications they will face any.

Despite the settlement, the family could see its wealth rise from an estimated $10.7 billion to more than $14 billion over the coming decade, according to a group of state attorneys general who based their projection on investment returns and interest. Lawyers for Purdue and the Sackler family disputed the estimate.

“Their lives aren’t going to change. It’s a shame there can’t be something done that would make them suffer with the rest of us,” said Tamara Graham, of St. Petersburg, Florida.

But she was willing to accept the outcome because it gives her a sliver of hope that the money for treatment could save her youngest brother, who has struggled with addiction for longer than she can remember.

“I wish that I could stand up there,” she said. “I would love to make them watch a video of him going through withdrawals, the pain, the vomiting, him begging us to kill him.”

The settlement came nearly two years after the Stamford, Connecticut-based company filed for bankruptcy while facing some 3,000 lawsuits that accused Purdue of fueling the crisis by aggressively pushing sales of OxyContin.

“You don’t take the architects of the opioid crisis and give them a sweetheart deal,” said Ed Bisch, whose 18-year-old son died of an overdose nearly 20 years ago. “Where is the deterrent?”

Bisch, who has spent more than a decade pushing for the Sacklers to be criminally prosecuted, is leading a group of families that are asking the U.S. Justice Department to appeal the settlement.

“The Sacklers are buying immunity with blood money,” said Bisch, of Westampton, New Jersey. “The only silver lining is their name is mud, and it will forever be mud.”

Purdue Pharma will be reorganized into a new company with a board appointed by public officials and will funnel its profits into government-led efforts to prevent and treat opioid addiction.

The drugmaker said in a statement that the settlement will avert years of costly litigation and instead ensure that billions will go to help people and communities hurt by the crisis.

“I feel like the victims are once again at the bottom of the list,” said Dede Yoder, of Norwalk, Connecticut. “I don’t know what the states feel that their loss was. I can tell them what my loss is.”

Her only child, Chris, died of an overdose in 2017 when he was 21. He was first given OxyContin after knee surgeries as a teenager.

“I would have loved a moment in front of the Sacklers to show them pictures of my son as this beautiful boy and this happy, athletic, strong person that they decimated,” she said.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain acknowledged the concerns of those who complained that the proposed payouts to victims are insufficient. He also pointed out that none of the four Sacklers who testified offered an explicit apology.

“A forced apology is not really an apology, so we will have to live without one,” he said.

The judge said he did not have “fondness for the Sacklers or sympathy for them” but he also said that drawn-out litigation would delay getting settlement money to victims and programs for treating opioid addiction.

“Now it’s its over. It’s done, just like our children’s lives,” said Vicki Meyer Bishop, of Clarksburg, Maryland, whose 45-year-old son, Brian Meyer, died four years ago.

She said she at least hopes the money will help open more spaces in treatment programs and lift the stigma surrounding addiction.

“We need to worry about the 200 who will die tomorrow. If the money can go to help them, it’s all worth it,” she said. “I’m hoping we can save 200 today, 200 tomorrow and the next day.”

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Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio, and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

John Seewer And Geoff Mulvihill, The Associated Press

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COVID-19

Ottawa interim police chief Steve Bell didn’t ask feds to invoke Emergencies Act

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Ottawa’s interim police chief says he did not ask the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act during the “Freedom Convoy” in February.

The Liberals have said law enforcement asked for additional powers that could only be granted by declaring a national emergency.

Last week, however, Commissioner Brenda Lucki also said the RCMP did not ask the federal government to use the act.

Ottawa interim chief Steve Bell spoke to a parliamentary committee today, along with representatives from the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP and Gatineau police, about issues with jurisdiction in downtown Ottawa.

The committee on Procedure and House Affairs is examining whether the Parliamentary Protective Service should have jurisdiction over Wellington and Sparks streets, in addition to its current oversight of the parliamentary precinct.

Bell says there will need to be clarity on the boundaries of each organization’s responsibility if any changes are made, and clarity about what happens when events such as protests cross over those boundaries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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Crime

Buffalo suspect: Lonely, isolated — and a sign of trouble

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By Bernard Condon And Michael Hill in Conklin

CONKLIN, N.Y. (AP) — In the waning days of Payton Gendron’s COVID-19-altered senior year at Susquehanna Valley High School, he logged on to a virtual learning program in economics class that asked: “What do you plan to do when you retire?”

“Murder-suicide,” Gendron typed.

Despite his protests that it was all a joke, the bespectacled 17-year-old who had long been viewed by classmates as a smart loner was questioned by state police over the possible threat and then taken into custody and to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation under a state mental health law.

But a day and a half later, he was released. And two weeks after that, he was allowed to participate in graduation festivities, including riding in the senior parade, where he was photographed atop a convertible driven by his father and festooned with yellow-and-blue balloons and signs reading, “Congratulations” and “Payton Gendron.”

That account of Gendron’s brush with the law last spring, according to authorities and other people familiar with what happened, emphasized the same point school officials made in a message to parents at the time: An investigation found no specific, credible threat against the school or any individual from that sign of trouble.

That same young white man bought a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, traveled three hours to Buffalo and went on what authorities say was a racist, livestreamed shooting rampage Saturday in a crowded supermarket that left 10 Black people dead.

Gendron, now 18, was arraigned on a state murder charge over the weekend and a court-appointed public defender entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He remained jailed under suicide watch as federal prosecutors contemplate hate-crime charges.

Even as the FBI swarmed the comfortable home where Gendron lived with his parents and two younger brothers, neighbors and classmates in this community of 5,000 near the New York-Pennsylvania line say they saw no inkling of the young man now being described on television.

And they say they saw nothing of the kind of racist rhetoric seen in a 180-page online diatribe, purportedly written by Gendron, in which he describes in minute detail how he researched ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of Black people, surveilled the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, and carried out the assault to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people into leaving the country.

Classmates described Gendron as a quiet, studious boy who got high marks but seemed out of place in recent years, turning to online streaming games, a fascination with guns and ways to grab attention from his peers.

When school partially opened again early last year after COVID-19-related shutdowns, Gendron showed up covered head to toe in a hazmat suit. Classmate Matthew Casado said he didn’t think the stunt -– he called it “a harmless joke” — went down well with other students.

“Most people didn’t associate with him,” he said. “They didn’t want to be known as friends with a kid who was socially awkward and nerdy.”

Gendron excelled in sciences, once earning top marks in a state chemistry competition. But he was known for keeping to himself and not talking much. And when he did talk, it was about isolation, rejection and desperation.

“He talked about how he didn’t like school because he didn’t have friends. He would say he was lonely,” said Casado, who graduated with Gendron last year.

At one point last winter, Gendron’s mother called Casado’s mother with a request: Please have Matthew call Payton because he had no friends and needed to talk.

The two boys ended up going to flea markets together, watching YouTube videos and shooting guns on nearby state land over the next few months. Casado said that he had never heard his friend talk of anything violent.

“I didn’t think he would hurt a fly,” he said.

Some neighbors had a similar view, seeing the family as happy and prosperous, with both Paul Gendron and his wife, Pamela, holding stable jobs as civil engineers with the New York state Department of Transportation, earning nearly $200,000 combined, according to online records.

Dozens of their Facebook posts over the years show the parents and their three boys — often dressed in matching outfits — enjoying amusement park vacations, going on boat trips, shooting laser tag guns and opening presents on Christmas morning.

Carl Lobdell, a family friend who first met Gendron on a camping vacation a dozen years ago, said he was shocked that Payton was identified as the suspect in the mass shooting.

“He was very friendly, very respectable,” said Lobdell, adding that his family had grown so close to the Gendrons that they even attended Payton’s graduation party last year. “When I heard about the shooting … I just cried.”

The family did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend, nor did Gendron’s attorney. No one answered the door Monday at the family home, surrounded by a neat, spacious lawn. Near the front door was a tiny right hand pressed in concrete with a heart symbol and the words, “PAYTON 2008.”

One parent of a Susquehanna Valley High student said she was furious that the student who was investigated for making the threat last year — whom she later discovered was Gendron — was still allowed to participate in all graduation activities. The woman asked not to be identified because she feared harassment.

According to a recording of a conference call of federal and local law enforcement officials Monday that was obtained by The Associated Press, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said Gendron’s comments he made in school in June 2021 were “generalized statements” and not targeted at anyone in particular or at a specific location, which is why no criminal charges were filed. He said the state police “did everything within the confines of the law.”

Gendron enrolled at Broome County Community College and later dropped out. The school wouldn’t say why. And according to online writings attributed to him, he began planning his assault on the Buffalo supermarket beginning at least in November, saying he was inculcated into his racist views online.

“I was never diagnosed with a mental disability or disorder, and I believe to be perfectly sane,” according to one passage.

A new, 589-page document of online diary postings emerged Monday that authorities have attributed to Gendron, and some of its passages tracked with the account AP’s sources gave of his high school threat investigation.

“Another bad experience was when I had to go to a hospitals ER because I said the word’s ‘murder/suicide’ to an online paper in economics class,” said one entry. “I got out of it because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down. That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns.”

“It was not a joke, I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.”

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Condon reported from New York. Eric Tucker in Washington, Michael R. Sisak in New York and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected]

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