Photo: Bernie Mullen
It wasn’t until I received a couple of recent emails from Bernie Mullen, and saw today’s USA Today headline about the surge in newborn babies born addicted to pain killers that I decided to share Bernie and his daughter’s story again. It’s long for online, but one hell of a tale.When the boom crane snapped its moorings and fell on Bernie Mullen in the wet, muddy Chicago fall of 1988, it was a bad start to a long Thanksgiving weekend. “It took three guys to lift the crane off me,” Bernie says, “but I was fine. Muddy, sore and cold, but fine. I mean, I thought I was fine.” He wasn’t. And 15 years, eight surgeries, two screws in his neck, five pins in his spine and another big plate in his neck later, he knew it.
In 2003, the screws in his neck popped out and the drugs he was taking for the pain were no longer working. “One day, you’re a citizen, taking your meds as prescribed, doing what you’re told, all that,” Bernie says. “Then the drugs stop working and you know it’s illegal to get more, so you start changing the way you take them.”
Bernie, who had moved to Sarasota, FL a few years after his accident started crushing up his Roxycodone first. “Once you cross that line,” Bernie says, “it is unreal how fast shit starts to unravel.” From crushed and swallowed, to smoked, to snorted, to melted down and injected. “I don’t remember the timeline,” Bernie says, “but no matter how I took them, I just wasn’t getting enough.” And the issue went from pain to full-blown addiction.
WITH 100-per cent disability checks rolling in on a regular basis, Joe devoted his attention to his “pain management,” and he met a lot of doctors.”90-five per cent of these ‘pain management doctors,'” he lifts his hands and does the quote sign, “are crooked.” All these ads you see on the backs of magazines like Creative Loafing ( local alternative weekly), these guys, they don’t accept health insurance so they don’t have to have malpractice coverage. They only take cash or credit cards. A lot of them, they open up their own pharmacies in their offices. Often they don’t open until the evenings when their clients get up and they won’t accept patients under 25.”
Photo: Bernie Mullen
“I’d be in a doctors office, it’s seven o’clock at night in August and the waiting room is full of people in sweatshirts, shivering their way through the first stages of withdrawal,” Bernie says. “I remember paying $800 for $400 worth of prescriptions right there in the office. Walking out and thinking: ‘This shit is really, really messed up.'”There is no prescription monitoring system in Florida and these “pill mills” are very popular.
“Sometimes, you know, one of the 5-per cent legitimate docs would request my prescription history. But, because the pharmacies, none of them are linked, I would walk in with my three-month printout from just one place,” Bernie says. He lights a cigarette and combination-laughs-and-coughs out a roomful of smoke. “That was the hardest part about the whole thing. Keeping the damn pharmacies straight.” He shakes his head and points a finger in my direction. “You walk into the wrong pharmacy at the wrong time and they will call 911.”
“How much and what were you actually taking?” I ask. Bernie and his wife — who he met in 2001 while doing light kitchen remodeling, his last job — each pick up a lit cigarette from the ashtray; lean back into the brown sectional couch in their clean, well-lit living room; look at each other and then back to me.
“Between the two of us,” Bernie says, “we were going through 300 30-milligram pills of Roxycodone a day. We would cook 20 30-milligram pills at a time.” (Roxycodone is Oxycontin without the time-release effect.) I do the maths in my head as they watch: about 9,000 milligrams a day, almost 300,000 milligrams a month. “Pure insanity,” Bernie says and looks at his wife.
To obtain this quantity of drugs, Bernie tells me, they were “shopping” 26 different doctors in Manatee, Sarasota, Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. “One guy,” Bernie says, “in Pinellas County, he was a gynecologist, pulled from retirement to write prescriptions for a pain clinic up there. A lot of the places are owned by groups of investors, using anyone they can find for their medical licence.”
His wife leans forward, puts her cigarette in the ashtray, looks me in the eye and interrupts Bernie, saying: “The tolerance. You have to understand how insanely fast your tolerance goes up.”
To do those kinds of drugs and maintain functionality, the pair mixed in some cocaine to keep them functioning at a level high enough to make their appointments and keep their pharmacies straight. The coke sales brought the pair closer to hitting bottom.
They started keeping company with low-priced call girls and crack addicts. Their jobs long gone, they were making enough money selling pills and coke to maintain their own supply of drugs. But the crack houses and dives they were living in brought attention from the police.
The cops raided one house where the pair was crashing. “We’d just shot up and the police burst in the front door,” Bernie says. “Instantly we’re sober.” His wife nods enthusiastically. “The cops search the house,” Bernie continues, “search all of us, take all the drugs they find and as the last cop is walking out the door, he turns back, and I swear he stares right at me and goes: ‘You’d be better off if we just took you out to the pasture and put a bullet in your head.’ I’ll never forget it.”
THE RAID CHANGED nothing. And by 2007 the couple was buying 30-milligram Roxys for 72 cents apiece and selling them for $15. Over the next 18 months, till the time of their arrest, Bernie says, “We went through about $2 million in pills.”
Bernie and his wife were taking so much Roxycodone their ability to survive was fading. His wife tells me she had an accident and broke her collarbone. “I finally went to the hospital and it turned out to have been three weeks since the accident,” she says. “I remember thinking there is absolutely no way three weeks could have gone by, but the medical staff had no doubt. Apparently the bone was snapped completely in half and had already started to heal incorrectly. I’d felt absolutely nothing.”
“That was rough,” Bernie says, referring to his wife’s brief hospital stay. “The nurses would walk in on us shooting up, scowl and slam the door — not cool. But we were beyond caring,”
That reminds him of a story. “Around that time, we were in Fort Myers getting a script and we were sick as fuck. So I come out of Walgreens with my script of 480 Roxy 30s — we forgot the pill crusher and didn’t have any pliers so I put a handful in the paper bag from the script and folded it up and knelt down right there in the parking lot of Walgreens and beat the pile with a tire iron. [My wife] was yelling at me and I was like, ‘What the fuck, you want to get straight, right?’ I just didn’t fucking care about anything other than getting that dope in my arm to not be sick anymore.”
The incessant shooting up also took its toll — the couple’s arms are covered in track marks, Bernie picked up a bad case of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), an infection not uncommon to intravenous drug users.
“The MRSA got so bad,” he says, “you could hide stacks of quarters in my arms.” He holds out his arms. It looks like he put them into a campfire and held them there. He points to his legs. Dark scars, the size of silver dollars, all puckered and angry, stare back at me.
To control the infection, Bernie performed what he calls “bathroom surgery.” He would cut away the dead skin on his arms and legs with cuticle trimmers and pour hydrogen peroxide over the wounds. “I’m lucky I didn’t die from the MRSA alone,” Bernie says. “Really, I have no right to be alive.”
Not all addicts share Bernie’s luck. Russell Vega, the medical examiner for Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, says that in 2009 there were 73 accidental prescription drug overdoes deaths in Sarasota and 56 in Manatee. It might have been police intervention that helped Bernie and his wife avoid joining those statistics.
LYNN WAS OUT picking up some pills when she got pulled over. She called Bernie from the truck, with the police behind her, running her licence. “I’ve been pulled over,” she told Bernie. “I’ve got warrants, and they’ve been asking me where you are.”
Bernie, at home on the couch with a prostitute friend named Tia, said, “Well, don’t tell them where I am,” and lit a cigarette. The pair hung up before the police came back and arrested Bernie’s wife.
“I was still smoking the same cigarette when I heard the helicopters. I was like, ‘No fucking way, really?’ Tia the hooker looked at me, said, ‘Good luck man,’ and ran out the sliding door into the backyard. … The chopper kept getting closer. I’m pacing, smoking that cigarette down, just running over in my head. No. Fucking. Way. No. Fucking. Way. It was totally surreal.”
When the prop wash started knocking the palm fronds into the pool cage, the reality became impossible to ignore. SWAT stormed through both the front and back door at the same time and threw Bernie to the floor, burning cigarette butt and all.
“They didn’t want to touch me with the staph infections and MRSA all over me,” Bernie says. “My lymph nodes were so swollen from the infection I could barely move my arms. They finally had to link two sets of cuffs together because I couldn’t get my arms behind me.” The police took him to the Sarasota County jail; they sent him straight to the hospital.
Bernie was caught with prescriptions from three doctors and was looking at up to 15 years in prison. The prosecutor and Judge Deno Economou listened to Joe’s public defender when he asked the court to give his client one chance to help himself. “The judge actually cussed me out in court,” Bernie says, “but bless his ornery soul, he gave me a break. He gave me my one chance and I’m not going to waste it. Oh, and without NA [Narcotics Anonymous] there is no way I could have done this. None.”
In April 2008, Bernie pleaded guilty to Fraudulent-Possession of a Blank Prescription Form and was released with credit for time served. He’s been clean since.
His wife went through her own ordeal. After her arrest in 2008, she received probation. While on probation, she tested positive for opiates and was sent to drug court. In July 2009, at her court date, it was revealed that she was pregnant. She was sentenced to court-ordered methadone treatment. Their baby, Faith, was born 18 months ago. “I’ve been sick before,” Bernie’s wife says. “I’ve gone through withdrawal, all that, but to listen to my newborn baby scream from methadone withdrawal, no other pain in my life has ever come close to that.”
Faith is home now, born premature; she’s hooked up to a heart and respiratory monitor 24 hours a day. Some studies report that methadone infants have a higher rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The couple look down at their daughter, all swirls of brown hair, pink blanket, pink jumper and the tiniest most perfect fingers imaginable. Wires run from her small body to a square box on the coffee table.
“My 14-year-old daughter just got out of rehab,” Joe says. “Every one of my kids has gotten messed up with pills. And yeah, that’s probably my fault, but it’s not just my kids. It’s not like when I was a kid, a little pot, a little acid. These kids got habits for real. And when it’s as easy as calling the number on the back of a newspaper to get drugs, how do we stop that?”
November 2011: The couple’s daughter still suffers from the problems of addictions and has been in and out of hospitals since this was written. Bernie’s wife asked that her name not be used. I confirmed Bernie’s story through police filings and, where possible, through third-hand accounts.
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