At the end of her statement to the court this afternoon as her daughter’s killer, Joseph Colon, agreed to a plea, Renee Deangelis addressed Colon directly: “Mr. Colon, your children are in our prayers,” Deangelis said.
Colon has a 7-year-old daughter. Her mother died of a heroin overdose in September 2018, less than year after Colon had sold Savannah Deangelis the $40 doses of heroin on which she almost immediately overdosed at her home, falling into a coma and never waking up. She died in November 2017. She was 23.
In a historic first, Flagler County today became one of the few counties in the nation to have successfully prosecuted a drug dealer for murder in the death of a client. Last week, before the same judge, the county made history for being the first in Florida to hold a criminal trial in person since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic.
Just before Circuit Court Judge Terence Perkins accepted his plea and sentenced him to 30 years in prison, Colon, for his part referred to himself twice as a “scapegoat” for the opioid crisis, ridiculing the plea to which he was agreeing.
He had been indicted on a first-degree murder charge for the death of Deangelis, pursuant to a relatively new Florida law, similar to others in the country, making drug dealers liable for the death of their clients. He faced life in prison. With DeAngelis’s family’s approval, Colon pleaded to second-degree murder and a 30-year prison sentence. With the thousand days he’s already served at the county jail and the allowance for early release after serving 85 percent of his sentence, the 30-year sentence will actually equate to 22 more years.
The hearing was brief. It was conducted partly in person, with the judge in the courtroom for a series of hearings, and Colon and other inmates appearing by a live feed from the jail. Other than the attorneys–the case was prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Dunton–who also appeared from a remote link, only one other person addressed the court.
It was never clear either to the attorneys or even to Colon who William Baughman is. The man, who appeared to be in his 30s, stood at the podium, almost in tears, trying to collect himself. He was speaking on behalf of Colon. “I’m really nervous, I’m heartbroken right now,” he told the court. “No one one here wins in this situation.” He spoke of addiction being a “very hard thing to break,” and as something that “leads you to do things that’s not aligned with your character nor how you were raised with your morals.” Referring to Colon’s children, he said, “there’s going to be a lot of devastation.”
The devastation has been taking its toll for almost three years, particularly on the Deangelis family. Renee and Chip Deangelis, Savannah’s parents, have since joined the county’s opioid task force and Flagler County’s chapter of Open Arms Recovery, chairing both organizations’ education committees, and have been active in bringing awareness and seeking means to battle the opioid epidemic.
Renee Deangelis devoted her statement today in part to thanking a list of people and organizations that prosecuted the case, including the deputies and first responders who responded to her house “with diligence and kindness” that October afternoon when Savannah overdosed, to former detective Nicole Quintieri, “an angel who is much needed” (Quintieri runs the sheriff’s Police Athletic League), to Sheriff Rick Staly for running a “compassionate” department, to the State Attorney’s Office. She then described her work now as a “crusade,” and today’s sentencing as bringing the community “one step closer to eradicating” the problem. (See Deangelis’s full statement here.)
“This will never be tolerated in this county and you will be stopped,” Deangelis said, addressing dealers in general.
The words contrasted bleakly with the situation since Savannah’s death. “In the last 20 months,” Staly said less than an hour later at a news conference on the case, “deputies have responded to 224 overdoses, and we have deployed 115 doses of Narcan” the neutralizing agent that restores breathing patterns in victims of overdoses, “saving countless lives. We have investigated 27 fatal overdose deaths. As you can see from those numbers, we have a drug-addiction problem in Flagler County–not as bad as some other areas, but one overdose or one death is one too many. We need more treatment facilities and programs available in Flagler County. The state needs to better fund treatment programs in residential beds. The addiction is a medical problem that needs to be solved with treatment. The selling of poison is a criminal matter, and if you’re a drug dealer, we are going to do our part to stop you and arrest you.”
Colon himself had sold drugs to at least two other individuals who overdosed but survived, according to State Attorney R. J. Larizza.
during the plea hearing thanked the court but quickly went on to delivering what amounted to a polemic about the prosecution of the opoid crisis. “So many people play their part in these overdoses,” he said, citing a former Flagler County circuit judge by name and others. “If you honestly think justice was transpired today I’m sorry for you,” he said.
Absent from his statement was a single note of remorse or reflection about his own role in DeAngelis’s death.
At 2:30, Staly and Larizza held a press conference about the case three floors below the courtroom. Both excoriated Colon for not taking responsibility for his role. “He couldn’t actually accept full responsibility for his action,” Larizza said, saying he sees it frequently with defendants: they deflect responsibility.
“Colon needs to look in the mirror and take for once in his life responsibility for his actions,” Staly said, noting he wished Colon would “rot” in prison.
“While we can never bring Savannah back to her family–and I cannot imagine the pain that you are bearing–I hope today brings you some closure, knowing that the person that sold the illegal drugs and took Savannah away from you is going away for a long time,” Staly told Savannah’s parents, who both attended. “While 30 years is a long time, it’s still not enough when you know he sentenced Savannah to death by his action to make a buck.”
Staly said every overdose case is investigated, and “every fatal overdose is investigated as a murder,” he said. “We’re going to arrest you for murder every time we can, and we have e number of cases pending with the State Attorney’s Office now.”
Deangelis addressed the matter of responsibilities.
“It’s my understanding that the dealer pursued people who were vulnerable. He had a reputation for doing that, apparently,” Deangelis said, “and what was in the heroin that my daughter took was fentanyl. That is deadly, and anybody who is dealing heroin with heroin knows that. As was said earlier, he had left other people behind, left to die, there were other witnesses who had used the same drug he had given my daughter.” She said with all that combined, “there is so much accountability there than your normal drug deal, I would say, that’s just an exchange of drugs, an exchange of money. There was knowledge leading up to this of what he was apparently doing. I think that’s the difference of where the responsibility lies on him much more than in a normal situation like this.”
Deangelis also addressed the role of Project WARM, the Stewart-Marchman rehab facility where Savannah had been an in-patient resident, and from where she had been given a four-day pass during the Hurricane Irma emergency, even though she did not qualify for one, and even though her home was in a flood and evacuation zone, near the Intracoastal, as Project WARM in Bunnell was not. It was during that furlough that Savannah briefly relapsed. She owned up to it when back at Project WARM, and for that, was kicked out, briefly jailed, and two days after she was jailed, received the drugs from Colon.
“I hold them accountable equally as much,” Deangelis said of Project WARM. “This situation with Mr. Colon was brought on by the state of Florida. The situation with Project WARM to me would be more of a civil situation, and personally, I absolutely hold them responsible also, because that is where the ball started rolling, so to speak, for Savannah, for things to become like they did.”
Today is International Overdose Awareness Day.
[This is a developing story. More soon.]