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‘You murdered my daughter’: Relatives of OxyContin victims confront Sacklers in court session

“I have put away drug dealers with a single rap of a gavel without blinking an eye. Oh how I wish I could do the same to you, Richard Sackler.”

Linda Zebrowski, left, and her daughter, Jill Cichowicz, with a photo of Jill's twin brother Scott Zebrowski. He died of an opioid overdose in a Starbucks parking lot. Hilary Swift/The New York Times


“You murdered my daughter and destroyed my family,” said Donna Mazurek, whose daughter, Paige, was prescribed Purdue Pharma’s opioid painkiller OxyContin after a root canal, became addicted, spiraled into heroin and overdosed when she was 22.

Mazurek, from Michigan, spoke at an extraordinary Zoom session in a federal bankruptcy courtroom in White Plains, New York, on Thursday. Her voice quaked as she addressed three members of the billionaire Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma — two expressionless people visible on the video screen and one unseen, Dr. Richard Sackler, a former Purdue president who was watching with his camera off.

The hearing, conducted by U.S. Judge Robert Drain, who is overseeing Purdue’s bankruptcy, featured 26 people from 19 states. It was a long-sought, galvanizing release of pain, rage and grief, a session the Sackler family agreed to last week as part of the still-evolving terms of efforts to settle thousands of lawsuits against them and their company. After years of litigation and prolonged settlement talks among state and local governments and the Sacklers and Purdue, Thursday’s session was the first time individuals had been allowed to directly address the Sacklers.

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“This is a day like no other in the history of American jurisprudence,” Anne Andrews, a lawyer on a committee for 70,000 relatives and those in recovery, said just before the start of the hearing. “The Sacklers have to listen to the direct victims of their crimes, the stories of people who have died, who lost the potential of their lives. But for years the Sacklers painted them in their emails as slime, addicts, as lowlifes, and that it was their fault they were addicted. But they are America. They are you and me.”

Speakers hurled invectives, cursing the Sacklers for their greed, seeming indifference to the devastation their company’s product had caused and their refusal to take personal responsibility.

“I pray that criminal charges are filed upon you,” said Tiffinee Scott, a Maryland mother who described finding the dead body of her daughter Tiarra, who was first given OxyContin to treat pain from sickle cell disease. Scott displayed a photo of a large plastic garbage bag teeming with opioid pill bottles.

Tiffinee Scott of Maryland lost her daughter, Tiarra Renne Brown Lewis, to addiction after she was prescribed OxyContin for pain associated with her sickle cell disease. – Hilary Swift/The New York Times

“Have you revived one of your children from an overdose?” she asked the Sacklers.

The three Sacklers attending the hearing represented two branches of the family involved with the company as OxyContin arrived on the market: Richard Sackler, 77, a former president and chair of the board; his son, David Sackler, 41, a former board member; and Dame Theresa Sackler, 73, a former board member who is the British-born widow and third wife of Dr. Mortimer Sackler, one of the company’s founders.

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Throughout, Theresa Sackler sat quietly, her composure unchanging. David Sackler shifted occasionally. Richard Sackler, the family member seen as most involved in the company’s aggressive efforts to market OxyContin, remained off camera the whole session, infuriating some of the speakers.

“To this day, these killers continue to deny any wrongdoing,” said Bill Nelson, an Indiana father of a son who died from an overdose. “‘The families have acted lawfully in all respects’ — Richard, can you honestly say that with a straight face? If so, why don’t you turn on your camera and let’s see?”

Arik Preis, a lawyer for the official committee of unsecured creditors in the Purdue bankruptcy, which includes individual victims and other parties, said that Richard Sackler was permitted to remain off camera “by agreement” but would not elaborate.

By prior arrangement, the Sacklers did not speak during the session and did not issue a statement after.

In detailing personal tragedies, the victims had hoped to break through the family’s sang-froid, which the Sacklers have maintained during their rare public appearances in court and before Congress, a refusal to take any responsibility for the epidemic of addiction that was touched off by their company’s aggressive and misleading marketing of OxyContin, beginning in the late 1990s.

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Ryan Hampton. – Hilary Swift / The New York Times

Addressing Richard Sackler directly, Ryan Hampton, who is in recovery from opioid addiction, said, “In 2001, you wrote famously ‘We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.’ Richard Sackler, you are the abuser. You are the criminal and you are the culprit.”

Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in 2007 and again in 2020 to federal criminal charges related to the company’s turbocharged promotion of OxyContin, a relentless campaign during which salespeople downplayed the drug’s addictive properties. Members of the Sackler family were on the company’s board throughout, engaging with Purdue executives and urging them to boost sales, even as overdoses and deaths from OxyContin were becoming well-known and widespread. While some Sacklers have expressed regret that the painkiller had been misused, they have always denied any personal responsibility for the crisis.

The speakers held up photos of the dead to the camera eye. A daughter spoke on behalf of her 88-year-old father, a former pediatrician and Army doctor who was prescribed OxyContin for pain and became addicted, and could be found wandering at night, naked, delusional and suicidal.

People who were in recovery for addiction recounted the shame of their shattered lives. Marriages unraveled. Houses were repossessed.

The victims included Marines, doctors, firefighters, a Beverly Hills film producer, a broadcast executive.

Cheryl Juaire lost two sons, Corey and Sean Merrill, to opioid addiction. – Hilary Swift/The New York Times

A grandmother who lost a son and a grandson to addiction described her struggle to get treatment for grandchildren born with signs of withdrawal from the drug, even pawning her wedding band to pay for their services, often having to choose which child needed them more urgently because her resources were so limited.

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At times Drain, who has presided over the Purdue bankruptcy proceedings for more than two years, seemed to be wiping his eyes.

On Zoom, Nelson, the Indiana father, and his wife, Kristi, sat in front of a wall of bookshelves and began their remarks by playing the recording of a chaotic 911 call:

“Oh, God, he’s dead!” Kristi Nelson’s shrieks erupted over and over, as the phone operator tried to discern vital details. She had just found her 20-year-old son, Bryan, the couple’s only child, dead from an overdose, within years of having been prescribed OxyContin after a car accident.

After the recording Kristi Nelson spoke to the camera: “Richard, you are truly a selfish, greedy, coldhearted, cruel, callous SOB. ”

Referring to Richard Sackler’s dismissive remarks that have been reported over the years about patients addicted to OxyContin, she said, “You called my son scum of the earth. Hello, Richard! Brian was a straight-A student in college, studying law.”

She continued: “Bryan cared more about others than himself, something obviously your mother did not instill in you. You want to see scum? You should all look in the mirror.”

Nelson, a criminal court judge, added, “I have put away drug dealers with a single rap of a gavel without blinking an eye. Oh how I wish I could do the same to you, Richard Sackler.”

Kara Trainor, a Michigan mother in recovery, with photos of her 11-year-old son who was born addicted to OxyContin. – Hilary Swift/The New York Times

Kara Trainor, a Michigan mother in recovery, showed a photograph of her 11-year-old son and said slowly into the camera: “If you have ever heard the screams of a newborn in withdrawal, they will haunt you for the rest of your life.” Her son has autism. “He wears diapers. He will have care for the rest of his life, 24/7,” she said.

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More than 140,000 people have filed legal claims against Purdue, but they have not gotten as much public attention as the aggregated lawsuits filed by cities, counties, tribes and states. Throughout the litigation, individual victims and their surviving relatives fought to have a seat at the table in settlement talks. Although their tragedies were often held aloft as cautionary tales by the states and local governments that stand to gain the most from any settlement, the victims have been largely sidelined.

While state and local governments would divide up billions from the Sacklers and Purdue for treatment and prevention programs, if the current draft — or some approximation — of the Purdue bankruptcy and settlement plan were adopted, individual victims would get far less. They can apply for compensation from a fund of up to $750 million and would be able to collect amounts ranging from $3,500 to $48,000.

Parents and guardians of about 6,550 children with a history of neonatal abstinence syndrome may each receive about $7,000. Many must show proof that OxyContin was directly implicated — a high bar, given the passage of time and the difficulty in locating records.

The hearing with the Sacklers emerged from the latest round of negotiations among the Sacklers, eight states and Washington, D.C., which, in addition to New Hampshire, voted against the last bankruptcy plan for Purdue Pharma. The latest terms include an increased contribution from the Sacklers for up to $6 billion. Although considerable hurdles loom for finalizing the deal, one condition, requested by a judge who mediated the talks, was what occurred Thursday: People deeply affected by the opioid epidemic finally had their day in court.

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Dede Yoder lost her son, Chris Yoder, to an overdose when he was 21. – Hilary Swift/The New York Times

One of the last to give a statement was Vicki Bishop, who spoke of her firstborn child, Brian, a construction worker who had been prescribed OxyContin after a work accident.

She concluded with a request: “That when you, Richard, David and Theresa, put your heads down on your pillows tonight and close your eyes to sleep, that you see my son Brian, and you visualize his opioid-addicted life that led him at the age of 45 to a cold steel table in the Baltimore County medical examiner’s office, blue, alone and dead from a fatal overdose.

“I want you to consider your personal role in this,” she said. “Because this is what I see every night when I close my eyes and try to find the sleep that rarely comes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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