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Judge and his wife use son's death to discuss prescription drug abuse

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The scream that pierced the silence one morning almost two years ago is one that haunts Marion Superior Judge Bill Nelson every day, and it likely will for the rest of his life.

His wife, Kristina, had just discovered her 20-year old son - the judge’s stepson for more than a decade - not breathing, blue, and unconscious in his bed inside their home. The young man and his family had been battling a prescription drug addiction together and were making progress, but what happened that day transformed not only the couple’s world as parents but has also reshaped how the longtime judge presides over criminal cases that come before him.

advocate Marion Superior Judge Bill Nelson and his wife, Kristina, discuss how they’ve become ?advocates against prescription drug abuse since their son Bryan died in 2009. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“That scream is something I relive every single day, and it’s made me a different kind of judge,” said the 16-year judge who served in small claims court before taking the major felony bench in 2001. “I’m not sure that it’s made me a better judge, just more aware of what may be happening.”

Though they’ve struggled with the loss of a child and the two can never forget what happened almost two years ago, they are trying to use their son’s death to make a difference in the community.

They’re trying to send a message to those struggling with addictions and family members who might not fully understand prescription drug use – an issue that has become more prevalent in the past decade and touched members of the legal community both professionally and personally. For the Nelsons, their son’s death is impacting the legal community through the judge’s own court docket as well as through their efforts to make the prescription drug abuse topic a more common teaching tool for judges and lawyers statewide.

A life cut short

Born in March 1988, Bryan Fentz was Kristina’s son from a previous marriage, and Judge Nelson became his stepfather about 13 years ago. A 2006 graduate of Lawrence North High School who also attended Culver Military Academy, Bryan was attending Ivy Tech Community College, where his stepdad says he was studying criminal justice with a possible paralegal path in mind. The parents laugh about him being known by friends as a “momma’s boy,” who took pride in that and always greeted everyone with a smile and compassion.

But there was a growing problem in their son’s life in more recent years that remained mostly hidden. They aren’t sure when and how it began, but the parents say the signs became more visible over time until it reached the breaking point in 2008.

Pills from prescription bottles in the medicine cabinet might vanish, and watches, DVDs, and small jewelry would disappear. Bryan became a different person and was resorting to theft to support the prescription drug habit, they see now.

“Looking at him, you couldn’t tell it was drugs because he looked fine,” the judge said. “Being in the business I am, I couldn’t tell. That’s what I feel the most grief about.”

Kristina says she saw more, and that she’d keep some of that hidden from her husband because of the sometimes-tense relationship. She’d often drive out in the middle of the night trying to find her son who wasn’t home. The family finally decided that Bryan would go through an inpatient program at Fairbanks in Indianapolis, and that 30-day treatment made all the difference. He felt safe there, the parents said.

“He really wanted to get better and two months out was when he felt the best, and he was a brand new man,” the judge said. “But the disease was bigger than he was.”

The Nelsons know that recovering addicts often relapse after treatment, and those “one last time” abuses can be even more traumatic for someone whose body has already gone through detox and is no longer as immune to large doses. That’s what happened with their son, they think.

Kristina recalls her son came home one night in early January 2009, slurring speech and looking as though he’d gone back to the habit. Reflecting now on how she’d observed him countless times in that condition, Kristina didn’t call an ambulance but they agreed he’d go back and be re-admitted to Fairbanks the next day. It was the last time she’d talk to him or see him alive.

A new reality

About 4:45 a.m. on Jan. 14, 2009, everything changed. That is Kristina’s birthday, but now it has become the anniversary marking their son’s accidental death.

She went into his bedroom to check on him and noticed that he was lying on the bed funny. He was cold and blue. She screamed and awoke Judge Nelson, who ran to the room. After phoning 911, they sat on the bed with Bryan and waited for the coroner. The cause of death was later determined to be polydrug intoxication, or the overdose from multiple drugs.

Since then, they’ve asked themselves why they didn’t see the signs or do something differently. Being married to a former police chief previously and now a sitting judge, the mother wonders why she couldn’t earlier and more clearly recognize the problem. But that’s how prescription drug abuse happens, the couple says, and it’s a problem that others – including those in the legal community – can be unprepared to handle.

“Sometimes we think that just because we’re judges or attorneys or police that this won’t happen to us, but it can and does,” Judge Nelson said, noting that he knows of other judicial officers and attorneys statewide who’ve faced prescription drug problems and tragedies. “It knows no boundaries and can hit everyone and anyone.”

Though it sometimes makes his court staff “tear up,” Judge Nelson has an enlarged memorial photo of his son with him on the bench and he shows that to kids who appear before him in court. If a parent is there in the gallery, he’ll call them forward and show them that photo and plead that they not allow themselves to lose a child as he has. Former defendants have written to him thanking the judge for that speech, he said.

“I’ve done this (judging) so long and I’d never before considered this to be a disease but a choice. I’ve done a complete 180-degree turn on that and know it’s not just as simple as deciding to not put a pill in your mouth.”

Embracing advocacy

Both parents say they weren’t sure if they’d ever get to this point of being able to talk so publicly about their son’s death.

“But we feel it’s important,” Judge Nelson said. “This has been an eye-opener, and we decided to do this so that Bryan’s death wouldn’t be in vain. He always wanted to help people and so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Reaching out to Fairbanks where their son felt safe, the Nelsons have started speaking to support groups and treatment sessions there. Judge Nelson has been certified through the National Judicial College in Nevada on drunk driving and illegal drug use, and ultimately he decided this would be a beneficial way to use both that training and this personal story to help others. The judge and his wife are also working with the Judicial Conference of Indiana to expand its involvement with these types of teaching opportunities, including any judicial officers who might have experienced prescription drug abuse in some way.

Their 40-minute presentation educates both parents and children about the drugs of choice, how to recognize them, their effects, and offers suggestions for parents on how to deal with the issues and effectively communicate with their kids. The second half focuses on the Nelsons’ personal experience, opening with the playing of Kristina Nelson’s 911 telephone call that morning.

“Maybe if one kid or parent will listen, then that would be worth it and prevent this from happening to them,” Judge Nelson said. “This serves as a reminder to us, and you can feel like you’re doing something. As horrible as it was, you have to get these kids’ attention somehow.”

At the treatment facility, Judge Nelson said they’ve heard that their son’s death has resonated with many there and even throughout the community. For example, a Carmel high school principal sentenced for drug abuse enrolled at Fairbanks and knew Bryan. After that man’s criminal case was finished, Judge Nelson later learned that he and his son had shared the same counselor and that Bryan served as an inspiration for that man to change his life, the judge said.

One parent with a teen daughter battling a drug addiction heard the Nelsons share their story at a recent session at Fairbanks, and she also applauds their efforts. She recalled a recent night where her daughter came into the bedroom after a relapse and said, “I don’t want to end up like Bryan, mom.” That hit the heart.

“I was thankful that she was at least listening to some of what Mrs. Nelson and Judge Nelson had to say,” the mother wrote an in e-mail. “Although it was very informative, more importantly, it was a very sad and a very touching eye opener for both the children and the parents. For two people to get up and share such a personal tragedy and the personal hardships they have suffered as a result to a group of total strangers is truly remarkable. (They) were hopeful that their story would help save at least one child, and I want them to know that our daughter has assured us…it has.”•

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  • Best of Thoughts and Wishes
    For those of you who read this article but do not know these wonderful people personally, Bryan was (and still is) my best friend. He was loved by so many people, and he was a brother and son to my family. Addiction truly is a disease that does not discriminate. It has no bounds and no remorse for those it affects. Bill and Kristy have been fighting so hard to cope with the loss of such an amazing and unique person, but I am so proud of the positive progression made from such devastation. They have taken life's worst of all circumstances and have used it to reach out to the world and help others in need. Bryan is my guardian angel and spiritual guide, and I love and miss him so much; but I know he is in a better place, free of anguish, watching over those who love him. Keep up the good work K&B, and remember to smile because BryBry would want you to be happy. I love you both
  • Very proud of my brother and his wife!
    As the older brother of Judge Nelson, we lived lived this tragedy with them. It was an incredibly difficult time for the family, they will never "get over it". I can't put into words how proud I am of what they are doing. This really is an incredible story! As a parent, grandparent and stepparent and I applaud and thank Bill and Kristy for their efforts. I love you two...

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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