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.”•


  • 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. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.