Judge balances family’s loss with woman’s renewed chance at life following fatal drug deal

  • Mills

  • Stephanie Mills holds up the first bag she made at Unshattered, a program for women in recovery where employees make bags and purses out of fabrics.

Monitor staff
Published: 11/4/2019 5:55:34 PM

Stephanie Mills had one thing to say Monday at Merrimack County Superior Court after she pleaded guilty to buying the drugs that killed Shea Black.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, making tearful eye contact with Black’s family, who were sitting in the front row of the gallery.

Black’s parents, Harvey and Marcia, and his wife Sherry, looked back at her, wiping away tears of their own.

Starting Tuesday, Mills will not be allowed to have contact with the family of Black, the 43-year-old Concord father who died after she bought fentanyl for him in November 2017.

However, the no-contact order was suspended for one day so that Mills, 23, could meet with Black’s family privately and apologize. Black’s family and Mills walked into a small conference room in the court after her sentence was read. They sat in there for 20 minutes and spoke about the night that Black had died in a Concord hotel room after Mills purchased fentanyl for them both to use.

Mills’s attorney, Robin Melone, told the court that Mills deeply regretted her participation in the events that led to Black’s death.

“Stephanie has so many regrets not just about that night, but about her relationship with Shea, that she took him from them even for a moment while he was alive, and then forever in his death. She feels responsible for that,” Melone said.

“When I first met her in the jail, in Merrimack County, she was despondent and I remember her saying, ‘Why did it have to be him? He has a family and kids and I have nobody. Why couldn’t it have been me?’ ”

Mills wrote more to Black’s family, in a letter that was submitted to Judge John Kissinger and sealed by the court. Letters written by Black’s mother and daughter weren’t immediately available, but the judge spoke about them as he addressed the courtroom.

“I’m struck by, in both of these letters, from Shea’s mother and from Shea’s daughter, that aspect of forgiveness and compassion, which I think says a lot about both them and the family, understanding a lot about Ms. Mills, and not out of anger or vengeance, but with a sense of mercy,” Kissinger said.

Mills officially pleaded guilty to the sale of a controlled drug, subsequent offense, and was sentenced to one year in jail, which was suspended for five years. She received credit for 140 days already served in jail before being released on bail to enter treatment more than a year ago.

Due to her suspended sentence, Mills will be able to return to Garrison, N.Y., where she has been enrolled in a long-term residential treatment program at Walter Hoving Home. Mills will be required to call in for a review hearing with a judge 12 months from now, and 12 months after that, to ensure she is keeping up with the conditions of her suspended sentence, which require that she must stay in treatment.

Concord police arrested Mills and co-defendant Jennifer Mitchell in April 2018 following a months-long investigation into the death of Black at a Concord hotel room in November 2017. Prosecutors said Mills bought fentanyl from Mitchell in the bathroom of a restaurant on Fort Eddy Road where Mitchell was then employed.

Mills and Black then used drugs in the hotel room, where Black overdosed. The state medical examiner concluded Black died of “acute intoxication” due to the combined effects of alcohol and fentanyl.

Five months after police arrested Mills, a judge agreed to reduce her bail upon her acceptance into the Hoving Home. Mills had previously engaged in drug treatment at the Pheonix House in New Hampshire and was beginning treatment in New York when authorities traveled to the state to take her into custody.

Mitchell pleaded guilty in late July to one count of sale of a controlled drug, subsequent offense, for selling two grams of fentanyl to Mills on Nov. 24, 2017, the day after Thanksgiving. She was sentenced to one year in jail, all suspended for five years, and received credit for 102 days, which she served after her arrest in spring 2018. She will be on probation for two years.

Assistant Attorney General Ben Agati said on Monday that although Mills was not indicted for causing Black’s death, she does share some responsibility for what happened to him.

“It’s important for the court to recognize that her position as a cog in the machine,” he said. “This is how these deaths happen. This is the type of conduct that needs to be taken seriously by the court.”

“Shea needed her for a connection to drugs and she willingly participated at the time,” Agati continued.

Melone said Mills has found success at the Hoving Home. She is working toward obtaining her GED and just finished a 10-week apprentice course at Unshattered, a program for women in recovery that uses fabrics to create handbags and purses. Mills began working full-time late last month.

Attached to a memo submitted to Kissinger by the defense were two photos of Mills: one was her mugshot, and the other is a photo that was taken from the Facebook page for Unshattered. In the second photo, Mills is smiling and proudly holding the first purse she made there.

Melone said Mills is working hard to turn her life around. Mills’s childhood set her on a path to drug use early on, Melone said, which is a path she does not want to continue.

“Her mother and father both used drugs, they both served time in prison, and upon release, her mother introduced Stephanie to drugs. Her mother is the one who put needles in her arm,” Melone said. “Stephanie would in turn take her mother to the hospital when she overdosed or tried to kill herself and eventually her mother just decided to leave her.”

In the months before her incarceration and when she met Shea in the hotel room where he died, Mills’s mother had left her in an empty apartment with no place to go, Melone said.

Kissinger said he weighed both the needs of Black’s family and Mills in his sentencing decision.

Black, who was born in Peterborough, leaves behind his wife and three children, according to his obituary. Black most recently worked as a registered nurse after attending NHTI in Concord and Lakes Region Community College. Previously, he worked as a hairstylist for more than two decades.

In her letter to the court, Black’s eldest daughter, Aliemma Kanu, 19, wrote about directing her anger where it belongs.

She’s angry that she lost her father, who she said was her best friend. She’s angry that he didn’t get the chance to see her graduate from Concord High in 2018, and that he won’t get to meet her kids one day.

“None of my anger is towards the women who provided the heroin, my dad knew what he was doing when he chose drugs over family. And while it is a tragedy he ended up passing because of silly choices, they were his choices,” she wrote.

Kanu said that her greatest hope is that Mills and Mitchell use her father’s death as a chance to go on a better path.

“I want them to be able to have a life and grow from this. I want them to realize the path they are on. I want them to understand the hurt they have caused and not want to do it again,” she said. “My dad wouldn’t want these women’s lives to end, he would want to practice forgiveness and want them to have a second chance at a life they deserve without the struggle of addiction.”

The letters struck a chord with Kissinger.

“I want to start by staying how hard these cases are for everybody, and I appreciate that Shea Black’s family is here and I was struck by the way in which the family related, not only the sense of loss, but also what Shea meant to their family. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses in life, and I think these letters reflect a recognition of his struggles, but also the kind of person he was and what he represented to the family,” Kissinger said.

“Ms. Mills is a 23-year-old woman who did not have a significant record, and has in my view, taken great strides to turn her life in a positive direction to take advantage of the fact that she has that chance at life, to live a life that Mr. Black won’t have going forward,” he said.

(Alyssa Dandrea contributed to this report. Leah Willingham can be reached at 369- 3322 or lwillingham@cmonitor.com.)

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