Fatal heroin overdose tests limits of amnesty law

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Georgia Supreme Court hears arguments today related to the case referred to in this article from last August. Reporter Bill Rankin, who wrote the original article below, will continue to report on the court case as it unfolds.

Sitting in the basement of his Milton home, heroin flowing through his veins for the first time, Gregg Ivey was euphoric.

“This is the best feeling in the world!” he exclaimed.

Moments later, Ivey collapsed, his face ashenhis lips turning blue. Friends couldn't find a pulse and someone called 911.

At 10:09 p.m., shortly after arriving at North Fulton Hospital, Ivey, 28, was pronounced dead. The life-of-the-party jokester with the bushy black beard was gone.

That was nearly three years ago. But for Graham Williams, who allegedly helped Ivey locate a vein and shoot up that night, the consequences live on.

The Fulton County district attorney has charged Williams, 35, with “distribution” of heroin — for injecting him with the fatal dose — plus a felony murder charge that could send him away for life. Williams’ lawyer is arguing that his client should be immune from prosecution under Georgia’s 911 Medical Amnesty law.

Adopted in 2014 to encourage drug users to render aid instead of running away, the statute says that a person who calls 911 and remains at the scene "in good faith" providing care for an overdose victim cannot face criminal prosecution.

Williams’ case — replete with the messy details of a night of partying gone tragically wrong — could ultimately set an important precedent in how the law is applied at a time when drug overdoses are soaring.

MORE: Origins of Georgia’s overdose amnesty law

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Williams, who says he administered CPR to Ivey, insists he qualifies under the amnesty law.

“I know the truth of what happened that night,” Williams said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I was doing everything I could to help him.”

But others, like Ivey’s sister, say that Williams wasted critical minutes arguing against a call to 911 as her brother faded away.

“It can save lives,” Brooke Levenson said of the amnesty law. “But what Graham did was in opposition to what the law stands for. He was preventing them from calling 911. It could have made all the difference in Gregg’s life.”

A last hurrah

The night of Ivey’s death brought together two men who had long struggled with substance abuse — Ivey with alcohol and Williams with heroin. Both had previously received treatment, only to give in once again to their addictions.

But Ivey, who grew up in Roswell, had recently given his family hope. He was ready, he said, to enter a rehab facility and turn his life around.

His sister, Julie Ivey, found a place in North Georgia that she thought he’d like because of his love of the outdoors.

But Gregg Ivey, who helped stage concerts, didn’t check in right away. He decided to enter the center the following Monday so he could work the Taylor Swift concert that coming weekend at the Georgia Dome.

He never saw the show. On Oct. 21, 2015, just three days before the concert, he partied like there was no tomorrow, a last hurrah, so to speak. He went to a bar in Canton and started downing shots and beers. At the time of his death, Ivey’s blood-alcohol content was .27 — three times the legal limit. He also had traces of cocaine in his system.

That day, Ivey told friends he wanted to sample it all before he got clean once and for all. This included heroin, which he'd apparently never tried, police reports said. At about 5 p.m., he sent a text to his roommate, Drew Kennedy: "Can I get a bump asap. H— the "H" an apparent reference to heroin.

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That night, Ivey ended up in the basement of his rental home with Williams, Kennedy and Kennedy’s girlfriend, Alexis Gladden. And Ivey already had some heroin when they arrived, court records show.

During a recent court hearing, Gladden testified that when Kennedy began loading a syringe for Ivey, Williams jerked it away and began adding more heroin. This made her uneasy, she said.

“You can always do more,” Gladden said she told Williams. “There’s no reason to add more to it for the first one.”

But Williams said, “’(Expletive) that,’” Gladden testified. “He wanted him to feel it and have a good time.”

After Williams injected him, Ivey sat down on the sofa and spoke of how wonderful he felt. Then he collapsed.

“He wasn’t waking up,” she said. “He stopped breathing.”

Don’t give up. He needs you.’

The scene at Ivey’s house became chaotic.

In a recording of the 911 call reviewed by The AJC, a determined operator can be heard barking out instructions on how to perform CPR until paramedics arrived.

“One, two, three, four!” the operator shouted over and over again, seeking the right cadence for the chest compressions. Hearing a man counting aloud with her, in unison, the operator said, “Great job, sir. Don’t give up. He needs you.”

When EMTs arrived at the basement of the Milton home, they injected Ivey with three rounds of Narcan to try to reverse the overdose. After getting a stronger pulse, they rushed him to North Fulton Hospital.

But emergency room workers couldn’t find Ivey’s pulse at all. Doctors tried to revive him with a defibrillator, shocking him 16 times. But it was no use.

Milton police soon began asking questions of the three people who were with Ivey that night. Initially, all said they weren't with him when he overdosed.

It didn’t take long for Julie Ivey to question these accounts, which didn’t square with what she knew about her brother.

First, Gregg Ivey was not a loner, she said in a recent interview. He loved being around his friends and wasn’t the sort to sit alone and shoot up. Also, since he was a young boy, he’d squirm as he watched her, a Type 1 diabetic, inject herself with insulin.

“He absolutely hated needles,” she said.

Julie Ivey and her siblings soon met with Milton police and said they suspected there was more to the story. And they were right.

During the court hearing last month, Gladden, a dog groomer who lives in Woodstock, testified as to what she said actually happened that night.

She said when she tried to call 911, Williams wouldn’t let her near a phone. She said she even told Williams about the amnesty law, but he wasn’t hearing it. After about 15 minutes, Williams finally relented after Gladden and Kennedy agreed to tell police that Ivey injected the heroin himself, she said.

Gladden also testified that both she and Kennedy took turns administering CPR to Ivey at the direction of the 911 operator. Ultimately, she said, Williams left the house so she followed him, thinking he was leaving the scene.

“It wasn’t fair or right for him to leave,” she said.

‘I never threatened anybody’

It is that version of events that prosecutors have used to charge Williams, arguing it shows he was anything but altruistic.

Kennedy and Gladden were not charged and are expected to testify against Williams.

But Manny Arora, Williams’ attorney, challenged Gladden’s testimony. He said the recording of the 911 call shows that Gladden did not administer CPR and said EMTs told police that “a white male” flagged them down when they arrived. That man had to be Williams, because Kennedy can be heard telling the 911 operator that Williams and Gladden had just gone outside “to get the ambulance,” Arora said.

At the court hearing, Arora made the highly unusual move of calling his client to the stand.

After being sworn in, Williams said he helped administer CPR and never planned to leave the scene. “I flagged them as they approached,” he said of the EMTs.

Williams also testified that he never prevented Gladden and Kennedy from calling 911. “I never threatened anybody,” he said.

In interviews with police after Ivey’s death, Kennedy repeated what Gladden had said — that Williams initially wouldn’t let them call 911. But Kennedy also told police that Williams initially started CPR on Ivey after the 911 operator told them to what to do.

In an earlier case, an acquittal

Williams is charged with felony murder. Under Georgia law, this means someone died during the commission of a felony. In Williams’ case, that felony is distribution of heroin. Witnesses say Williams injected the fatal dose into Ivey’s arm, and prosecutors say that qualifies as distribution.

Arora is asking Fulton County Superior Court Judge John Goger to throw out the murder charge on two grounds. First, Williams’ actions on the night of Ivey’s death make him ineligible for prosecution under the amnesty law, Arora told Goger.

Also, even if Williams did inject Ivey with heroin, that is not distribution of drugs in the traditional — or legal — sense, Arora said. “It’s not uncommon for heroin users to inject one another, and sharing a needle or injecting one another are not the same as possession with intent to distribute.”

Goger has yet to issue his decision. Once he does, the losing party is expected to appeal to the state Supreme Court. If that happens, it will be the first time the state high court has addressed the amnesty law.

Fulton prosecutors previously sought a murder conviction in a similar case, also from Milton. In March 2015, two childhood friends, James Hoffman and Cameron Mauldin, drove to Cobb County to get some heroin.

Mauldin, who feared needles, asked Hoffman to inject him. The two returned to Milton, and Hoffman injected Mauldin again.

After Mauldin overdosed, Hoffman called 911 and gave his friend CPR until paramedics arrived. Like Ivey, Mauldin died at North Fulton Hospital, and Fulton prosecutors charged Hoffman with felony murder and drug distribution.

But in July 2016, Fulton Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob dismissed the murder case against Hoffman, finding Hoffman qualified under the amnesty law. Also, because Mauldin had bought the heroin, he could not accept delivery of drugs he already owned, Shoob said.

Credit: Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

Credit: Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

Fulton prosecutors chose not to appeal Shoob’s ruling.

According to testimony and police interviews in the case against Williams, Ivey purchased his own heroin.

‘Such a dark place to live’

Ivey’s siblings — Brook Levenson, Julie Ivey and Joe Ivey — have closely followed Williams’ case. In recent interviews, they recalled how their brother was everybody’s friend, a sweet, kind soul who often flashed a mischievous grin and liked to prank the unsuspecting. He also loved fishing and kayaking with his beloved dog, River.

And, despite a constant struggle with his addictions, Ivey had finally said he was ready to enter the rehab center.

“We thought that was such an important step,” Julie Ivey said.

Levenson said she often wonders what sort of justice her brother Gregg would want from this.

“We’d love to come to a place of forgiveness with Graham,” she said. “But he’s shown no remorse. If he’d immediately called 911 and tried to help Gregg, I don’t think our family would be pursuing criminal charges.”

These days, Williams, out on bond, spends his days living with his parents in Bristol, Tenn., cutting grass at the local golf course and caring for his 11-month-old daughter.

Just as Gregg Ivey’s addictions tortured his family, Williams acknowledges putting his parents and siblings through hell. He lapsed and relapsed, failing drug tests and lying to everyone to support his addiction.

Now, Williams says, he no longer carries a cellphone or cash with him and rarely ever drives by himself.

“I’ve been the master of doing well for a while and then messing up over and over again,” he said. “That’s such a dark place to live. It feels good not to wake up every morning with your first thought being how can I get the drugs to get me high that day.”

During a recent interview at his lawyer’s office, the tall and lanky Williams said he can’t mess up again because of his young daughter. He was accompanied by his parents, Eddie and Kathy Williams, and his sister, Hollie Keeter.

“For years, we’ve been on this roller coaster and obviously we continue to care,” Keeter said during an emotional interview. “We’re here for each other — and for him.”

Arora, Williams’ lawyer, insists that Williams should not be facing a murder charge. He said his client would plead guilty to a drug possession charge, but no more.

But Fulton prosecutors haven’t budged.

“Had they called 911 ten to 15 minutes earlier, we may not be here,” Assistant District Attorney Adam Abate told the judge at a court hearing in July. “Mr. Ivey may be alive.”

Overdose Epidemic:

In recent years, the number of drug overdoses in Georgia has soared, straining the state’s health care, social service and criminal justice systems. And that doesn’t begin to measure the toll inflicted on family, friends and loved ones of those ravaged by addiction. In a series of stories, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is examining the impact of this alarming trend, what is being done to combat it and the challenge that lies ahead. In July, The AJC reported on the comeback of methamphetamine, which has steadily claimed more and more lives since 2010. Today’s story examines the challenges posed by a state amnesty law, designed to encourage help for overdose victims by limiting the criminal liability of those at the scene. Future stories will explore what’s happening at the local level to try to turn the tide as well as the gathering power of lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers.