Stevie Steiner telephoned friends and family every few days after moving from rural New York to South Florida on January 3. The healthy, muscular 19-year-old was optimistic about his future in the Sunshine State. He liked to party but was not one to throw caution to the wind. He once phoned a buddy back home, saying there was a "killer drug" in Florida but he wanted nothing to do with it. He found a job as an electrician and on Super Bowl weekend called his dad to brag about his first weekly paycheck of $799.91.
Two days after that call, on the morning of January 29, Stevie's half brother, Matthew Brindisi, discovered his lifeless body on the living-room floor of the home they shared on Sunny Lane in Palm Beach Gardens. According to coroner Lisa Flannagan, Stevie died from an overdose of oxycodone, a prescription painkiller that has played a part in more than 100 deaths in Palm Beach and Broward counties during the past 14 months. Witnesses say that Stevie, who was ill with bronchial pneumonia, took one to four tablets of OxyContin, the most powerful form of oxycodone. Because the boy's respiratory system was already compromised, the drug slowed his breathing until he suffocated.
The Palm Beach Sheriff's Office recently ended its investigation without charging anyone, but questions remain unanswered. The boy's father, Steven Steiner Sr., who lives in Tioga Center, New York, says it would have been uncharacteristic for his son to use a risky drug such as OxyContin. He's suspicious of witnesses' changing stories -- most notably that of Brindisi, who gave police contradictory accounts about buying the drug. Two other witnesses told cops the OxyContin might have come from a prescription belonging to Stevie's mother, Laura Miller, of West Palm Beach.
Until moving to Palm Beach Gardens, Stevie had always lived with his dad. Steiner Sr. acknowledges his son sometimes used alcohol and marijuana, "but he didn't [party] dangerously. Stevie didn't use OxyContin." The elder Steiner wonders if someone slipped his son the drug for more nefarious reasons. Even if the father's hunch is wrong and the boy simply overdosed without anyone's aid, his death underscores the risks of OxyContin, which has recently alarmed public health authorities and made headlines.
Stevie's short life was in general a busy, happy one. In 1980 his father had moved from New Jersey to South Florida, where he met Laura Brindisi, whose son, Matthew, was about nine months old. They soon married and moved back to New Jersey. Stevie was born April 20, 1981, in North Branch, a shore town that caters to summer tourists and is the locale of a fictional nightclub on The Sopranos. Stevie loved sports and became a fervent water-skier at age six. In Little League he won the Mayor's Cup for pitching at age nine. "He wanted to do whatever his dad was doing," Steiner Sr. says. Stevie always had difficulty learning, especially reading, but he was good at working with his hands. At age 13 he started helping his dad with electrical work.
Still the boy's youth was not without problems. At age 16 Stevie stole some of his father's credit cards and used them to check into nearby motels. Steiner Sr. reported the theft to police, who found Stevie at his girlfriend's house. The father insisted his son spend three months in New Jersey's Youth Detention Center, an institute not for the faint of heart. "I didn't see him for a month while he was in there," he says. "When I visited him for the first time, his eyes watered up, and he hugged me. It was a learning experience he never forgot." While in his junior year, Stevie dropped out of high school and began working full-time as an electrician.
Steiner Sr. and Laura Brindisi divorced in 1989, and she returned to Florida. (She later remarried and took her husband's name, Miller.) Matthew lived with the Steiners for five more years, until he was 15 years old, and then moved to Florida. A work slowdown late last year prompted Stevie to move to Palm Beach County, too. He moved in with his half brother January 3 and soon found work as an electrician with Luminary Effects in Boca Raton. He talked with his dad about working diligently to pay off loans of $6000 on his 1995 Honda Accord and $3000 on an ATV. "Then we were going to help him buy a house," Steiner says.
Those plans were snuffed out January 29. When Deputy Ronald Ramos arrived at 2037 Sunny Ln. that Monday morning, he found Brindisi talking on the phone to a 911 dispatcher, crying as he sat on the living room floor beside his half brother's body. Brindisi was so upset at one point that he vomited.
Brindisi told Ramos that he, Stevie, and a group of friends had used the drugs Ecstasy and OxyContin Saturday night. Police records indicate that Brindisi said he gave Stevie two tablets of OxyContin but told him to take only one. He described seeing Stevie take both pills as well as a half-tablet of Ecstasy. Between 2 and 4 a.m. Sunday, Brindisi claimed, he left with his girlfriend, Bonnie Evans. Stevie was asleep on the living-room couch. Two other women, Michelle MacDonald and Christine Hoffman, remained at the house. When Brindisi returned home at about 6 p.m., Stevie was still asleep, and the two women were still there.
A few hours after his meeting with Ramos, Brindisi told sheriff's department homicide detective Richard Carl a new story. In this version, according to police records, he had not seen Stevie take the OxyContin; rather he suspected his half brother chewed a tablet when he locked himself in his bedroom at about 6 a.m. Sunday. He tried to wake Stevie later that day but couldn't -- which didn't surprise him because his half brother was a sound sleeper. Brindisi then went to Evans's house to watch the Super Bowl.
On January 31, two days after the conflicting interviews, Carl again questioned Brindisi. During this conversation Brindisi alleged he and Stevie had driven to Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach shortly before midnight Saturday. There they bought four OxyContin pills at $15 apiece from a dealer named Shawn. Then Brindisi and Stevie drove to their home, where about seven others joined them. But in the course of this statement, Brindisi made another mistake; he said he returned from the drug-buying trip alone and then awakened Stevie, thus casting doubt on the contention Stevie had accompanied him on the drug-buying trip.
Several other run-ins with the law raise further doubts about Brindisi's credibility. This past November, two months before Stevie's death, a Jupiter police officer had found Brindisi asleep in the driver's seat of his 1993 Mazda, parked at the entrance to Nick's Tomato Pie on State Road 706. The young man's speech was slow and slurred, and the officer found Valium and Viagra pills in the car. More recently, on April 12, West Palm Beach police officer Allison Fraser pulled Brindisi over after he'd allegedly run a red light. As Fraser reached into the car, Brindisi zoomed ahead, the officer claims, dragging her about 20 feet before she landed on the asphalt. Brindisi is now in Palm Beach County jail, charged with aggravated battery on a law-enforcement officer, fleeing a police car, and driving with a revoked license.
Carl attempted to interview Brindisi on the subject of his half brother's death once again after his arrest, but the boy invoked his right to remain silent. "Therefore, there is no more questioning him," Carl says. (New Times was unable to contact Brindisi.)
MacDonald and Hoffman, who were at the January 29 party, recently told Carl that five of the guests had used OxyContin and Ecstasy that night. The women also said Brindisi had previously told them he obtained OxyContin from his mother. Laura Miller might have faced criminal charges if she had provided the drugs that led to Stevie's death, but "I questioned the mother about that specifically," Carl comments. "And she said she suspected that one of the boys had stolen part of her OxyContin prescription, which she had lawfully gotten for an injury."
Brindisi even gave Carl a cell phone number for the drug-dealing Shawn, but it has been disconnected. Police found the number had last been assigned to a McDonald's restaurant. Carl questions whether the OxyContin that killed Steiner came from a dealer at Phil Foster Park. But without Brindisi's cooperation, police can't know for certain. "The question is: Did the OxyContin used at that party come from his mother's prescription or somewhere else on the street?" Carl wonders. "We don't know."
Still Carl says the investigation doesn't bear out Steiner Sr.'s suspicions of foul play. "He's grieving; he's hurting; his son is dead," the detective says. "I wish there were more we could do for him, but the facts don't allow it -- and I'm not going to create facts to make him happy."
Indeed Miller told Carl that her son was willing to take risks, that he'd seriously abused drugs, including heroin. "It depends on which parent you talk to as far as what picture you could draw," the investigator says. (Miller did not respond to New Times' requests for an interview.)
Convinced the whole story has not been told, Steiner has continued to push for answers from investigators. The death has driven him to found DAMMADD -- Dads and Mad Moms Against Drug Dealers -- which he has not yet officially launched. DAMMADD will seek donations from drug-abuse-prevention and other organizations and offer cash rewards for convictions of drug dealers. "I'm not in denial," insists Steiner. "My son's dead, and I'm friggin' pissed."
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