12 Jul One family lost son to drugs. Another family’s son caused the death. Both left heartbroken.
On the day his son was born in May 2014, Joseph Caruso used heroin and crack cocaine.
Two years later, his wife found him passed out while he should have been watching their son.
On a trip to Yosemite National Park, he covertly shot up heroin in his tent.
The Lake Oswego man’s divorce, separation from his son, his overdoses and brushes with death – nothing stopped what he called his “drug-adled orbit.”
Until he was arrested in another man’s death, Caruso said in federal court Thursday.
He was caught importing fentanyl from China, using it and distributing it across the country.
One of those baggies of fentanyl powder ended up in the hands of Braden “Brady’’ Straub, a 22-year-old man in Plymouth, Wisconsin, who suffered from depression and used the drug to self-medicate.
Two families filled the public gallery of U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown’s courtroom as she prepared to sentence Caruso for distributing fentanyl that caused Straub’s death on Oct. 25, 2017.
Straub’s parents shared their anguish and still-raw anger at the death of their youngest child.
“Imagine the horror of returning home and finding him lifeless in his room,’’ Brenda Straub said. It was Brady Straub’s 22nd birthday and the family had planned a celebration.
“Our grief is so profound,” she said through tears. “It is always present.’’
“The point is he’s gone,’’ said his father, John Straub, addressing Caruso. “And you were directly involved in it.’’
Joseph Caruso, sitting beside his defense lawyer, quietly sobbed.
Caruso’s mother described the heartache both she and her husband experienced watching their own son “spiral out of control’’ through his addiction and their feeling of helplessness.
Lynn Caruso recounted waking up to a phone call in the middle of the night from a Portland hospital where Joseph Caruso was taken because of his “erratic behavior’’ and a call from a Philadelphia hospital where he ended up after suffering a seizure at the airport on his way home to Portland.
Another time, they found him unconscious from an overdose in his home.
“While we are heartbroken,’’ Lynn Caruso said, “he’s come out of this tragedy a better person.’’
‘Me Time – Like Having a Martini’
In a nine-page letter to the judge, Caruso explained that he got hooked on prescription painkillers, then opioids after he was injured in a climbing accident on Mount Defiance in the Columbia River Gorge.
During the 2008 climb, he slipped while gripping an ice ax in his right hand, injuring his shoulder. After surgery, he became addicted to OxyContin, obtaining pills on the black market. He was able to do well in courses at Portland State University and hold a job while popping the pills, justifying his habit as his “me time’’ — “like having a martini.’’
His dealer turned him on to black tar heroin, and his life began to unravel.
He dabbled in heroin and cocaine before turning to fentanyl, a drug that he believed wouldn’t be detected in urinalysis tests, a requirement for his visits with his young son after his divorce.
He imported fentanyl from China, then sold the drug across the United States via the darknet markets of AlphaBay, Agora and Dream Market, using vendor names such as “Daddygreenjeans’’ and “Mr. Candy.’’ His customers bought the drugs using bitcoin and other virtual currencies.
He made at least 800 sales before his arrest and authorities found he had virtual currency worth $753,356, the largest single seizure of virtual currency by federal agents in Oregon, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Kerin.
Caruso sold the drug in 100, 250, 500 and 1,000 milligram quantities – all extremely deadly doses, Kerin said.
Drug packaging material found near Brady Straub’s body in Wisconsin was similar to the packaging material found in Caruso’s condo.
The unique material depicted a cartoon-like blue stick figure waving its arms with a clock in the belly on a blue Ziplock bag, the prosecutor said. Caruso’s IP address was linked to the drug parcel sent to the 22-year-old, Kerin said.
A search of Brady Straub’s computer also revealed he had looked up “daddygreenjeans” on the darknet before buying the drugs and just before his death, according to the prosecution.
In April, Caruso pleaded guilty to distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death.
Since Caruso’s arrest, he has been “preparing for a lifetime of making amends by helping others,” said his attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Conor Huseby.
Caruso has completed drug treatment, volunteers serving meals to homeless people at the Blanchet House, holds a part-time job as a warehouse manager for Pelzner Golf Supplies, attends AA meetings and is pursuing a degree in addiction counseling, Huseby wrote to the judge.
Huseby asked for leniency — a year and a day sentence — saying that Caruso has learned his lesson and isn’t likely to reoffend.
The prosecution urged a stiffer sentence — seven years and three months. Kerin likened Caruso’s sales of deadly amounts of fentanyl to “playing a game of Russian Roulette.’’
His commendable rehabilitation efforts “do not bring the dead victim back to life or erase the slate of death and destruction he spread across the country,’’ Kerin said.
“While the defendant’s recovery is uplifting,’’ Kerin added, “we cannot forget the hundreds of addicts out there across the United States whose addictions the defendant fed and profited from.’’
‘I Am Not That Person Now’
Then it was Joseph Caruso’s turn.
He stood beside the defense table, turned and faced Brady Straub’s parents.
“I’ve been dying to look into your eyes,’’ he told them.
He acknowledged that nothing he could say could ease their pain.
“I’m sorry I sent drugs to your son,” Caruso said. “I was reckless, irresponsible. I didn’t care about my life and I didn’t care about anyone else’s life.’’
But he told the judge, “I am not that person now.’’
“I have to thank Mr. Kerin for intervening in my life,’’ Caruso said noting that this nearly 20-month stretch of sobriety has been the longest in his life.
“Whatever the punishment,’’ he said, “for the first time in my life, I will take responsibility.’’
The judge said that no sentence would address the loss the Straub family has suffered.
Brown called Caruso’s efforts to get clean, volunteer and continue his education “noble, uncontested and significant.’’
Yet, she said: “Somebody died using the drugs you put into the system. Mr. Caruso has his life, but Brady’s is over.’’
The sentence recommended by the prosecution already marked a significant reduction from the sentencing guideline for the offense of 14 to 17 years, she said.
She sentenced Caruso to seven years and three months.
Victim impact statement
John Straub said he quit his job of 37 years to take a “break from life,’’ devastated by his son’s death.
He said he couldn’t fill out the victim impact sheet he received from prosecutors, used to help the court determine restitution payment to a victim’s family.
“My son’s dead – how is that ever repayable?’’ he asked.
But he said if Caruso truly regrets what he did and deeply feels the pain of the death he caused — “if you are that person … I’m here to say I forgive you.’’
Caruso, facing the elder Straub, mouthed a silent “Thank you.’’
— Maxine Bernstein
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