Shocking: As Opioid Epidemic Rages, Laws for Moving Dead Bodies Stuck in the Past

It was a cold and brisk Thanksgiving morning last year, Nov. 22, but the sun shone brightly on Everett as the Crimson Tide began preparations for their annual football game, and thousands of families gathered happily to gorge on turkey and the fixings.

On the sidewalk of Glendale Street, in the 50th block, the scene was less than happy.

In broad daylight on the sidewalk was the body of a young women, 35, dead and stiff and lying in a compromised way for all to see. Apparently the victim of a heroin overdose, it was clear she hadn’t died on the sidewalk.

Someone had moved her there.

And just 10 minutes after she was allegedly so unceremoniously deposited there, a horrified resident and public safety officials found her. It was gruesome and horrific to see, and made all the more sickening by the fact that someone had taken the time that Thanksgiving morning to rid their home of her body in such a callous way.

“We don’t deal with these situations on a daily basis, but I don’t think anyone should be subject to that when they die regardless of the circumstances,” said Everett Chief Steve Mazzie this week. “It’s happened a number of times in other areas when someone overdoses and dies and the people they’re with dump the body because they don’t want to be a part of reporting it to public safety officials, even though they are protected by the Good Samaritan Law. It’s happened elsewhere and it happened here.”

As heartbreaking as that situation, and others like it are, the law to prosecute those who callously dump a body is hopelessly out of date given how the opioid epidemic has fueled such behavior these days. Under state law, the only charge that can be leveled in such a case is Permanent Disposition of Dead Bodies or Remains. Unfortunately, law enforcement sources say, that charge is only a misdemeanor, and carries a penalty that is a fine of no more than $500. Jail time is rare, if ever occurring, and most times these cases don’t even move to prosecution due to the low-level nature of the statute.

The charge is contained within the state laws that govern funerals and burials, and is aimed more at those illegally burying a body or trying to rob a grave. It certainly isn’t one that anticipated the grotesque consequences of the current opiate epidemic.

Chelsea Chief Brian Kyes, who is the president of the Massachusetts Major Police Chiefs Association (which Everett is a member of), said such occurrances happen more often and the penalty on the books does not fit the seriousness of the crime. He said the Association would certainly support a bill that seeks to make that charge a felony.

“It is wrong, but that is unfortunately a low-level misdemeanor,” he said. “It absolutely should be a felony.”

He said in Massachusetts, felonies are classified by years. So, there are three-year felonies, five-year, 20-year and Life. This crime, he said, should carry a five-year felony charge.

“I think something like that should be a five-year felony, though they would never do five years, that would be more than reasonable,” he said. “If there is a bill filed, I’m unaware of it. If there were one seeking for that to be a felony, the Massachusetts Chiefs would support it. The opioid crisis is a concern for this type of behavior and people are doing drugs together and someone overdoses and dies – and even though there is the Good Samaritan Law and we can’t charge them with anything that has to do with possession when they call the police – they panic. They panic, and instead of calling, they move the body in such a way that it is not at the location where the person died.”

In Everett, according to the police investigation, that is exactly what happened on Glendale Street that cold Thanksgiving morning last year.

The victim was a known drug user to police, and had indeed died of an overdose, but authorities quickly deduced she had died quite some time before being placed on the sidewalk.

Using the help of neighbors, police were able to find video of two people – a woman and a man – bringing the body out of a neighboring home and putting it on the sidewalk around 11 a.m. Then, according to the surveillance video, they went back inside.

A good investigation by Everett Police detectives identified the woman, and after several interviews over a period of weeks, they did get to the bottom of the situation. Two suspects were identified, Irene White and her son, Richard Byrnes, and they have been charged in a pending – but difficult – case.

“At this time the death of (the victim) appears to be the result of a possible heroin overdose that occurred inside…, and that on the morning of Nov. 22, 2018, Ms. Irene White and her son, Richard Byrnes, carried (the victim’s) dead body from the second-floor apartment down the front stairs and then the front porch steps ending up outside onto the sidewalk in front (of the home),” read the police report. “It is also my belief that Ms. White and Mr. Byrnes then deposited (the victim’s) remains on the sidewalk in front of (the neighboring house), where she was discovered by passersby within minutes of her being dumped there.”

Detectives moved forward with the case in Malden District Court, but this April, an assistant clerk magistrate denied the application for charges against the two. Everett detectives have filed charges again now in Somerville District Court, and the case is still pending, though finding someone to prosecute or allow a misdemeanor to go forward will be hard.

The District Attorney Marion Ryan’s Office said they couldn’t comment on that case, or the matter of changing the law – as there are two such pending cases within Middlesex County right now. They did say they are not aware of any legislation that exists to change the statute given how the opioid epidemic has changed things.

Chief Mazzie said such a crime carries less of a penalty than if someone were to take the purse of the deceased. He said he would support calling for harsher penalties in such circumstances.

“It probably happens more than you think, but it doesn’t get the attention or doesn’t get reported,” said the chief. “You probably see more people abandoned than dumped, but it happens. We’ve had it happen. It’s disheartening to see, conducted within that type of behavior.”

Good Samaritan Law helps those who call for help

Police Chief Steve Mazzie and others in law enforcement stressed that in the case of those who die of an overdose in a home or in a car with others, there are protections for those around them who call authorities.

Mazzie said the Good Samaritan Law prevents law enforcement from prosecuting anyone with a “possession level” amount of drugs when they call for help.

Mazzie stressed that police won’t take action against someone when they call for help, and he said they encourage people to call. In some cases, lives could be saved if help arrives in enough time.

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