A lethal dose of prescription drugs claimed another young Traverse City-area resident, another tragic chapter in a recurring story here.
Danny Ray Whitney Jr., 21, a cook at a local restaurant, lived the teetering-on-the-edge lifestyle common among those who embrace drugs.
Whitney died March 2 as he lay in a Grand Traverse County Jail cell. A medical examiner called it "acute methadone toxicity." Whitney swallowed 20 to 40 methadone tablets that day, four times enough to kill most non-users.
Whitney had a history of drug abuse, particularly heroin and methadone. On the day he died he kept a well-stocked drug larder, and like many who are consumed by such demons, he didn't allow circumstances to deter his cravings. Authorities found three prescriptions — roughly 150 tablets in all — in a stash Whitney tucked in a drop ceiling at Dakoske Hall, a transition house in Traverse City. He stayed there in a jail diversion program following a recent criminal conviction, and under orders to stay clean.
Clearly, jail diversion didn't work in this instance. His drop ceiling supply included 86 methadone tablets, or 34 short of the 120-tablet prescription he'd obtained a week before his death. He was high at a meeting that day with a transition house staffer, and the violation resulted in a trip to the county jail.
The irony: He died in jail from an overdose that occurred because he hadn't been confined to jail.
We don't denigrate diversion programs; we support and encourage alternatives to incarceration, particularly those that aim to treat crime's root causes. In this case Whitney's desire to get high overpowered his will to heal, as well as the system's ability to help him get well.
Questions remain about his death. He acknowledged drug use when booked into jail, but authorities said he understated the amount taken. A jail nurse noted his intoxication, recorded his lower-than-normal blood pressure, but a physician with whom she consulted recommended Whitney simply sleep it off. Jailers placed him in a so-called observation cell, but he spent 45 minutes — from about 10:15 p.m. until about 11 p.m., when he was discovered with a discolored arm and not breathing — with no close observation.
Whitney's family may file suit, and the courts likely will decide any legal liability. But he's gone, and money won't change that fact.
Ultimately they — and we — are left to ponder the prescription drug abuse scourge, to fret about the crime and pain it creates, and wonder why so many in our community are driven in that hopeless direction.