Nick Glunt and Loren Genson | The Gazette
MEDINA — An Iraq war veteran was found guilty Tuesday morning of providing drugs to a teenager who died of an overdose last year.
Brittnee Johns, 17, was found dead of an overdose in her home in May 2013.
Heather Graham, 31, was charged with corrupting a minor with drugs and complicity and conspiracy to traffic heroin. At her Sept. 18 sentencing before Medina County Common Pleas Judge James L. Kimbler, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
“I feel like it will give Brittnee some peace, and we can all finally move on,” Meghan Blough, Brittnee’s aunt said of the verdict.
Kimbler rendered Tuesday’s verdict because Graham opted for a bench trial.
According to testimony at her trial two weeks ago, Graham met Brittnee at Narcotics Anonymous. Prosecutors said they believed Graham gave Brittnee heroin after they returned to Medina after spending a day in Cleveland.
Brittnee was found dead the next morning.
Brittnee’s mother, Darlene Johns, and her fiance, Dennis Martin, said they hoped Graham would continue to receive sobriety support while behind bars.
“While this does not bring Brittnee back, we find solace in the fact there is some responsibility,” said Martin, who helped to raise Brittnee. “Hopefully she can focus on sobriety.”
Graham’s attorney, Anthony Bondra, said he trusts Kimbler’s ruling.
“I know the judge spent a lot of time evaluating the evidence,” he said. “Obviously we’re disappointed by it, but we respect it.”
He said he believes somebody else gave Brittnee the drugs.
“There were two sides to this story,” Bondra said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way.”
Graham’s mother, Leslie Jones, who attended Tuesday’s hearing, said she was upset by the judge’s decision.
“My daughter didn’t kill that girl,” she said. “That girl was an addict before my daughter came along.”
Graham said during her trial that she became addicted to opiates after she was injured by an improvised explosive device while serving in Iraq. After an honorable discharge in 2005, she was prescribed pain medication and became addicted to opiates.
Jones said her daughter was a quiet and kind person who was in law school before her addiction to heroin became too much to handle. She said she was worried about her daughter’s incarceration and the impact it would have on her future.
“She’s been doing very good in treatment,” she said. “Now she has to serve jail time and when she comes out, she’ll have a felony record.”
Several of Graham’s friends also were there to support her, including Lovell Cochran, a fellow veteran who helped Graham through treatment at Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.
“She’s been trying to put her life together,” Cochran said, “and we’ve been working diligently together to help her and others.”
Graham, who had only been living in Ohio for a few weeks when Brittnee died, came to Medina to get away from heroin abusers in Virginia, where she had settled after her time in the military. She worked as a U.S. marshal and held other security-related positions before coming to Ohio.
Cochran said he understood Graham’s struggle because he became addicted to opiates during the Vietnam War and has been struggling with addiction for 38 years. He said he’s five years clean, so he serves as a role model for veterans with addictions like Graham.
“She’s a good person, and we accepted her as our little sister,” he said. “I feel very bad about this incident, but we’ve all got to remember that our actions have consequences — some good, some bad.
“You don’t ask for trouble. It just shows up.”
He said he hoped Graham would take advantage of the treatment options while incarcerated at the county jail, and in prison if it comes to that.
Graham’s friend, Lisa Lopez, who attends the same VA recovery program, said she was in recovery for an addiction to pain pills. Though she never used heroin, she said she understood Graham’s addiction and the two became friends while in treatment.
“It’s so hard for me because I know Heather has a good heart,” she said. “I just pray her military service and her background will go toward a shorter sentence.”
Lopez said she feels sad for Brittnee’s family.
“The big picture here is that heroin and pain pills are destroying families,” she said.
County Prosecutor Dean Holman said he was satisfied with the verdict.
“The facts of this case show how dangerous heroin actually is,” Holman said. “I’m pleased with the work of the police and Matt Razavi, who tried the case.”
He said the case was tough because it was sad.
“This is a tragic loss,” he said. “A young girl with a life in front of her died days before her graduation.”
At Graham’s trial, witness Jason Gangle testified that he bought the drugs in Cleveland with Graham’s cash and took a “finder’s fee” from her money.
Gangle, 23, of Medina, was sentenced Thursday to nine months in prison for his part in Brittnee’s death. He had pleaded no contest to two counts of complicity to traffic heroin, one a fifth-degree felony and one a first-degree misdemeanor.
He also pleaded guilty in a separate case to grand theft (firearm), a third-degree felony.
Gangle admitted at sentencing that he too was an addict and said he wanted to overcome it, especially after Brittnee’s death.
Medina Police Chief Patrick Berarducci said he thought Kimbler made the right call.
“With this verdict, we have convicted both people involved in the death and sent a strong message to the community about our resolve,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “We work every overdose like a homicide investigation and pursue the dealers like we would a gunman.
“There is a price to pay for dealing heroin in Medina.”
He thanked his detectives — especially Sgt. Brett McNabb and Josh Grusendorf — for their work on building a case against Graham.
“I hope this prosecution gives Brittnee’s family some comfort,” Berarducci said.
Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ngfalcon. Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorengenson.