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Man dies in rehab; mom wants answers

Man dies in rehab; mom wants answers
Published February 24, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG – Roger Cherry had a knack for finding trouble. He smoked marijuana, drove without a license and steadily built a long record of petty arrests.

But Edith Cherry never gave up on her only son. When a judge sentenced him last summer to enter a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in St. Petersburg, she was relieved. Maybe it would give Roger the help he needed, she thought.

He lasted just eight days.

A police officer found him lying in the lower bunk of his room in the St. Petersburg Bridges program last Sept. 8. His left arm, which was still limber, hung over the edge of the bed. The sheets were soaked with blood and

Roger Cherry, a healthy 28-year-old, had died of alcohol poisoning.

The revelation left his mother reeling. Ms. Cherry, 51, a retired Department of Juvenile Justice employee, has hired a lawyer to find answers to a question that no one has been able to answer months after her son’s death:

How could a healthy young man die of alcohol poisoning in a rehabilitation program?

* * *

When the Bridges program opened in the heart of St. Petersburg’s Midtown area in 2001, it was hailed as an innovative way to help drug addicts and nonviolent offenders reform. It offered counseling as well as help finding a job, and the hope was that it could keep people like Cherry from returning to jail.

But the program has been racked by management turmoil, litigation and an inability to properly monitor offenders for years, records show.

– By the time Cherry entered the program on Aug. 30, it had cycled through at least eight executive directors, including one who was fired after he was accused of groping, fondling and sexual harassing an offender.

– State reports have criticized the lack of security at the program and noted the presence of alcohol in the facility and marijuana "outside the building."

– During at least two years of its operation, less than 50 percent of offenders who went through the program successfully completed it, state records show.

"Stability in leadership and staffing is totally lacking at this facility," a state report from February 2005 says.

Officials with Orlando-based Bridges of America Inc., which runs the program, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Bridges program is at the heart of the Davis-Bradley Center at 1735 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S, a large beige-colored building that resembles a country manor and also houses several other treatment facilities.

The center is named after Goliath Davis, the former police chief and current deputy mayor, and former state Rep. Rudy Bradley, R-St. Petersburg, who helped get the funds for the center’s creation.

Davis says he believed a treatment facility would help combat drugs in the community.

"It became obvious that 85 percent of the people who were incarcerated were not getting any treatment," Davis said. "Something needed to happen from a treatment perspective."

Davis said he is not aware of recent problems in the Bridges program, adding that it has been reviewed regularly by the Department of Corrections.

The Bridges program has 100 beds available for clients; it is getting $1.79-million in state funding this year, according to the Department of Corrections.

Since 2004, 1,050 offenders have gone through the six-month residential Bridges program, which is considered low-security. Most offenders complete two months of intensive treatment and counseling, then have four months of employment and other training, which gives them freedom to leave the program for work and then return.

But by January 2006, conditions had deteriorated so much that Alfred James, the head of the Manatee County Drug Court, ordered a moratorium on referrals to the center, saying offenders had complained about delays in distributing prescribed medication and a lack of responses to grievances, among other things.

Bridges officials made reforms after the moratorium, and Manatee County officials say they have begun referring clients to the program again.

The Florida Department of Corrections currently has a total of 12 contacts with Bridges worth $13.95-million.

By the time state officials returned to the St. Petersburg program for another review in July 2006, about a month before Cherry’s arrival, they found that it was on a "tight house" and that "residents are focusing on reviewing the rules of the program with support from the staff."

* * *

Cherry grew up in Polk County, a young man with a big smile and polite manners. He played football and baritone saxophone in the high school marching band. He worked construction and loved watching Star Wars movies.

But his mother says he fell in with the wrong crowd after graduating. He was arrested several times on charges of marijuana possession and violating probation. In August 2006, he was arrested for violating probation after
testing positive for marijuana.

This time, a Polk County judge sentenced Cherry to complete the six-month St. Petersburg Bridges program, which Cherry entered on Aug. 30.

"He said he wanted to make a change," Edith Cherry said.

A doctor who examined Cherry two days before his death told police that he was healthy. The autopsy identified ethanol toxicity, or alcohol poisoning, as the cause of his death.

Cherry was 5 feet 8 and weighed 188 pounds. Paul Doering, a University of Florida pharmacy professor who reviewed his autopsy at the St. Petersburg Times’ request, said he would have to have the equivalent of 12 or 13 drinks to achieve the toxicity level he had at the time of the autopsy.

Doering also pointed out that the autopsy suggested that Cherry had likely passed out, vomited and strangled on his vomit.

It is unclear if anyone is investigating how Cherry was able to obtain so much alcohol. The state says it did a brief review, then turned the matter over to Bridges of America.

Sammy Berry, the attorney who is representing Ms. Cherry, said he may pursue litigation to learn more about the circumstances of Roger’s death.

Cherry’s mother waits for answers while helping take care of her grandson, Roger Rashad Cherry IV, who will now grow up without a father.

She treasures the memory of a call she got from her son on Aug. 31, the day after he entered the Bridges program, to wish her happy birthday.

"He said he was going through some things but didn’t want to spoil my birthday," Ms. Cherry said. "He told me he loved me, and that was the last time I ever spoke with him."

Times researchers Angie Drobnic Holan, Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at <a href="mailto:[email protected]">[email protected]</a> or 727 893-8472.

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