Mother Testifies Against Boyfriend of Daughter Who Died of Overdose

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Alicia Lannes first overdosed on heroin in August 2007 and was carried unconscious into a hospital emergency room by her boyfriend, Skylar Schnippel, Lannes's mother testified yesterday. Schnippel swore he was not a user and would never let Alicia use heroin again.

Two months later, Donna Lannes said, she saw Schnippel walking away from her daughter's apartment. She raced inside and used her nurse's training to keep her daughter breathing after another near-fatal overdose. But those brushes with death did not stop the Fairfax County teenagers from shooting heroin. Alicia Lannes, 19, died after her fourth overdose in March 2008.

Donna Lannes testified on the opening day of Schnippel's trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on charges that he caused his girlfriend's death.

Lannes's fatal overdose prompted a large-scale investigation of rampant heroin use among teenagers in Centreville, ultimately corralling 15 Fairfax young people and their main supplier in the District. In addition to Lannes, three others fatally overdosed. Many of those implicated testified yesterday that they met and began using heroin while they were students at Westfield High School. All but Schnippel have pleaded guilty to various federal counts related to distributing the drug and some to having a role in Lannes's death.

Prosecutors said that after Lannes died, Schnippel continued to shoot heroin and introduced others to the drug -- even on the day the first mass arrest occurred. After his arrest, Schnippel tried to persuade one of his friends to lie to the federal grand jury investigating the case, they said. He was arrested and jailed for that and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice yesterday.

But Schnippel is fighting the charges that he conspired, possessed and distributed heroin resulting in his girlfriend's death -- with 20-year minimum sentences for all three charges. Defense attorney Rod Leffler argued that Schnippel was simply an addict with "a rabid, single-minded, blind-to-the-consequences desire for heroin." He wasn't a dealer, Leffler said; he and his girlfriend obtained heroin for each other, shared it when they had it and sought it out when they didn't.

A jury will not decide the fate of Schnippel, now 20. Both sides agreed to a bench trial, so U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who has taken the previous 15 guilty pleas and heard bits about each defendant, will decide guilt and the appropriate sentence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Grooms said in his opening: " "At every phase of this conspiracy, there was one constant. It was the defendant, Skylar Schnippel."

"When others overdosed, there was the defendant," Grooms said. "When his girlfriend overdosed, there was the defendant with her each time. And on March 5, 2008, there was the defendant providing the heroin that killed her. But that event changed nothing for him."

Grooms said that even as Schnippel was aware that police were closing in, "there was the defendant, introducing others to heroin and sticking the needle in their arms." On Nov. 19, when 11 people were arrested, "there was the defendant, picking up a young woman and shooting her up," Grooms said.

The prosecutor also described the night of Lannes's death, when Schnippel picked up several bags of heroin from his friend Daniel Nash and sneaked out to meet his girlfriend. But his parents noticed that he was missing and demanded that he return home. He did, but he talked to Lannes on the phone.

Lannes went to her basement bedroom in her parents' Centreville home. "She shot up," Grooms said, "and [Schnippel] talked to her as she died. She overdosed and he knew it. The defendant has admitted it. For an hour and a half, he did nothing."

Schnippel eventually called several of his friends but never called 911 or Lannes's mother, a registered nurse who was upstairs in the same house as her dying daughter, Grooms said. Four hours later, the friends called 911, but Alicia Lannes was already dead, Grooms said.

Donna Lannes could barely maintain her composure as she recalled learning of her daughter's first near-fatal overdose in August 2007 and then finding her barely breathing in October 2007.

Schnippel "promised us that if Alicia ever wanted [heroin] again," Donna Lannes said, "that he would call us." Five months later, Alicia was dead.

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