The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opioid victims confront Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family: ‘It will never end for me’

Kathleen Scarpone, left, and Cheryl Juaire, second from left, protest in April 2019 in front of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
6 min

For 4,804 days, Kristy Nelson’s mind replays the 911 call she made when she discovered her only son’s lifeless body in his bed, recalling the excruciating detail of the aftermath of his overdose.

On Thursday, she played audio of the chilling call for members of a family she holds responsible for her son’s death.

Nelson said: “4,804. That is how many days have gone by since I made that horrifying phone call — a call that I never ever dreamed of making,” adding, “A call that I would not have had to make if it weren’t for your unlawful behavior and obsessive greed.”

Kristy Nelson, her husband, Bill, and 26 other people whose lives were upended by the opioid crisis got their long-awaited chance to confront the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, in a bankruptcy hearing. The historic moment came as Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain tentatively approved a key part of the plan for the Sackler family to contribute up to $6 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits against Purdue over the toll of opioids, providing funds to aid in the fight against the epidemic. As part of the brokered deal that would grant Sackler family members protection from lawsuits, three Sacklers attended Thursday’s unusual hearing, listening to people selected to participate who spoke in the virtual session about losing children, battling addiction and caring for babies born with opioid dependency.

Sackler family members to contribute up to $6 billion in latest agreement to resolve opioid claims

The Sacklers, who were not allowed to speak during the hearing according to the court’s rules, have denied wrongdoing or personal responsibility. In a statement previously filed with the court, two branches of the family, heirs of Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, expressed regret. The third branch, descendants of Arthur Sackler, is not involved in the litigation after he sold his shares before the introduction of OxyContin in 1996.

“The Sackler families are pleased to have reached a settlement with additional states that will allow very substantial additional resources to reach people and communities in need,” the statement said. “The families have consistently affirmed that settlement is by far the best way to help solve a serious and complex public health crisis. While the families have acted lawfully in all respects, they sincerely regret that OxyContin, a prescription medicine that continues to help people suffering from chronic pain, unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities.”

Thousands of governments, individuals and others have sued Purdue Pharma, alleging the marketing of its blockbuster pain pill OxyContin as rarely causing addiction led doctors to increasingly prescribe opioids. The uptick, they say, led to an opioid epidemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.

The opioid files: Follow The Post’s investigation of the epidemic

Many of the speakers talked about how their troubles began with an OxyContin prescription.

Ryan Hampton, who took OxyContin to treat knee pain before a decade-long addiction, spoke directly to Richard Sackler, the former chairman and president of Purdue. Hampton, now in recovery for seven years, said the people he knew and loved died from their addiction.

“I hope that every face — every single victim’s face — haunts your every waking moment and your sleeping ones, too,” Hampton told Richard Sackler. “I hope you hear our names in your dreams. I hope you hear the screams of the families who find their loved ones overdosing on the bathroom floor. I hope you hear the sirens. I hope you hear the heart monitor as it beeps along with a failing pulse. I hope you live the rest of your days burdened by the truth of what you have done.”

“You may seek to forget,” he continued, “but we will not let you.”

Several of the speakers expressed dissatisfaction with the settlement valued at $10 billion, which calls for the family to give up ownership of the company so that it can become a public entity with profits dedicated toward the crisis. Most of the money would go toward states to fund abatement for the opioid epidemic, with a $750 million fund set aside for those who successfully prove personal injury. The Sackler family members, who agreed to contribute another $1 billion during months of mediation, would be released from any civil litigation stemming from the opioid crisis.

The Sackler family must accept when institutions or organizations take their names off buildings, programs, scholarships or other things the family funded.

Ed Bisch, who lost his 18-year-old son, Eddie, to an overdose in 2001, called the bankruptcy proceedings “a scam,” saying the family should be in criminal court, not bankruptcy.

The company pleaded guilty in November 2020 to conspiracies to defraud the United States and violate the anti-kickback statute after a Justice Department investigation into its marketing of opioids.

“I’m not sure I know of any family in America that is more evil than yours,” Bisch said, a reference to Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.)'s comments at a congressional hearing with the Sacklers in 2020.

After playing the 911 call, Kristy Nelson told the Sacklers her son, Bryan, would turn 34 in 12 days. She planned to visit his gravesite.

“I understand today’s your birthday, Richard,” she said. “How will you be celebrating? I guarantee it won’t be in the cemetery.”

“You are scum of the earth,” she said, echoing an email Richard Sackler wrote in 2001 about drug addicts.

After the hearing, Nelson took stock of what she saw: the faces of Theresa and David Sacklers, their expressions emotionless as the speakers recounted the toll opioids had taken. Theresa barely moved, David shifted in his seat. Richard did not have his camera on.

“It just looked like they couldn’t wait for it to be over,” she said in an interview.

She turned to her husband, a county judge, and told him that it didn’t feel like justice.

“I really thought I would feel better but I don’t,” she said. “I’m almost a little more angry now that this was the end for them. They had to sit through two hours of upset mom and dads and brothers and sisters, and it’s the end for them. But it will never end for me.”