Alexis Botto didn’t meet her sister’s ex-boyfriend until the funeral. Christopher Sorensen was the one who, for the first year Jeanette was using heroin, pushed needles into her arm because she was afraid to do it herself. He had forged a check in her father’s name to pay for drugs and hid out in their house to avoid a warrant.

But when she died two years ago at age 24, Jeanette had bought the drugs herself. She was alone in her bedroom at her family’s suburban Virginia home when she injected what she thought was heroin into her vein.

It was fentanyl, and she died almost instantly, although no one knew until her father found her bloody and cold three nights after Christmas in 2016. Down the same staircase police had once led her boyfriend in handcuffs, Jeanette was carried in a white body bag.

The Bottos invited Sorensen to the funeral, thinking it would be a wake-up call — that, as her cousin Krystal put it, changing the man she loved could be “the sacrifice of her life.”

“He was just an average-looking man,” Alexis Botto recalled in Alexandria federal court in December. “The true monster was the heroin.”

At the time of Jeanette’s death, they did not know that another off-and-on girlfriend of Sorensen, Coral Blaylock, had died of an overdose just a month and a half earlier at 25, on Thanksgiving. Kelsey Miller, a close friend, said Sorensen had reached out to Blaylock when she got out of rehab.

“From the time she met Chris, it was just like a downward spiral,” Miller said. “He just reeled her back in. . . . She was doing so well; just a couple months later, she’s dead.”

Two more of his exes in Baltimore fatally overdosed as well, he later told FBI agents. Sorensen later gave a pill containing fentanyl to another woman he knew. She nearly died of an overdose but was revived with naloxone.

“The monster is not the heroin,” Judge T.S. Ellis III said in sentencing Sorensen, 31, last month to 22 years in prison. “The monster is the people who distribute the drugs, particularly to young people.”

With federal authorities cracking down on opioid dealers to combat the overdose epidemic, the case illustrates the destruction a single low-level drug dealer can cause and the challenge of untangling relationships between users and dealers.

Sorensen’s defense attorney, Adam Krischer, said it makes no sense to ascribe evil intent to an addict stumbling through life with no goal beyond his next high.

“Heroin is the monster, but we can’t punish heroin,” he said in court.

“I’d likely be dead if I wasn’t incarcerated,” Sorensen told the judge. “I’ve lost many loved ones. I never wanted to hurt my friend.”

In an interview, Alexis Botto said she did not intend her words to exculpate Sorensen or be used in his defense.

“When I said heroin was the monster, to me, it explained all the bad decisions my sister had made and all the things she had done to hurt all of us. It wasn’t her, it was the drugs,” she said. “Chris is still responsible for his decisions to shoot up these girls and distribute these drugs. Even if the drugs are a monster, he’s equally as much of one for doing what he’s done.”

'Poison to her'

Jeanette Botto graduated from Woodbridge High School in Prince William County in 2010. While living at home and working for an electric company, she began studying to become a master electrician.

Around the same time, she met Sorensen. Family and friends don’t know how — maybe at a tattoo parlor. They didn’t know she was doing heroin until she had her first overdose in 2012, two years after she began using.

“During those two years, Chris shot her up every single day,” her sister Krystal Botto said — usually about 4:30 in the morning and again at 4:30 in the afternoon.

After coming clean to her family, Jeanette Botto tried repeatedly to stop using, often when Sorensen was in jail or when she overdosed. But she kept relapsing.

“It was a vicious cycle of her going back to him, getting back on it, overdosing, coming back home,” Krystal said.

They called the cops on him, on her, on both of them when they blew her tax refund on a hotel binge.

“We tried every way to get this man locked up for good,” her father, Perry, said. “Because we knew he was poison to her.”

Sorensen convinced her that rehab programs didn’t work, her family said, saying it was easier to get drugs in one than on the street. She told her family Sorensen would kick her out for other young women, then bring her back; Miller said he was similarly abusive to Blaylock.

The couple finally broke up in 2016, the Bottos think. But Jeanette couldn’t stay clean, and she eventually found her way to Sorensen’s supplier in Baltimore.

“She thought that she knew the dealer so she knew the product,” Krystal said. “We always told her it could be cut with something else. She said no, that’s not going to happen.”

It appeared later that Sorensen was aware of his own reputation.

“I’m known in town as the creep that’s into zombies,” Sorensen wrote in a song posted on his Facebook page about a month before his arrest in March, lamenting that “God” gave him the “hottest” woman, “then took the life from her chest.”

He added to the message: “RIP nette, coral, Smokey.” Nette was his nickname for Jeanette.

A struggle to stay clean

In her last six months, her family said, Jeanette showed signs she had pulled away from the drug’s hold. She was baking, racing remote control cars, insisting on going to the tanning salon before lifting weights. Sorensen was out of the picture.

Jeanette hated the way drug abuse had rotted her teeth, so she spent her savings to get them fixed. The dental surgeon prescribed Percocet, which she complained did not help enough with the pain.

In 2016, she made it to her grandmother’s house in Manassas for Christmas Eve for the first time in three years, after staying away for fear of being judged.

So her older sister Tonya Botto did not mention the fresh track marks on Jeanette’s hands, afraid of pushing her away. She did question the 60-inch, $600 television her sister bought her at Best Buy with a Christmas bonus because Jeanette had hid past relapses with excessive generosity. But when she called their father, he said he had been watching Jeanette’s bank account and saw no sign she was on heroin again.

“She could have taken that $600 and bought drugs, but she didn’t,” he said. “And I was convinced that she was okay.”

The night before her death, he said, he was talking with a family friend “about how she had kicked it, how she was one of the ones who survived it.”

When they look at the pictures from that Christmas now, her family can see she is high from her dilated eyes. Two nights later, she told her father she was sick and would sleep in the next day.

He found her body when he came home from work.

Her mother, who had moved out with their younger daughter to protect her from Jeanette’s influence, killed herself in grief months later.

A dealer fueled by addiction

To his family, Sorensen was no monster; he was another victim.

He was addicted to heroin by age 16, using drugs in part to treat pain from scoliosis and degenerative disc disease. His attorney said that when he went to Baltimore to buy drugs, he couldn’t make it back to Virginia without pulling over to get high.

In an interview, Krischer reiterated that his client had no malicious design. “He was an addict who used drugs and liked girls and used drugs with girls,” he said.

Sorensen pleaded guilty to a charge of distributing fentanyl causing serious injury in connection with the overdose of the ex-girlfriend who survived.

A doctor who prescribed opioids for Sorensen has pleaded guilty to illegally prescribing oxycodone; he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in March.

“Addicts get decades-long sentences,” Krischer said. “People making money off the misery of others tend to fare better.”

Experts agree that low-level dealers like Sorensen are, in the words of drug policy expert Jonathan Caulkins, “easily replaceable minor player[s] in the overall scheme.”

But, he said, prosecutors also rarely find a dealer tied to multiple deaths: “Even if it doesn’t roil the market, this individual is unusually infectious in some abstract sense,” he said.

“Certainly, Chris Sorensen is not going to be using or giving anybody any drugs,” Krischer acknowledged.

For Jeanette Botto’s family, that’s something. Her monsters are gone — buried with her. But they hope other families can learn from what they went through, because they know monsters are everywhere.

Read more: