When Police Chief Louis Fusaro learned the name of the man his officers found dying in the parking lot of a town bar Sunday morning, his heart sank.
The Groton, Conn. officer knew the young man, knew the story of how he’d turned his life around and always hoped it wouldn’t end this way.
Joseph Gingerella was a popular high school baseball player with talent that some thought could translate to the college level, Fusaro told The Washington Post. He was frequently in the public eye after his mother married a local politician.
He was also a recovering addict. The 24-year-old had experimented with Percocet near the end of high school and stumbled through several recovery attempts.
When he got in trouble with the police for “small time stuff,” the chief said, the officers would always know who he was, who his parents were and why he was committing crimes.
But many of his acts since then, including his final one, helped others.
Gingerella was at Ryan’s Pub with friends when he saw a man and a woman having an argument that turned violent.
Concerned, he followed them as they went outside and saw the man striking the woman in a car.
He didn’t know the couple, but he tried to intervene, police say.
That’s when the man, who police later identified as 30-year-old Dante Hughes, pulled a gun and aimed it at Gingerella. He fired several shots. Gingerella was taken to the hospital, but it was too late. He was pronounced dead early Sunday.
“He’s been kind of one of those poster children,” Fusaro said. “He worked hard. He was going on the right path. He had beaten it — as much as anybody can beat it.”
Groton police launched a nationwide manhunt for the suspected killer, who sped out of the parking lot and hasn’t been seen since.
Officers have contacted Hughes’s family members, hoping they can convince the fugitive to turn himself in. They asked the public for help finding him, but Fusaro urged caution with a man already suspected of opening fire on a stranger.
The man Hughes is accused of killing was an active member of Community Speaks Out, his parents’ organization to help recovering addicts. In fact, he was the reason Tammy and Joe de la Cruz started the nonprofit.
“During [Gingerella’s]) first rehab the family talked for hours and spoke to close friends and discovered that so many young people were struggling with addiction,” Tammy de la Cruz wrote in an essay about the group’s beginnings. “Nobody was talking about it. It was a dirty secret. …The only way to make a change was to take a stand and talk about it.”
The two-year-old nonprofit serves as a connector between addicts, their families and the community organizations that want to help them.
The organization holds monthly meetings and hands out handfuls of business cards to police officers and firefighters, encouraging them to put them in the hands of overdose victims.
Mostly, it’s a public, vocal support network for an addiction that ashamed families often try to keep quiet, said Linda Labbe, a co-founder of Community Speaks Out.
Gingerella’s recovery wasn’t linear. He struggled with relapses even as he served as a spokesperson.
But Gingerella’s words reached youths in a way their parents and other authority figures could not, Labbe said.
“He had his life together. He had a good family. He had good support,” Labbe told The Washington Post. “It really got across that it could happen to anyone.”
Gingerella told his story in March to a packed auditorium at his alma mater, Fitch High School, according to The Day, a New London, Conn., newspaper.
“The whole thing here is that I’m a really good kid, and … everyone in this room is a really good kid,” he told the students, many of them younger siblings of Gingerella’s former classmates. “Every parent in this room is a really good parent and really good person.
“And it can happen, just like that.”
But Gingerella did more than just tell his own powerful story, Labbe said.
In March, for example, he organized a softball tournament with recovering addicts and their families, Labbe said. Every team was named in honor of someone who had died from an overdose.
“I’m sure he had that feeling that everyone knows now,” Labbe said. “But it didn’t stop him. He wasn’t stuck with that stigma. He took it and he made good out of it. He made it so that others felt supported — they didn’t feel alone.”