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April 16th, 2003 Lauren Dake | News Stories
 

What Killed Nick Baccelleri?

Music fan dies of drug overdose in county jail. From salmon to Salchows.

     
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At 8 am on the morning of March 31, Nick Baccelleri hauled his bulky frame up the steps at the Multnomah County Justice Center, and checked himself into jail--ready to serve a 30-day sentence for drunk driving.

Less than 48 hours later, Baccelleri was dead, the victim of an overdose--one that friends and family believe stemmed from a medication error by county health workers while Baccelleri was behind bars.

The death of the 48-year-old former bricklayer, an ardent music fan, has sent a ripple through the Portland club scene.

"He knew he'd messed up, that he'd done the wrong thing. He was going to pay for his crime," says Paul Brainard, pedal-steel guitarist for the band Richmond Fontaine, who paid tribute to Baccelleri at a show at Dante's last Wednesday. "It was a shame to lose him, especially like that--definitely an example of the system gone wrong."

Baccelleri, a Roosevelt High graduate, came from a tightknit Italian family in North Portland. His uncle, James Joseph Baccelleri, was known to sportswriters as "Jungle Jamey," a character who specialized in sneaking into events without a ticket.

Nick liked sports, but his real passion was music. "He didn't really play in a band or perform, but he loved music, loved to jam, played the flute and guitar," says Brainard, adding that Baccelleri was generous to a fault. "He'd do anything for anybody."

His neighbor, Helen Asleson, says Baccelleri was a gentle, thoughtful person. "He knew I was an old lady, and always inquired how I was," says Asleson, 80. "He had a little sports car and tooted the horn when he drove by. He was a good neighbor--he would stick his head over the fence to see how I was doing."

Baccelleri's spell in jail resulted from a flashback to what friends describe as the reckless lifestyle of his younger days. Last fall, while driving his white Pontiac Grand Am with his pet Rottweiler in the back seat, he rear-ended 26-year-old Deserie Gomez while she waited at a red light on North Albina Avenue, her Toyota Camry loaded with three friends.

According to the police report, Baccelleri did not pull over, but kept driving and almost hit a construction worker. The police caught up with him outside his home and arrested him after a brief scuffle.

"His speech was slurred, eyes red, and [he] smelled of intoxicants," the police report states.

Given the slam-dunk case against him, Baccelleri had little choice but to plead "no contest." But citing his medical conditions, lawyers John Sidman and Don Roach argued for a shortened stint in jail.

Baccelleri had a list of health problems as long as a kid's letter to Santa, including asthma, diabetes, a degenerative bone condition, and steel rods in his arms and legs. As a result, he survived on disability payments and an array of prescription drugs.

"I had concerns about whether he would receive proper medication and health care in jail," says Sidman, his attorney. "My gut feeling was he wouldn't."

Last month, Judge David Gernant sentenced Baccelleri to 30 days in jail, three years' probation and a one-year suspension of his driver's license.

When Baccelleri went to jail, friends and acquaintances say he brought his medications, including Oxycontin, a powerful narcotic he apparently used to treat chronic joint pain.

On the evening of April 1, after about 34 hours in jail, he called his mother, Evelyn Baccelleri, in tears, according to knowledgeable sources who are close to the family. He told her that corrections health workers had switched his medication, and he feared it was the wrong kind.

Baccelleri was found dead in his bunk at 6:50 am the next day.

Contacted by WW on Friday, Dr. Clifford Nelson of the Medical Examiner's office said tests had just come back. "Looks like a methadone overdose," Nelson said. "No question, with these numbers."

What happened? County officials will not comment, but Baccelleri's friends say he was not taking methadone, an opiate used for pain relief, before he went in.

However, the pain reliever he brought with him, Oxycontin, is prone to abuse. One theory: Jail medical personnel substituted methadone instead, but miscalculated the dose.

Lillian Shirley, the county health director, refused to discuss specifics of Baccelleri's death but said it is not uncommon for corrections health workers to substitute an inmate's prescriptions.

Shirley defends the corrections health program, saying it is nationally recognized for its quality. "The people who work in county corrections health care enormously about their clients," she adds. "Any kind of event like this just causes a tremendous amount of pain: You feel terrible for the family."

Baccelleri's mom declined to comment for this article. "She's in her grieving period," a friend told WW.

Brainard will miss his friend: "It's sad. This time he was going to do it right--he wasn't going to drive, he was doing it all straight up."

County health officials are conducting an investigation, while Baccelleri's mother is consulting a lawyer. A service was held Monday, April 7, at Buxton Cemetery.

Nick Budnick contributed to this article.

 
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