Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, August 8, 2016
3 overdose deaths, 1 Bristol Township house, zero answers
Posted July 15, 2016 Leonard Spearing started his new sober life on Oct. 28, 2015.
Six days later, the 33-year-old Quakertown man was dead. A drug overdose killed him inside a Bristol Township house.
He was the second person to die in the house last year after a drug overdose, and the third fatal overdose there in two years, according to Bristol Township police.
Leonard Spearing looks at a photo of his late son
Both of the people who died last year at 616 Coventry Ave. were the parents of young children. Both were trying to break heroin's hold on their lives, their families said. And both families said they were told by the owner that 616 Coventry was a recovery house, a drug-free environment for substance abusers who were trying to stay sober.
The home's owner, identified in public property records as Raymond Pramov Jr., told this news organization the property wasn't a recovery house and refused further comment.
So, was it a recovery house when these residents died there last year or wasn't it? There's no way to determine for certain. That's because there is no government oversight of this fast-growing part of the housing industry, which is supposed to provide structured, drug-free housing for recovering substance abusers as they rebuild their lives after drug detoxification, treatment or prison.
Public records show Pramov applied in July 2015 to operate a recovery house at 616 Coventry Ave., but was rejected because of a zoning conflict. Township records are unclear about whether the property was already operating as a recovery house when the application was submitted.
Bucks County 911 call records obtained through a Right to Know request show that, as early as 2012, emergency operators described 616 Coventry Ave. as a recovery house when dispatching assistance to that address.
County property records describe 616 Coventry Ave., sometimes called Coventry Lane, as a single-family house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. It sits on the corner of Cedar and Coventry avenues, sandwiched between a company that makes circuit boards and the Croydon train station. The house recently was listed for sale, according to Zillow, the online real estate website.
The property appeared on the Bristol Township Zoning and Planning Department’s radar in August 2014, when it received a complaint from an unidentified Lower Southampton police officer that it was operating as a recovery house, according to documents filed with the township.
A year earlier, on July 11, 2013, a 20-year-old woman died of a fatal drug overdose in the house, according to police.
Bristol Township zoning laws require a property owner to obtain a rental certificate before renting a home, room or apartment in a single-family home. And the house must pass a township inspection before tenants move in.
On Aug. 28, 2014, then-building, planning and zoning director Glenn Kucher filed a violation notice against Pramov for failing to comply with the ordinance governing rental properties and nuisances, citing the house as a "rental unregistered recovery house" with "junk" on the property, according to records filed with the township.
Pramov never complied with the citations, according to a notation in the township file on the property. The file contains no explanation as to why no action was taken. Kucher resigned in November 2014.
The township reissued the original citations on June 9, 2015, but a note in the township's property file doesn't say why.
Shortly after the citations were reissued, Pramov applied for a zoning determination to convert the home into a sober house, according to a copy of his July 9, 2015, application. In the July 21 response, the township rejected the request because the property is zoned commercial, which doesn't support residential uses without special approval, according to township records.
On Sept. 1, 2015, an attorney representing Pramov contacted the township to resolve the violations, according to a copy of a letter in the property file. Attorney Todd Savarese enclosed copies of two letters dated Aug. 31, notifying two Coventry Avenue tenants they had 30 days to vacate. Savarese also wrote that Pramov "understands and agrees that he is not permitted to use the Coventry Avenue property as a transitional sober house for occupancy by unrelated persons."
However, Savarese also wrote that his client believed part of the property had a "historic use as a shelter by unrelated persons" and that might entitle him to zoning relief that he was unable to pursue because of "financial constraints."
Saverese didn't respond to emails, phone messages or a business card left at at his Churchville law office seeking additional comment. There's no indication if he still represents Pramov.
Fewer than two months after the township received Saverese’s letter, Spearing's father was helping him move into 616 Coventry.
How do you choose?
The lack of state or federal standards make it difficult to know much about recovery houses, including where they're located, who runs them, and if they're providing sober and safe environments.
Leonard Spearing, who has the same name as his late son, said his family relied on a referral from a drug treatment center to find a recovery house for his son. Treatment facilities are state-licensed and regulated, unlike recovery houses.
The elder Spearing said his son was discharged in October 2015 from a Philadelphia mental health and drug rehabilitation center to the Coventry Avenue house. Discharge papers the family provided this news organization identify the property as a recovery house and Pramov as its contact.
"(The rehab center) told me they would check out this facility and make sure it was safe for him," said Spearing, a Horsham resident.
After a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs was told about the Spearing family's statements, he said the agency's Bureau of Quality Assurance for Prevention and Treatment would contact the facility to discuss its referral process. Spokesman Jason Snyder wouldn't confirm if the drug rehab identified by Spearing had referred patients to 616 Coventry, but said the agency would "encourage" the center to investigate the quality of the recovery homes to which it refers clients.
The state agency cannot do anything beyond that, since it doesn't regulate recovery houses, Snyder said. It also doesn't regulate the referrals made by the licensed drug treatment centers and halfway houses it does oversee, he added.
The elder Spearing said he wrote a $165 check for the first week's rent at 616 Coventry Ave. A copy of that canceled check showed that it was dated Oct. 28, 2015, and made out to "Cedar Avenue House."
Cedar Avenue House is a registered nonprofit that lists it location as 100 Cedar Ave. in Croydon, according to its IRS 990, a tax form that must be filed by registered nonprofit entities. County maps show 100 Cedar Ave., which is a recovery house for men, is next door to 616 Coventry Ave.
In its 990 IRS forms, Cedar Avenue House is listed as providing "support services to chemically dependent adults in the early stages of recovery in a semi-protected home-like facility." The IRS forms identify Pramov as the custodian of the organization's documents, including financial statements in 2013, according to Cedar Avenue House's most recently filed 990 form.
When his son moved in to 616 Coventry, four other people were living there, including Pramov and his wife, Spearing said.
"I was reassured by the owner (about the recovery house's operations)," Spearing said. "He told me that recovery is like a hill, and when we are going up the hill, some of us struggle and that then, the others help us out."
Spearing said he was hopeful his son would continue his sobriety journey. The younger Spearing appeared to be adjusting to the new environment and told his father that Pramov drove him to 12-step support meetings. The last time Spearing saw his son, they talked about taking the younger Spearing's 10-year-old daughter to the zoo. There was no sign he was using drugs again, Spearing said.
But another recovering addict who lived in the house told police that Spearing bought drugs and used them with her at 616 Coventry Ave. the night before he died, according to a copy of the Bucks County coroner’s autopsy report provided by the Spearing family.
The next morning, the woman said she woke up to find Spearing unresponsive in her bedroom, according to the report.
Toxicology results confirmed Spearing had narcotics in his system, including cocaine, morphine and codeine, the report said. His cause of death was attributed to the adverse effects of those drugs.
Bristol Township Lt. Terry Hughes said police planned to file drug possession charges against the woman resident, but she died of an overdose in March, before Spearing's toxicology results were returned. She didn't OD at 616 Coventry, authorities said.
After Spearing's death, Hughes said he went to the township's license and inspection department and suggested an investigation into 616 Coventry Ave. He said he was told an investigation was underway. Bristol Township Manager William McCauley didn't respond to a request asking if an investigation had taken place and, if so, the results of it.
Fewer than five months before Spearing died — on June 2, 2015 — Katelynne Sheaf fatally overdosed in the same house just days after moving in, according to her family.
The 27-year-old Sheaf moved into Pramov's house at 616 Coventry Ave. after police removed her from her mother's Middletown home at her mother’s request, according to her mom, Angelina Lafaro Mundy. She said she sought the removal because Sheaf, who was living there with her two boys, was using drugs.
Her daughter previously had lived at 616 Coventry Ave. and another recovery house owned by Pramov in Bristol Township, Lafaro Mundy said.
That second home — at 1002 Arthur Ave. in Bristol Township — has operated as a recovery house since 2014, according to township property records. Those records show Pramov applied to open the recovery house in May 2014 and was approved to rent to no more than six tenants at a time, according to inspection records.
Sheaf and Pramov both referred to 616 Coventry Ave. as a recovery house, according to Lafaro Mundy, who said she had no idea such homes weren't licensed or regulated until she started doing research after her daughter's death.
Authorities haven't provided much information about the circumstances surrounding Sheaf's death, beyond the fact she was dead for eight hours before her body was found, according to Lafaro Mundy and Dennis Sheaf, Katelynne's father and Lafaro Mundy's ex-husband.
A Bucks County coroner’s autopsy report provided by Sheaf's family confirmed her death was the result of an accidental drug overdose. The report said an unidentified friend found Sheaf unresponsive; she was last seen at about 1 a.m. June 2 and was found shortly after 9 p.m. that same day. Investigators found Sheaf with an insulin syringe in her bra and a fresh needle mark on her right arm, the report said.
"I want to know what went on there. I want to know why there have been deaths in (Pramov's) own residence. I want to know who is liable for my daughter’s death. There are so many unanswered questions," Dennis Sheaf said. "People call them junkies and street trash; that is somebody's daughter, somebody's son, somebody's grandchild."
Back in court
On Dec. 8, 2015, Pramov pleaded guilty before a district court judge to the citation involving junk and trash on the 616 Coventry Ave. property, according to court records. The citation he received for renting rooms without a township rental certification was dismissed, online court records show.
At that hearing — just about two months after Spearing's overdose death — the attorneys for the township and Pramov agreed he would "cease and desist" any secondary occupancy of the house within 30 days, according to a notation in the township’s property file.
Attorney Edward Zanine represented Bristol Township at the hearing. Zanine didn't respond to messages seeking comment about the hearing and 616 Coventry.
“The Bristol Township Building & Planning Department took the property owners of 616 Coventry Avenue to District Court to abate the use of the building as a boarding house,” Bristol Township's McCauley wrote in a May 3 email. “The Township has inspected the property for compliance with the (district judge’s) decision. The determination was that the property owners were in compliance with the court order.”
On Jan. 15 of this year — slightly more than a month after Pramov's hearing — a 25-year-old man who survived a drug overdose told Bristol Township police he was living at 616 Coventry Ave., Hughes said. The man didn't overdose at the house, he added.
McCauley didn't respond to follow-up requests seeking information on the township's compliance inspection. An undated "violation text" note in the property file summarizing the case stated it was "closed per insp." No other references in the file noted an inspection at the property as of July 1.
In his May 3 email, McCauley said "follow up inspections" will be done this year to "assure compliance is maintained."
Bucks County state representatives advocating for more third-party oversight of recovery houses said the unanswered questions surrounding 616 Coventry Ave. are disturbing.
"If they aren't acting as a recovery house, then it's a boarding house and why isn't the township citing them?" asked state Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, of Bristol Township. "What I find the most sad, the father of the son (Spearing) paying the $165. They feel like they're doing something because they're putting them in a recovery home and they have no idea."
Davis has introduced two bills in the House; one would create a voluntary certification for recovery homes and tie that registration with professional referrals and state funding, and the other gives local governments the ability to establish minimum standards for the residences. Both bills remain in committee.
State Rep. Frank Farry, R-142, of Langhorne, has sought recovery house regulations since 2013. He said Lafaro Mundy came to his office last year for help finding out what happened to her daughter, but Farry didn’t know about the overdose involving Spearing until this news organization told him. His office is investigating further, he said.
"If I had people living in my house that are fighting addiction, one overdose is too much — much less three," Farry said. "Then when I hear it's run as a nonprofit on top of that, I'm curious about how that nonprofit status takes place and where the money is going."
As for Spearing, he urges families to thoroughly investigate where they're sending their newly sober loved ones.
"Don't assume they're OK," he said of post-treatment houses. "Sometimes, you don't get second chances."