TAZEWELL--Ground up in a spoon, mixed with water and drawn into a needle, one OxyContin pill is as dangerous as a loaded gun.
So when Nicholas Dickerson died from an overdose of the prescription painkiller, Tazewell County authorities figured that the man who sold him the drug, then helped him inject it, might as well have pulled the trigger.
They charged Robert Stallard with felony-murder. On July 23, Stallard pleaded guilty to what is believed to be the first murder charge related to OxyContin, a potent narcotic that has been blamed for dozens of fatal overdoses and countless crimes across the country.
"This is such a dangerous drug that dealers need to know that if and when the worst happens, you may very well wind up with a murder conviction," Tazewell County Commonwealth's Attorney Dennis Lee said.
Stallard faces up to 81 years in prison for the death of a friend who came to his Richlands apartment the night of Sept. 3 looking for OxyContin. "All I can do is pray and hope for the best," he said before sheriff's deputies led him back to jail.
The 43-year-old denies selling the drugs to Dickerson, but admits that he injected OxyContin into the partially paralyzed man's arm as they sat at a kitchen table.
"Nick asked to be injected and he got what he asked for," defense attorney Penny Nimmo said. "It wasn't as if it was an innocent person who got held down and injected with drugs." Before Stallard is sentenced next month, Nimmo will ask that the felony-murder charge be reduced to manslaughter.
Had the case gone to trial, Stallard would have contended that someone else supplied the fatal dose of OxyContin. But with potential jurors waiting to hear the case in Tazewell County Circuit Court, he decided at the last minute to plead guilty to murder, drug distribution and unlawful disposal of a human body.
It was the last charge that first got him in trouble.
Shortly before midnight Sept. 3, Stallard called 911 and said a person was lying on the grass outside his apartment. The man was not breathing, he said. Asked if he knew who it was, Stallard replied: "Nick something or other."
Suspicious from the beginning, police became more so as Stallard gave conflicting accounts of when Dickerson, who lived in the same apartment complex, had visited him earlier in the evening. Weeks later, after an autopsy report listed fresh needle marks and traces of oxycodone consistent with a 40-milligram OxyContin pill, Stallard gave yet another account.
According to Lee, Stallard admitted that he crushed up the pill and used a syringe to inject the drug into his friend's arm. A short time later, Stallard told police, Dickerson went to lie down in a bedroom. When he found his friend dead, Stallard panicked and dragged the body outside before calling 911.
A witness would have testified for the prosecution that he saw Stallard sell a 40-milligram OxyContin pill to Dickerson shortly before he crushed the pill in a spoon, dissolved the powder into water, drew it into a needle and injected it into his friend's arm.
Even if he did, it's not murder, Nimmo said.
"Clearly to me there was no malice in Robert's heart and mind," she said. "They were friends, just because they had a lot in common. They both drank a lot - there's no secret about that."
The charge of felony-murder did not require Lee to prove that Stallard acted with malice - only that he committed a felony, in this case distributing OxyContin, that resulted in a death. Judge Donald Mullins took the charge under advisement until Aug. 28, when he will hear evidence before deciding if it should be reduced to manslaughter.
Lee said it was the first time in Virginia that someone has been charged with felony-murder in connection with an OxyContin overdose. Gregg Wood, an investigator with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Roanoke who has been monitoring abuse of the drug, said it is the only such charge he knows of in the nation.
Although the overdose might have been an accident, Lee said Stallard knew from his own use of OxyContin just how dangerous the drug can be when abused. It was not clear just how Stallard obtained the drug, which when used appropriately is highly effective in treating moderate to severe chronic pain.
Since 1998, abuse of the drug has reached epidemic levels in rural areas such as far Southwest Virginia and appears to be infiltrating urban areas, law enforcement officials say.
Members of Dickerson's family said that if he had a problem with OxyContin, he never let on to it.
One of eight children born to a Tazewell County coal miner, Dickerson was partially paralyzed from a stroke and brain aneurysm that he suffered in 1990. He lived on disability benefits at the Oxford Square apartment complex, spending time with drinking buddies like Stallard.
The men's friendship should make no difference when it comes time to sentence Stallard, Dickerson's brother said.
"I hope the man passes away behind bars," Larry Dickerson said. "The reason why: My brother was only 40 years old. Robert was 42 [at the time of the offense]. Robert's got a life ahead of him. Robert has his wife and children. Nick has none of this. The only thing we've got of Nick is memories."