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updated: 7/1/2013 7:49 AM

Menace of addiction knows no bounds

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  • Pat Mulieri, like many parents, struggled for years with a grown child who abused drugs.

    Pat Mulieri, like many parents, struggled for years with a grown child who abused drugs.
    SHNS photo

By Bill Stevens
Tampa Bay Times

Pat Mulieri has achieved uncommon success in her 75 years, the last 18 as a Pasco County, Fla., commissioner. She earned a doctoral degree and taught college English for 26 years. She is known for a kind heart, for aiding the poor and homeless. She rescues stray animals.

But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't save her own daughter, the pretty cheerleader and prom queen who grew up to be a drug addict.

"My greatest fear was that one day I would get a call that somebody had found her body behind a garbage Dumpster," Mulieri said recently during a two-hour interview at her office. "I'm thankful that when her time came, she was in a bed with clean sheets, surrounded by her family."

Susan Trudell died in her mother's arms on April 15, 2012, at the Florida Hospital Pepin Heart Institute in Tampa. The official record highlights the valve-replacement surgery and a history of other physical disorders. But Mulieri knows full well what really killed her.

She hopes Susan's story will help somebody else avoid the same poisonous path.

Susan arrived without a fuss on July 10, 1959, three years after her sister. She had thick, jet-black hair, more than you might expect on a newborn. Pat and John Winans, childhood sweethearts, were building a good life in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in North Babylon, N.Y.

John, an Air Force veteran, had a good job with an airline. As the girls grew, the family enjoyed vacations in London, Rome and Paris. Susan's social life took off in high school, and their house buzzed with teenagers oblivious to Pat banging away on a typewriter as she worked toward a master's degree at Hofstra University.

"We were happy," she recalled.

Pat and John had married as teenagers, and by the time their girls had grown, they had different ideas about the future. They ended their 22-year marriage but remained friendly. Pat later married James Mulieri and moved to Florida. Susan followed and had a short, unsuccessful stint at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo.

"She was very bright," her mother said, "but she would rather be partying than studying. She went to bars every night. I didn't see much of her."

Susan married and gave birth to Michael in May 1984. In family pictures, at least, she seemed content. But she still frequented bars, still drank heavily. "She had such a kind heart," her mother said, "but when she drank, she could get nasty." She fought with her husband and fled with the baby to her father's house in New York.

The Mulieris tried to help. They watched Michael while Susan took paralegal courses at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. She worked briefly for an attorney but never explained why he dismissed her abruptly. She returned to New York and entered a drug-treatment program.

The pattern had been set, and no matter how often Susan seemed ready to get clean, something bad would happen. "I've thought about this a lot," Mulieri said, "and I believe we missed the obvious signs of mental illness. Susan was always so up and down. For all she had going, she didn't like herself. Every time things would be going well, she didn't think she deserved it, and then she would do something to sabotage it."

Predictably, this led to trouble with the law. In 1992, she made the newspapers after a physical fight with a man outside a bar. She later married him, and their arguments occasionally brought sheriff's deputies to their door. In 1998, those problems seemed minor after Susan was arrested in Tarpon Springs and charged with cocaine possession. She got two years' probation.

"She borrowed my car," Mulieri said, "and gave it to a drug dealer. It took awhile for us to get it back."

Susan had back surgery and began taking pain pills. Her moods changed dramatically.

"She told me, 'I sit at the bar, I want a drink, which makes me want to smoke a cigarette, which makes me want cocaine,'" Mulieri recalled.

But then she would do something brilliant. She could take apart anything and put it back together again. "She should have been an engineer," Mulieri said. She was a good cook and artistic. Ann Hildebrand, one of Mulieri's fellow commissioners, enjoyed sharing clothing with Susan "because she had such a sense of style."

Susan sought help through support groups. She beamed in 2003 when Michael earned his high-school diploma and entered the Navy.

But then her third marriage failed. Deputies charged her with domestic battery. She took up with other men, continued her destructive behavior and, in 2007, hit bottom with an arrest for prostitution. Jail mug shots captured the physical toll on a woman who had been admired for her beauty.

Each time Susan found trouble, word spread around the college or the courthouse. "People would say hello and ask me, 'How's your day?'" the commissioner said. "I'm thinking, 'What do you want me to tell you? My daughter's on drugs?' But I had so many people offer kind words. We just kept hoping and praying."

Even the best of families are not immune from addiction and mental illness. The Mulieris soldiered on as Susan continued to slide. In March 2011 she was charged with driving under the influence.

After she died, James Mulieri went to the trailer she shared with a boyfriend. He found needles and empty pill bottles. One had held 180 Dilaudids, a powerful painkiller prescribed two months earlier. It was another chilling reminder for Pat Mulieri of her brother, Bob Hans, a former Suffolk County (N.Y.) homicide detective who retired to Pasco County and died in 1995. He was 53, about Susan's age.

"He was an alcoholic for years," Mulieri said, "and when he died he had 120 Valium pills."

Mulieri believes her brother might also have been bipolar, but it wasn't a topic for discussion when he was younger. His "self-medication" was attributed to the horrors of his job.

"My mother would accept that he was an alcoholic," she said, "but not that he had any kind of mental illness."

Mulieri has become a strident supporter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, which earlier this year opened its first office in Pasco. It's a free referral service dedicated to helping people find treatment before they land in trouble with the law.

"I'll always question whether I did all that I could for Susan," her mother said. "But young people need to realize, you can't just do drugs once or twice. They get control of you. Who wants to die like that ...?"

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