‘It broke so many hearts to watch him go down this path,’ his mother says
When emergency responders confirmed the death of Anthony (Tony) Cipollaro, residents of the North Lawrence campsite who called Tony a friend cried, cursed, and consoled each other. Some screamed.
Tony died of a suspected overdose Dec. 30 in his tent at the camp for people experiencing homelessness. He was a few weeks shy of his 27th birthday.
His loss pervaded the camp, through Lawrence and as far as the east coast, where his brother and biological father live.
An hour after Tony died, police officers arrived at the home of John and Kristen Spencer, who raised Tony from age 7 on. Kristen yelled for John.
“Tony’s dead. The police are here.”
John summoned the strength to call Tony’s mother, who lives in Arkansas.
Brooke Attebury fell to the floor, and unleashed a painful scream only a mother who has lost her firstborn child can produce. Tony’s 9-year-old half sister, Dahlia, ran into the room.
“No, no, no. Not my bubba, not my bubba. No,” she wailed.
Many are left to grieve the loss of a son, brother and friend.
A man of controlled emotion, John had spent much of the days since Tony’s death crying. He had loved Tony as his own son, and his loss has created a physical ache.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever heal,” John said.
“It broke so many hearts to watch him go down this path,” Brooke said.
It is suspected but not confirmed that the drug that killed Tony was laced with street fentanyl.
Tony’s death is disheartening not only because a young life was abruptly and needlessly halted, gouging the hearts of those who loved him, but because news of people overdosing on fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — have cropped up locally and nationally with frightening regularity. Oftentimes, people trying to buy Oxycodone or Xanax inadvertently ingest illicit fentanyl.
In Kansas, deaths from opioids jumped to 255 in 2020 from 48 in 2001 — an increase of more than 400% — according to the state Department of Health and Environment.
Across the country, more than 100,000 people died of drug overdose from July 2021 through July 2022, and the bulk of those deaths — about 80% — involved an opioid, often a synthetic one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Together, these deaths represent a larger national problem that has caused some people to question why someone would misuse a drug known for such a high mortality risk. Separately, each death possesses a distinct story with a similar tragic end — following a unique beginning.
‘He was the most gentle hearted child’
Tony Cipollaro entered the world as a healthy baby boy in Florida in 1996. From the start, Tony inherited a legacy of family addiction going back generations.
Brooke was 15 when she got pregnant with Tony. Her mother had tried to persuade her to abort the pregnancy.
“That baby meant everything to me,” Brooke said.
“He was just such a happy baby. He was the most gentle hearted child. I raised him by myself for quite some time … and he would do things like we would go to leave and he would look at the gas gauge and he’d say, ‘Mom, do we have enough gas? Are you sure?’ He tried to be a little man of the house.”
When Tony was 3, Brooke flew from Florida to Kansas, where her sister lived, to start a new life with her son in Lawrence.
“We came to Kansas with the shirts on our backs,” Brooke said. “I got a job working in a call center and got us a little apartment. Nothing fazed us.”
Brooke struggled with poverty and the challenges of single motherhood. At work, she met and briefly dated John, who bonded with Tony right away.
Once John gave Tony what he called a monster-removing stuffed bunny to soothe his fears, and Tony instantly viewed John as someone to love. The love was mutual and enduring.
“It was like John fell in love with Tony the minute that he saw him and never fell out of love with him,” Brooke said.
Brooke and John’s relationship didn’t last long, but Tony and John’s did.
Brooke’s addiction to opioids enveloped her when Tony was still young.
“(On drugs) I was strong. I was happy. I wasn’t like, you know, an exhausted mom trying to answer a million phone calls for Verizon Wireless all day and take care of the son who needed help with homework and attention and all the things that I didn’t have any energy left for,” she said. “And then I had a doctor that started prescribing (Oxycodone) to me for migraines, and … whenever that script ended, and she was like, ‘I think you’re taking more of this than you should. I think we’re gonna change your meds.’ That’s when I found out I was addicted: when they took it away.”
When Tony was 7, Brooke determined that she could not provide for him the way he deserved. She agreed to leave Tony with John and his then-partner, now wife, Kristen.
“Sometimes when you really love your children, you have to let them go if you can’t be what they need,” Brooke said. “At that point in time, the reality was I could not be what Tony needed.”
When Tony was in first grade, Kristen and John became his official guardians. They took him to see the Sequoias in California, view stone arches in Moab, Utah, and walk on a beach in Florida. They brought him to meet his biological father.
A shiny new bike. Braces. After identifying that he had musical talent, they bought him a drum kit and paid for long-term lessons.
“Tony was a musician,” John said. “He was proud of his music.”
As a boy, Tony was precocious. In third grade, he was a finalist for his elementary school spelling bee. He earned decent grades without cracking a book. And he quickly became proficient at the drums.
At the launch of high school, he decided he wanted to learn to skateboard.
He tried to do a trick on his skateboard that he hadn’t practiced. Careening down the ramp at the skatepark, he broke his wrist. His doctor gave him a prescription for oxycodone.
He never took more than was directed, but Tony would later identify this as the moment his addiction took root.
‘Do you think I want to be like this?’
In high school, he got drunk, smoked pot. But he functioned normally and often thrived.
He graduated from Lawrence High School in 2014, and Kristen and John offered to pay for his college education. But Tony wasn’t interested. His chief ambition was making music.
Some songs he’d shared on SoundCloud attracted the attention of a music executive who discovered Guns and Roses and Mötley Crüe. The executive saw Tony’s potential and had him flown to Virginia to join a new band. Tony was back home within weeks.
There were a lot of false starts after that. He cooked at half a dozen restaurants in town, did landscaping and some construction.
“There was a very recurring order of things that happened often with him,” John said. “He’d move in with people and everything would be hunky dory. Great. Then he wouldn’t pay rent, he’d get drunk. And they’d steal his stuff to probably try to recoup some of their rent that they didn’t get from him.”
Tony charmed people but invariably lapsed into his addictions. To handle his anxiety, Tony started taking a legal substance called Kratom, which can produce opioid- and stimulant-like responses in the brain.
“It was Kratom for a long time,” John said. “North of five plus years. And lying about it, I mean. Trying to cover up and not talk about it. I saw his bag and took it out. There was this empty bottle of this Kratom stuff. ‘What’s this?’ It’s legal. It’s legal in the United States. It’s not legal in a lot of the world. And it probably won’t be legal at some point in the U.S., but unfortunately it’s very addictive.”
Since Kratom amped him up, Tony started to take Xanax to calm his nerves.
He’d couch surf and move in with friends until they’d kick him out. He moved back in with John and Kristen three or so times. The last time was in 2020. To return, he agreed to the house rules: no drugs, no drinking, and he had to get a job.
This was a time of great productivity for his music. He would write and record for hours. But he continued to use drugs.
Despite his addiction, Tony remained the sort of guy who would help a friend move whenever asked, who would remove the debris from your gutters, who would make you laugh when you’d had a bad day. But he kept getting high.
At one point he started “crawling out the basement window to go get high” with friends at a nearby apartment complex.
One incident in February 2021 scared John so much he pulled out his phone and recorded Tony while he was high — to show him later how the drug damaged his ability to function.
Tony had invited some musician friends to the house to record some new tracks that night. He decided to take something to calm his nerves.
During an interview this week, John showed the video he’d taken. The sound was low, and John turned his head to look away. Kristen went to walk their foster puppy, Scoobie.
In the video, Tony sits on a sheetless mattress looking confused.
His speech is beyond compromised. His words are mumbled — like his brain is sending signals too fast and the words all bump into each other in an incoherent jumble. He looks dizzy and overwhelmed. His pupils are wildly constricted, and he plunges his fingers through his hair in what looks like despair.
“I think it had fentanyl in it,” Tony slurs. He looks panicked, afraid. Sad.
In the video, John asks Tony why he took the drug.
“Do you think I want to be like this?” Tony asks.
John showed Tony the video the next day. He shrugged it off.
Just short of two years later, Tony would overdose, but this time no one would be awake or nearby to monitor him.
The drug’s effect
While Tony’s story is his alone, the ending is also a sadly common outcome for this sort of drug addiction, said Zijun Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Kansas.
Wang studies the mechanisms underlying opioid use disorders.
“This is a typical opioid use disorder scenario, where people will start with the prescription opioids to help them to control pain and then gradually they lose their control, becoming addicted to these drugs,” Wang said.
When you first start opioids, you might feel euphoric. In addition to suppressing pain signals, opioids are heavily active in the reward centers of the brain. But the body loves to maintain balance, Wang said. So eventually you need more and more drugs to create that euphoric effect, and before long, there is no euphoric effect. You need the drug to avoid feeling physically ill.
Brooke, who has been clean 10 years through medication-assisted treatment, remembers the feeling from her own withdrawals.
“These kids aren’t just getting high. They’re getting hooked on something they can’t live without,” she said. “It’s different than other drug addictions because you get violently ill trying to get off of opiates. We’re talking — I’m going to be blunt with you here. We’re talking pissing, shitting, puking on yourself for a month at a time to get off of this stuff. This is not just wanting to get high. You have to have it to be normal. To be able to get up and walk and talk and breathe and not be sick.
“This is not just an addiction to getting high. It’s an addiction to being able to function.”
Anxiety, depression, diarrhea, hypertension and abnormal sensory feelings like ants crawling under the skin, fevers and sweating are the sorts of things Tony might have experienced without opioids, Wang said.
“He basically cannot bear it and then he needs the drug to help him feel normal, to function normally. That is what happens,” she said.
Tony had a family and friends who loved him. He knew this.
Five days before Tony died, John and Kristen brought him Christmas presents: gloves, socks, winter wear.
“While I was looking for him, one of his camp friends went and found him, and he came out with a big smile, and as he was walking towards me, he had his arms outstretched 20-plus feet from me, and gave me a big hug,” John said. “He thanked us several times for the presents, and we all said ‘I love you’ to each other.”
‘I just gotta get unsick’
A couple of hours before Tony died, his girlfriend overdosed. Tony revived her with nasal Narcan, a life-saving opioid antagonist.
Street fentanyl suppresses the respiratory system, which can cause a shortage of oxygen and send you into a coma, Wang said. Opioid receptor activation also blocks the central nervous system signals to breathe.
“Therefore, although their (carbon dioxide) level in the blood is extremely high, they cannot breathe more …” Wang said. “This is the main cause for overdose.”
Having watched his girlfriend struggle to breathe from drug use a couple hours earlier, Tony went to sleep.
“I’m sure Tony didn’t sit down and think ‘I’m going to do so much of this it’s gonna knock me on my ass,’” Brooke said. “I’m sure Tony sat down and thought, ‘I just gotta get unsick so I can go to bed.’ And that was probably his last thought.”
Quitting opioids, especially street fentanyl, is not something you should do without medical help, Wang said. There are ways to recover: medication-assisted therapy, like methadone, and drugs that help control withdrawal symptoms. Behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and other training programs can help patients avoid relapse. And Douglas County has invested in peer-led social detox programs to help people once they’re medically stable.
But Wang wants to emphasize one more thing:
“Opioid use disorder is a disease,” she said. “It is not a moral failing or choice of behavior. It is a disease.”
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The task of checking people in at the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness falls on resident Jennifer Adams — along with other duties, such as de-escalating problems, distributing donations, and trespassing people when they violate the contracts secured in Adams’ tent.