Judge Colleen Sterne | Credit: Paul Wellman File

Johnny Stumps was not in the courtroom. Neither, could I tell, were either of his parents as I parked myself up close and personal in one of the padded seats offered in Judge Colleen Sterne’s chambers. But I wasn’t there for Stumps.

Instead, I was on hand for what I hoped would be yet another epic showdown over Hollister Ranch and whether the last eight and a half miles of privately held and publically inaccessible coastline in all of California could somehow be opened up to the public. A small busload of predator attorneys showed up to argue the fine points of the fine points, none of which I could track. 

The Stumps case was just a warm-up act. A couple of brown-shoed attorneys from out of town showed up when his name was called and kicked dirt on each other’s ankles in front of Judge Sterne. The weight of all their words appeared to pin Sterne to her bench. The acoustics of Sterne’s courtroom are notoriously unaccommodating. Still, I managed to hear enough.

Johnny Stumps’s real name is John C. Strumpfler and on December 27, 2016, he moved from Ventura County to Santa Barbara, still known for good reason as the home of the nearly dead or newly wed. Stumps, as near as I could tell, was not about to get married. Apparently, that left the other option, and on March 24, 2017, Strumpfler died of a heroin overdose. His body was found in his room at one of the four sober-living houses run by Stalwart Clean & Sober Inc. here in town. From what I could glean on Facebook, Stumps was beefy enough to look like he could be trouble, but endowed with a smile goofy enough to be sweet. If he were alive, he’d be 25. The Strumpfler family, it turns out, is suing Stalwart for not taking better care of their Johnny C. They are also suing an entity called Community Solutions Inc. (CSI), a Connecticut-based conglomerate to which the county sheriff pays $2 million a year for coordinating reentry services for people with a past. CSI contracts, in some fashion, with Stalwart. Stumps was on parole at the time of his death. 

Attorneys for CSI and Stalwart argued the case should be thrown out before it even started. Johnny C. didn’t just break the rules by taking drugs on premises, they argued; he broke the law. He had what the attorney for CSI liked to call “unclean hands.” He cited something called the Drug Dealer Liability Act, which limits the claims that can be brought by people who violate laws governing “illicit substances.” He talked a lot of about legislative intent. If elected officials meant to open the doors for OD’d addicts to sue, they would have said so. 

Naturally, attorneys for Johnny C.’s family argued the picture was more complex. Johnny Stumps was a longtime addict with a well-documented history of being “treatment resistant.” By the metrics deployed by CSI and Stalwart, he was a high-risk offender who’d tested dirty for drugs five times in the nine months prior to his death. Admittedly, that was before CSI got him and assigned him to Stalwart. But once ensconced, Stumps missed group therapy more than a few times. And CSI couldn’t say with any certainty if he was making his 12-Step meetings or not. Given the intensity of Johnny C.’s problems, perhaps CSI should never have referred him to Stalwart. And once Stumps messed up, maybe CSI should have notified his parole officer and transferred him someplace else. His parents charged Stumps’s body wasn’t discovered for 19 hours, even though his car was still in the lot.

This case raises genuinely tough questions about the limits of personal responsibility at a time when more than 323,000 Americans have died of opioid-related overdoses since 2010. Much of this slaughter has been self-inflicted and legally executed thanks to a few impossibly successful pharmaceutical companies and their allies within the Drug Enforcement Administration and Congress. Most addicts, however, don’t just die. The Journal of American Medical Association recently published a report indicating that every year, we lose more than one million “disability adjusted life years” to opioid addiction. TheWashington Post recently released a series on opioid prescriptions, detailing how 76 billion pills were prescribed in the United States between 2006 and 2012. In Santa Barbara County, that number was 99 million. That translates to around 30 pills per man, woman, and child per year. Little wonder that we had 120 opioid-related deaths here between 2012 and 2016. The numbers since would have been even higher but for the 404 overdose reversals accomplished courtesy of Naloxone. 

Halfway houses and rehab homes have since become a thriving cottage industry said to be worth $42 billion; some are lifesavers, others are death traps. Since 1998, 25 bills have been introduced in Sacramento to regulate what’s clearly a Wild West industry. Only three made it to the governor’s desk. Not one, strikingly, has been signed. 

At times, Judge Sterne speaks with such ornate precision she seems to be channeling the spirit of Oliver Wendell Holmes. But this week, Sterne was almost poetic, wistful even, responding to this lack of legislative intent. “To me, this is an area where there are gaps,” Sterne replied. “There are certain areas,” she added with a pause, “of silence.” The case, Sterne decreed, will go forward. Those gaps and silences will be filled when the trial starts on August 26.

Johnny C. Stumps may not have been in court this week. He will be then. 


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