(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
MANATEE – Laura Karrin Hall’s obituary says a lot about her.
She was born Feb. 28, 1994, in Bradenton to Kevin James and Frankie (Tupin) Hall. A 2012 graduate of the Manatee School For the Arts, she worked in the family restaurant business.
Laura left behind a large family — stepfather, grandmothers, godparents, nieces and cousins. She had a twin brother, Thomas.
Her life ended March 5, just five days after she turned age 21.
Above the tidy column is a black-and-white photo of Laura. She wears a polite smile, rectangle-shaped glasses, her dark hair parted on the side. A necklace adorns her throat.
But there is much more left to be said about Laura: She was a young woman with a great giggle; once she was filled with great promise. She was a woman who, family members say, struggled with drug addiction — and whose life ended when she overdosed on heroin.
It’s a story of many layers — of truths and lies and something else in-between.
As drug overdoses continue to increase in Manatee County, this is a story of one woman, and the family who loved her.
This is Laura’s story.
Exhaustion in her eyes
Frankie Amato sat in the corner of her couch with exhausted eyes. It was March 11, six days after her daughter, Laura, had died of a heroin overdose. Ruminations have kept the 50-year-old up until late at night.
Amato was told that Laura was found dead at the Carriage Court Motel, a place she frequented in Palmetto.
At 8:30 a.m. March 5, Amato and her husband, Paul Amato, 64, received a call from Palmetto police asking to meet at their business, Paul’s Pizza by the Foot, in an hour.
Amato remembered asking what it was about. When she was told it concerned her daughter, Amato figured Laura was in jail. Eventually, her daughter was going to get locked up for something, she remembered thinking.
“I said to Paul, I said, ‘This doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t seem right,'” she recalled.
Police would tell Amato that her daughter died around 3:30 a.m. that day. It was then that Amato found out it was her daughter’s third overdose that week.
“I looked at them and I said, ‘No, I’m not aware of that, but why are you waiting until the third time to tell me that?'” she said.
Questions flooded her mind. Amato wanted to know why she couldn’t be notified before.
“I don’t care about these stupid HIPAA (medical privacy) laws and because she’s 18 years old. Why didn’t they Baker Act her?” she said. “Why did they let her walk out the second time? Or did they? I don’t even know.”
Florida’s Mental Health Act, commonly called the Baker Act, permits involuntary institutionalization and examination of an individual who is a danger to herself or others.
Amato said she felt she had the right to know about her daughter’s overdoses because she was paying for Laura’s medical insurance.
She said she had known her daughter had a drug problem for about three years, she just didn’t know how severe it had become.
Laura was, at times, secretive about her drug habit; sometimes she was truthful. It all depended on her situation, Amato said.
“Laura liked to be high, and she would tell me that,” Amato said. “And what happened was, whenever she started doing these pills, was these pills, they took over her, and they took over her thinking, her brain and her life.”
It was beautiful day in April 2014 when Amato found out her daughter was injecting herself with a solution of Dilaudid pills.
A cautious Amato and her mother drove to Laura’s apartment after lunch. Amato left her mother waiting in the car and walked into the apartment. Laura’s then-boyfriend was there, as was a young woman, lounging in a reclining chair.
“‘Your mother’s here,'” Amato recalled him saying.
According to Amato, Laura immediately shut herself inside her bathroom. After a brief struggle, Amato pushed her way in and demanded that Laura give up a small bag she was hiding behind her back.
“I shoved her in the corner in the bathroom and she had spoons and needles … and these needles were so disgusting,” said Amato, her voice breaking.
Devastated, Amato said she took the needles away from her daughter. She told her daughter she wanted nothing more to do with her.
“I said, ‘Next time you call me, you will call me for rehab,'” Amato recalled telling her daughter.
A few days later, Laura telephoned her mother and told her she couldn’t live the way she was living anymore. Soon after, Amato drove her daughter to West Palm Beach. It was April 19, 2014, and her daughter would drift in and out of rehab for the next eight months.
Amato said she later found out that the young woman in the reclining chair that day was going to teach her daughter about prostitution.
At times, Laura was secretive about her drug habit. Other times, she was truthful.
One day, Amato received a call from Laura, who was staying at a halfway house and needed money. She had a job interview and needed to dress the part. Amato sent her $150.
“She and five people left that night and bought heroin,” Amato said, “and that was the first time she told me she tried heroin.”
Laura returned to Bradenton months later, right before Christmas. She helped at the family restaurant and would turn over all her money to her stepfather. She attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and had a sponsor to talk to.
“She was normal,” Amato said. “She was Laura.”
A good-hearted person
Amato was wistful as she spoke about the difference in her daughter’s personality.
There was the Laura “before drugs” and the daughter “after drugs.”
Before, Laura was smart and funny. She also had her own language.
“We would call them ‘Laura-isms’ and they were silly things that she would say that only her family members would understand,” Amato said with a small smile.
Laura was into costuming in high school, where she pulled straight A’s.
And then there was her laugh.
“She had this little laugh that I can’t imagine not hearing again in my life,” Amato said. “She would hug you and it was really a hug. She was a good-hearted person.”
According to Laura’s aunt, Kathe Fannon, young children can be tricked into believing something. As a youngster, her niece was different.
“You couldn’t trick Laura. She was too smart,” said the 53-year-old Fannon, who gives tours out of Cortez as Captain Kathe and First Mate Pup-Pup, and who would often take Laura with her as her boat mate.
Fannon was present for Laura’s birth. She recalled almost having a heart attack as she watched her niece struggle to take her first breath.
“She was priceless,” Fannon said. “It’s just so sad. I look in the obituary today and I see my 21-year-old niece that was absolutely priceless.”
She was 21 for only five days, Fannon added.
“We have such an epidemic,” she said. “I’ve personally known so many people that have overdosed on drugs in Manatee County. They are dropping like flies.”
Something has to be done, Fannon said.
“These drugs aren’t what they used to be. It’s insane stuff,” Fannon said. “It’s not like Laura was raised to do that.”
After drugs, Laura changed. Her mother said she became hollow and moody.
“It was just like night and day,” Amato said. “I didn’t even know who she was. I would tell my husband, ‘I don’t even know who she is anymore.'”
The relationship between Laura and Amato and her husband became tumultuous. They’d kick her out, and she’d go spend nights with her stepsisters, Cassie and Carina Amato.
“It’s a fine little circle of craziness,” Amato said, “because you’re going from your daughter, you trust her, and then you realize that she’s using needles, and then you come back and say you don’t want nothing to do with her.”
Carina, 40, said she felt fortunate to have spent almost every single day with Laura since she returned from rehab in December 2014.
“I said, ‘No matter what happens, from here on out, just be honest with me,'” Carina recalled telling Laura. “I gave her all my trust. I took her for her word. I thought she needed that.”
According to Carina, Laura’s ex-boyfriend came around and brought her drugs. She said it went from one extreme to the next in two to three weeks.
“It just had a hold of her,” Carina said. “I don’t know how … what happened, it just happened that quick.”
Question your children
Last week, the Amato family announced in an ad in the newspaper that they have decided to sell their restaurant because of health reasons and Laura’s sudden death.
Amato said she hopes Laura’s story helps other parents and teaches them that drug addiction can affect any family. She urged other parents to watch their children, to be involved with them.
It’s OK to question your children, she said.
“I could be ashamed and I could hide this because, if you look at that child, that girl was beautiful,” Amato said, looking at her daughter’s obituary on a nearby coffee table. “She could have had anything … and she could have been anything.”