On August 10, 2014, Amy Shemberger did what people who use drugs do every day: she took a ride to buy heroin for herself and her boyfriend, Peter Kucinski. Peter sent Amy with another friend, Benjamin Camunias, to get the heroin. Benjamin bought the heroin and then drove Amy back to Lockport, Illinois where she and Peter lived with their five-year-old son, Noah.
On the ride home, Amy snorted one of the bags of heroin. When she got back, Peter asked for his portion. He was having severe alcohol withdrawal and needed the heroin to feel better. “When his arm was around me, I could feel him shaking,” Amy remembered of his withdrawal. “His heart would race and he’d have cold sweats. And the coughing would get so bad, he’d start gagging.” She had just been released from jail a few days earlier, after having been arrested for drug possession for the first time, and, in her absence, Peter’s drinking had worsened. “He used alcohol and drugs to escape his emotional and mental pain,” Amy explained, and now he needed heroin to manage the withdrawal symptoms.
After Amy gave Peter his bag of heroin, they went downstairs to the bathroom together. To keep the drugs out of Noah’s sight, they always did drugs behind the closed bathroom door. “I asked him multiple times how much he had drank that day, because we hadn’t snorted in awhile, but he insisted he hadn’t drank that much,” Amy recalled. “He then snorted one $10 bag – the same amount I snorted in the car,” she said. Noah started knocking on the door, so Peter walked out to meet him and Amy stayed to clean up. When she walked out, Peter was asleep and softly snoring and Noah was in his room playing. She wasn’t alarmed.
“Peter would pass out and not wake up for three or four hours sometimes,” Amy explained. “I wouldn’t really think anything of it, because that was what he would do over and over throughout all the years I knew him.” She walked to Noah’s room and started tidying up his toys and putting them back in the toy box.
A friend of theirs, Sandra, who was staying with Peter and Amy at the time, and who also used heroin that day, noticed Peter wasn’t breathing first. She screamed to Amy and Amy, in disbelief, ran from Noah’s room and dropped to the floor to help him. “I didn’t even think about it. I just went to try and take care of him and do whatever I could,” Amy said. “I just felt so much fear.” She did a few rescue breaths and then called for help. “The house phone was sitting on the dresser right behind him, so I grabbed the house phone and I called 911,” Amy remembered, “[and] they walked me through CPR…”
When the paramedics and police arrived, Amy told them Peter had been drinking a lot of alcohol and had inhaled heroin. They administered a Narcan injection en route to the hospital, but were unsuccessful and Peter was pronounced dead shortly after.
Amy wanted to go to the hospital to join him but had to stay with Noah at the house. “While I waited,” Amy remembered, “I believed Peter was going to make it and come home and be okay.” When Peter’s mom arrived with the news, “I broke down crying,” Amy recalled. “I couldn’t believe what was happening, my boyfriend of 18 years had died, I was a mess.”
That same day, Amy also lost guardianship of their son, Noah. “In one day, I lost everything,” she remembered. “Having Noah ripped from me, after losing Peter, was heart-wrenching,” she said. Grief stricken, Amy moved back to her parents’ house and immediately started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She needed help and did not know what else to do, except go to as many meetings as she could.
It was not until two months later – in November of 2014 – that Amy was charged with drug-induced homicide. Her bail was set at one million dollars. “I didn’t know that I had even done anything wrong,” Amy explained. “I had no idea that I actually performed a delivery,” she said. “I didn’t know that simply handing your friend something was a delivery or handing [something to] your boyfriend.” Her co-defendant, Benjamin Camunias, the guy who gave her a ride, was also indicted on the same charge.
Amy’s parents, Patricia and Tony Shemberger, begged and borrowed from everyone they knew and took out a mortgage on their home to scrape together $75,000 to pay for a lawyer and get Amy out on bond. They hired Michael Johnson, a Chicago-based lawyer, to represent her. Right away, he viewed the case against Amy as wrong. “Amy’s case should not have been a homicide,” he said. “It’s not as though she held him down and stuck a needle in his arm or gave him, without him knowing, an amount of drugs that could cause death or great bodily harm…an adult, who is already involved in drugs, who has been a heroin addict, taking a dose that he’s probably been taking for many years, isn’t a homicide and shouldn’t be considered a homicide.”
Peter had not only used heroin for years, but he had used alcohol and cocaine for longer. He and Amy met when Amy was in eighth grade and he in ninth, and by the time he finished high school and started work, he was a heavy drug user. “I was all about trying to save this man and push him into a healthy direction,” Amy recalled. “I wanted to have a good life with him.” But with more and more problematic substance use, Amy says his behavior changed. “He would get physical with me and punch the wall next to my head or grab my arms and leave bruises all over my body but not my face,” she remembers.
She would leave him for weeks but always returned. “He would be so persistent,” Amy’s mother remembered, “he’d be texting her hundreds of times a day, calling her, calling the house day or night, knocking on our door at 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock in the morning. It was constant, he wouldn’t go to work.” No matter how bad it got, Amy would go back to him. “We connected,” Amy explained. “Peter was a deeper person and provided me a love I was searching for and couldn’t find elsewhere. We connected on a deeper level emotionally.”
After Amy graduated from college, she and Peter moved in together. He worked at laying marble floor, and she got a job at the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles. Peter’s drug use continued, and when things got really bad, Amy would go home and stay with her parents for days or weeks at a time. The circumstances were anything but ideal, so when she learned she was pregnant, her heart sunk. It brought her sadness to bring a child into the situation. “I knew the struggles that lay ahead,” she said. “I knew, from his past behavior, that no magic wand was going to be waved and that things weren’t going to be different.”
As Amy feared, Peter’s problematic substance use continued. On the day of their son’s birth, Peter was outside using when the newborn was wheeled in, and when she begged him to spend the first night with them in the hospital, he went home to use instead.
It wasn’t until after Noah’s birth, when Amy wanted to lose her pregnancy weight and injured her back in a fitness class, that she ended up becoming addicted to opioids as well. She went to a doctor, who diagnosed her with two herniated disks and sent her to a pain clinic for medication. The doctor prescribed heavy narcotic medication of increasing quantities. “I counted it up once,” Amy says, “and I was prescribed, when I added it all up, four hundred different pills in a month
by my doctor.” With the painkillers, she believed she could get everything done. “I felt like I could be supermom on the pills,” she recalled. Noah was a colicky baby and did not sleep, and the pills helped her with her back pain, but they also helped her take care of him at night and still work during the day.
Within a year, Amy had developed a severe opioid addiction and began to experience physical withdrawal in between refills. She’d never experienced withdrawal before, and didn’t recognize the symptoms. “I woke up at our house, with Noah, and I remember feeling like I had the flu,” Amy said. “I called Peter, because he was familiar with heroin, and asked him, ‘Why do I feel so horrible?’” He explained she was “dope sick.”
The withdrawal worsened over time, and she began to experience extreme hot and cold flashes, nausea, and diarrhea. She would throw up as many as 20 times in a row. The physical symptoms were accompanied by acute anxiety and restlessness. “It’s a horrible combination, like a living hell,” she remembered.
At work, the withdrawal became too much to bear. To avoid them, she and Peter would buy Norco pills off the street until the next prescription became available. When pills became too expensive, and her withdrawal too intense, she turned to heroin. “I was so scared,” Amy remembered. “It was like something that was taboo to me, and I didn’t want to do it, but because of the physical withdrawal, I gave in.”
The withdrawal symptoms were not the only reason she switched to snorting heroin; her depression and anxiety were acute and she needed relief. “I was struggling emotionally and feeling alone like everything was on my shoulders,” Amy recalled. “I didn’t know how else to alleviate the suffering.” She still worried what taking it would do to her. “I knew what it had done to Peter,” she explained. “It was this heavy-duty drug that wasn’t the direction I was looking to go in my life.”
Surprisingly to her, heroin at first wasn’t at all like she expected. “The first time I snorted
heroin, I was only able to get my sick off,” Amy recalled. “I was not even able to get high off of it, because I had such a high tolerance off legally prescribed painkillers. It just got me to the point of feeling normal.”
She continued to take pills and ingest heroin up until her job transfer to a Department of Motor Vehicles office further away. The new commute was three hours each way, and the withdrawal from snorting heroin more extreme. “To hold off the withdrawal,” Amy said, “I started to shoot it, so I wouldn’t have to worry about it while I was at work.” She and Peter would take turns getting the drugs – both of them going late at night sometimes to buy them in the streets of West Chicago. More often, Peter used to send her.
Over time, heroin became her and Peter’s drug of choice. It was cheaper and easier to get than pills. “At first it was kind of slow, and we were only doing it when we needed to,” Amy explained, “but then it became our first choice. It was about escaping the mental pain we felt as much as the withdrawal.”
Amy’s addiction ultimately resulted in her losing her job and in her first arrest: police found empty bags of heroin in her car, and she spent seven weeks in jail. She had only been out of jail for six days when Peter overdosed and died.
Unlike other drug-induced homicide cases, she received a seven-year sentence instead of one in the double digits. She could have received up to 30 years, according to the Illinois statute, but because she pled guilty and testified against her co-defendant, she received fewer. “It was hard to testify against him,” Amy said, “but I had to follow what my lawyer told me to do.” Her co-defendant, Benjamin Camunias, was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
For Amy, being in prison, far away from her son, is difficult. “I have not seen or talked to or been able to write my son since he was five,” Amy said. “That’s three years ago, he’s eight now.” She added: “It’s horrible how much I miss him.” She continues to fight in family court for access to him, and for her parental rights to be returned, but the proceedings are moving slowly. “I hold onto hope and faith,” Amy said, “that I’ll at least be able to have contact with him soon.” She uses her time inside as best she can: she seeks out as many counseling opportunities as are available to her. She teaches a religious class now, as well. Her type of charge limits her work and program opportunities inside, often leaving her with the impression prison is warehousing her, not helping her, but she doggedly pursues the few resources offered.
When she finally gets out in three years, she’ll be in her thirties, and have a Class X felony – the most serious offense other than first-degree murder. Her lawyer, Michael Johnson, described the challenges she will face: “[For] anyone with a felony conviction [it] is going to be difficult, because almost any application you get today for a job is going to ask you about your criminal history, especially a Class X offense and it’s going to show up as a homicide.”
Despite these barriers ahead, and the stigma Amy anticipates experiencing, she is committed to getting Noah back and to starting over. “It’s a little bit scary, though,” she says, “because for the first time in my life, I’m basically on my own, I don’t have Peter by my side for the first time since I was twelve.” With the opportunity to start over, she wants to use Peter’s death and her experience to help other people with addiction. “I want to be a drug counselor in addiction and prevention,” she said, “because I think people will really connect to my story in a meaningful way.” More than anything, though, she wants to be a mother to Noah again. “I just want to be there for him,” she said.