CANTON — He passed through the thick steel door, dragging his feet and wearing a uniform different from the one he had been accustomed to. As he took his seat behind the bulletproof, reinforced glass that divided him from the outside world, he interlocked his fingers — tattooed with the words “scum bag” — and raised his somber eyes.
That was on May 1.
War has torn U.S. Army veteran Travynn L. Ippolito apart physically and emotionally, but as he sat resignedly behind the concrete walls of the St. Lawrence County jail, he was fighting another battle.
One to get his life back.
Mr. Ippolito is out of jail now — released on his own recognizance while waiting for his felony theft case to be brought to a grand jury for indictment — but for 118 days, the maximum-security Delta Housing Unit was his home.
“Hello sir,” he said on that May 1 afternoon, when he agreed to an interview with a Times reporter, his only visitor since he was taken into custody on Jan 31.
Keeping with the military tradition of using courtesy titles when addressing others, Mr. Ippolito’s smooth, southern drawl echoed throughout the secured visitation booth. His face — goateed and framed by long hair pulled back in a ponytail — had filled out and regained color compared with the pale complexion he wore in the mug shot following his arrest, the picture that Mr. Ippolito’s mother said she saw in the newspaper and didn’t immediately recognize.
“When I read the article about his arrest in your paper and saw his picture, I could have died, because I have a picture where he is standing in his beret in his Army fatigues,” said his mother, Stacy Storey, who lives in Nashville.
Mr. Ippolito, 26, was a part of a trio arrested by St. Lawrence County sheriff’s detectives and deputies in connection with larcenies that occurred at Walmart stores in Potsdam, Massena and Malone in January. More than $40,000 worth of electronic devices allegedly was stolen.
Mr. Ippolito pleaded not guilty to one count of third-degree grand larceny in Potsdam Town Court on Feb. 1, and not guilty to a second count of third–degree grand larceny and fifth-degree conspiracy in Massena Town Court three days later. He pleaded not guilty to a third count of third-degree grand larceny in Malone Town Court on March 11.
A single charge of fourth-degree criminal mischief is pending against him in Canton Town Court.
The alleged thefts were part of what Mr. Ippolito said was a desire to feed a heroin habit that would have killed him had he not been sent to jail; he admits he has stolen to pay for drugs before. In jail, he had been awaiting the outcome of plea negotiations between his attorney, Edward F. Narrow, and St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain.
Mr. Ippolito’s felony charges cannot be resolved in local court, Mr. Narrow said, which is why his case was waived up to Superior Court for grand jury action.
“Given the value of the goods allegedly stolen, and the number of alleged independent acts — three stores in two different counties (St. Lawrence and Franklin) — no district attorney would resolve the case on a misdemeanor level,” Mr. Narrow said.
But that was when Mr. Ippolito was still behind bars.
He was released from jail June 13 as a result of a 45-day motion filed by Mr. Narrow at Mr. Ippolito’s insistence. The district attorney’s office has 45 days from the time of a felony arrest to bring an indictment, but it did not do so in Mr. Ippolito’s case because plea negotiations were ongoing.
Mr. Ippolito faces a maximum of 21 years in prison if convicted on all three counts of grand larceny, a sentence Mr. Narrow says is “extremely unlikely.”
Now, with Mr. Ippolito out of jail and his whereabouts unknown to both his mother and his attorney, his future is more uncertain than ever. Plea negotiations are off the table, and his case will be brought to a grand jury at a time to be determined.
INJURED IN IRAQ
Travynn Ippolito’s story of heroin addiction didn’t start with the alleged thefts at three north country Walmart stores. His downward spiral really began in April 2008 during combat as an Army specialist in Iraq.
“I was hit by the IED (improvised explosive device) and was ejected from the gunner’s turret 40 to 60 feet,” Mr. Ippolito said. “I landed on my shoulder and face, my jaw was all messed up, and I had shrapnel in my stomach and in my back.”
He was hospitalized in critical condition; after a month in military hospitals in Washington, D.C., and Georgia, he was returned to his home base in Fort Campbell, Ky., for the remainder of his medical treatment. It was there in 2010 that he received an honorable medical retirement from the military after three years of service. He then returned to Nashville to be close to his family.
That’s when the trouble began, Mr. Ippolito said.
Once retired, he said he was given nearly 10 different prescriptions by Veterans Affairs doctors for pain and mental health treatment; however, it was the narcotic Percocet — a combination of the opioid Oxycodone and the over-the-counter pain reliever acetaminophen — that gave him an increased tolerance for the drug.
“(They) didn’t try to wean me into them. They just pushed all of these medicines on me,” Mr. Ippolito said.
Eventually, the Percocet he was prescribed to relieve his back pain was replaced by non-narcotic, non-opiate/opioid drugs, which were perceived by doctors as being as effective, he said.
But it was too late.
Mr. Ippolito said when he stopped receiving the narcotic prescriptions, he began to feel ill due to withdrawal symptoms from the sudden lack of the drugs.
That was in late 2010.
THE ROAD TO HEROIN
With his back pain becoming more than he could stand and his prescriptions having run out, Mr. Ippolito turned to the black market to buy Percocet. Soon, however, the pharmaceutical not only became difficult to obtain, it didn’t have the same effect that it once did.
“And then those pills turned into the heroin. I started by snorting it and then was shooting it,” Mr. Ippolito said. “They are all terrible drugs, man.”
Around Christmastime in 2012, Mrs. Storey said she was called back to Nashville from Germany — where her husband was stationed — amid news that Mr. Ippolito had been hospitalized for an infection due to the shooting of heroin with dirty needles.
When she arrived at the hospital and saw her son there, an argument ensued.
“I told him he was going to kill himself and that he was going to kill somebody (unless he) gets this drug problem under control. This has taken a huge toll on us,” Mrs. Storey said, describing how distraught she and Travynn’s two sisters had been about his addiction. “This has killed our entire family.”
Mrs. Storey said her son was inundated with narcotic prescriptions by the VA in 2010.
“I said, ‘what the hell is this?’” Mrs. Storey said. “They jammed him up with medicine, oxycontin, oxycodone, oxy-this and oxy-that, and when they would say take one, he would take two.”
Robert W. McLean, spokesman for the Syracuse VA Medical Center, said that while he wasn’t authorized to speak about Mr. Ippolito’s case specifically because of privacy laws, any patients who have concerns about their prescribed medications are directed to their primary care provider and in counsel with their primary care team.
“We make sure we administer the proper care, and that includes the prescriptions that they get,” Mr. McLean said.
A program piloted last year by the VA, the Opioid Safety Initiative, aims to make veterans taking opioids (such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and methadone) aware of the issues associated with them, according to a letter sent to patients by the VA. The program also attempts to make sure that patients are being appropriately monitored so that they don’t have a problem with the medication.
Mr. McLean said the types of opiate medications Mr. Ippolito was prescribed tend to lose their effectiveness if they are overprescribed.
“So there is an appropriate amount and a place for the use of these medicines, and that is what this program is designed (to do) for each veteran,” Mr. McLean said. “This is a program that has been designed with a lot of different objectives in mind, including to develop awareness among patients and out-service providers that there are other ways to control pain, like acupuncture and other things that don’t involve the use of the opiates.”
But that program wasn’t available when Mr. Ippolito’s addiction began, and he said he spent an average of $200 a day on heroin.
“It was pretty bad. I would wake up in the morning and I would have to have it,” he said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t get out of bed. I would be sick.”
Mr. Ippolito said heroin led to several problems during his time in Nashville, including an assault charge that could complicate his pending cases in New York state. Needing a change, Mr. Ippolito said he left Nashville in 2012 and went to Washington state, where he stayed with family for about a year.
According to Mrs. Storey, Mr. Ippolito’s father resurfaced in his son’s life during that visit.
But the change in scenery did little to improve Mr. Ippolito’s troubles and, not long after his relocation, he said he started stealing from Walmart to feed his heroin addiction.
“I had to pay for a habit,” Mr. Ippolito said. “I had a little group I was running with there, and at first I was starting with smaller items. With electronics, it was a lot easier.”
Nearly a year later, in November 2013, Mr. Ippolito left Washington and headed to the north country with his brother and sister-in-law, whose family is based in Plattsburgh. That’s also where Mr. Ippolito said he got involved with Nina N. Duprey and Brandy D. Young, the two women arrested in connection with the Walmart thefts that put Mr. Ippolito in jail.
Ms. Duprey and Ms. Young, both 35, have pleaded not guilty to third-degree grand larceny charges.
During his interview with the Times last month, Mr. Ippolito said Jan. 31 — the day of his arrest and incarceration — was the day he stopped doing heroin, cold turkey. He said the withdrawal pangs were “terrible.”
“After I was arrested and I found myself in here, I started to withdraw bad,” he said. “I had cold chills, I had the shakes, I couldn’t eat anything, I was dehydrated. It was bad for about a good two weeks — I couldn’t sleep, and then it started to get better and better and better. Here I sit.”
As if the physical pains of withdrawal weren’t enough, he said he began to receive letters from home that included pictures of his sisters — Taylor R. Storey, 17, and Montana A. Storey, 15 — for him to hang in his cell, making his heart ache.
“I saw a picture of my little sisters and it kinda hit me, like man, they are old now, I had just seen them but I had missed out on the last few years of their life because I was on drugs that whole time,” Mr. Ippolito said.
He said the last time he saw his mother and sisters was during his move from Washington state to the north country before Thanksgiving in 2013, but he was in such a drug haze that his memory of the visit seemed more like a dream.
But now the haze has cleared, and his incarceration was a mixed blessing, he said last month.
“If I wasn’t here, there is no telling, I could be dead by now. It’s because I am in jail that I was able to get clean,” he said.
Mr. Ippolito, however, said he didn’t want to continue waiting for plea negotiations to decide his fate, and he wanted to be released from jail, a decision Mr. Narrow said went against his advice.
Had the now-abandoned plea negotiations continued, Mr. Ippolito could have been kept waiting in county jail for his case to be brought to St. Lawrence County Court until between July and September, Mr. Narrow said.
Now, there is no timetable for a grand jury to act.
“Probably the most important reason is this isn’t a case about reasonable doubt and whether or not the people have arrested the wrong person for this crime,” Mr. Narrow said. “The evidence is there to convict the defendant on what he has been charged with.”
And it was the evidence that likely would have convicted Mr. Ippolito that pushed Mr. Narrow to engage in plea negotiations, he said.
While he sat in the secured visitation booth on May 1, Mr. Ippolito said the incarceration had brought a newfound sobriety that had changed him.
“Before I didn’t really care about anything besides making sure that I was going to be getting high,” Mr. Ippolito said. “Now I am more clear-headed. Now it is just focusing on trying to get back the time that I missed out the whole time I was high.”
And that’s the only thing that has been on his mind, he said — starting over and making up for lost time. Among his goals: doing work that he performed before he joined the military.
“I want to get a job working in concrete again and stay away from drugs back in either Tennessee or Washington; I definitely want to get out of here,” Mr. Ippolito said from jail. “This place is nothing but bad memories. I don’t know anybody up here besides people who associate with drugs.”
“I don’t plan on messing with drugs ever again, that’s for sure,” Mr. Ippolito said. “It kind of shows you what means most — your family. I was being selfish thinking it was just me getting high, but it tore my family apart as well. I never really understood how much drugs affected my whole family.”
Now that his client is out of jail, however, Mr. Narrow has voiced deep concerns about Mr. Ippolito and his case.
“Obviously for Mr. Ippolito, his heroin problem leads him to commit crimes,” Mr. Narrow said after his release. “The first concern is that when you have someone who has an untreated substance-abuse problem, when they get out of jail, the first thing you think of is that they are going to start shooting again.”
Mr. Narrow noted that Mr. Ippolito has sparse ties to the north country.
“I’m not really sure that I will ever see him until he gets picked up on a warrant. Getting him out of jail today was not my idea,” Mr. Narrow said. “This was his decision, and there is no plea deal now, and he could go to jail for a significant amount of time for a short amount of freedom, so this is not a good trade-off.”
Before he left the company of his lone visitor at the St. Lawrence County jail on May 1, Mr. Ippolito said he spoke to his mother daily, longing for the day he could see her and other family members again.
As he slid off the metal stool where he sat for an hour, talking about the events that led him to a lonesome north country jail a thousand miles from his family, Trayvnn L. Ippolito — scarred from a war of men, a war with drugs and a war in his heart — turned his somber eyes away from the outside world.
In his orange and white jumpsuit, he returned to the pictures of a world he left in a haze.
Mrs. Storey says she last spoke with her son on the day he was released from jail — Friday the 13th, the day he told her the news, the day he asked for money, the day she sent him a hundred dollars.
Travynn Ippolito is a free man now, but his mother knows that could be a temporary state; the next story she reads could be about his death, likely due to an overdose.
She hopes she is wrong; she aches to be wrong. But she knows it is possible — oh so possible.