On a warm Memorial Day weekend in May 2017, 24-year-old Billy Bullabough was in a cheerful mood. He had grilled steaks during a family cookout that Sunday, and he was planning to shop the next day for birthday presents for his soon-to-be-4-year-old son.
Bullabough’s mother, Theresa Helms, woke up at around 2 a.m. that night in the Huntersville home that she and her husband shared with Bullabough. The light was still on in her son’s bedroom, so Helms went in to turn it off.
Something wasn’t right. Her son was face down on his bed. His skin was pale. She called his name, but he didn’t respond.
Helms called for her husband, who found Bullabough had no pulse. He had a cellphone in one hand, a syringe in the other.
Helms later found a message on Bullabough’s Facebook account. It was from Amanda Allen, a woman who had sold Bullabough heroin.
“Hey Billy, I was supposed to cut that run and I didn’t,” Allen’s audio message said. “So be careful. Don’t do too much of it. I think it’s got a little fentanyl in it. Just be careful.”
By then, it was too late.
‘Moments I am not proud of’
An ambulance rushed Bullabough to the hospital, where he died from a lethal dose of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid far more powerful than heroin.
Several months later, Huntersville police charged Allen with second-degree murder.
Law enforcement officials are increasingly filing murder charges against dealers whose drugs prove fatal. No one keeps track of how often that happens in North Carolina, but prosecutors have brought at least 20 cases in the last two years.
Some victims and prosecutors say the approach helps hold dealers accountable. But some drug policy analysts point to research showing that harsh punishment doesn’t deter drug crimes.
In October, after serving more than a year in jail, Allen wrote to an Observer reporter. She began her letter with a headline, in all capital letters: “I AM NOT A ROLE MODEL”
“Nothing in my life thus far has been a shining example to others as a model of success, great achievement, or even acceptable human behavior,” she wrote.
She said she began “traveling down the wrong road” around age 13.
For 27 years, she said, she has suffered from bipolar disorder and a severe drug and alcohol addiction. North Carolina court records show she has been convicted of more than 20 crimes, many of them drug offenses. She was homeless before last year’s arrest, she said.
“They say life is made up of a series of moments and I can look back now and see where I made split-second decisions, without much thought that have permanently impacted not just my own but the lives of others. Those are the moments I am not proud of.”
But Allen said she didn’t deserve to spend the rest of her life behind bars for murder.
“I try to understand the concept of charging drug dealers for crimes holding them responsible for the deaths of their consumers but in all reality are people who suffer from the disease of addiction really being ‘murdered’ by their alleged supplier?” she asked.
‘You’ve destroyed my life’
On Nov. 29, bailiffs escorted Allen — shackled and wearing a red jail jumpsuit — into a fifth-floor courtroom at the Mecklenburg County courthouse.
There, prosecutors told a judge what she had done: She had sold Bullabough $20 worth of methamphetamine, and $20 worth of heroin mixed with fentanyl.
More and more, fentanyl is the drug that is killing overdose victims. Last year, 543 North Carolinians died from fentanyl or its analogues — even larger than the number who died from heroin, according to the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office.
Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Desmond McCallum, who prosecuted Allen, said he doesn’t think most people understand how dangerous fentanyl is.
“The toxicity of it is just off the charts,” he said.
At the sentencing hearing, Bullabough’s mother wept as she watched the proceedings. She turned to face Allen: “You’ve destroyed my life.”
Then Helms told Superior Court Judge Hugh Lewis: “I don’t care how much time you give her. It will never be enough.”
Prosecutors offered Allen a plea deal. They dismissed the murder charge and allowed her to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and a drug distribution charge. Now 40, Allen will spend more than 10 years in prison.
Allen initially forgot to tell Bullabough that the heroin she sold was mixed with fentanyl, her attorney told the judge. When Allen remembered, her attorney said, she sent a message to Bullabough to warn him. But by that time, he had already overdosed.
Addressing Judge Lewis at the sentencing hearing, Allen told him it was an accident.
“If I could change my life today for (Bullabough’s), I would,” she said. “I will never forgive myself for this.”
Then, she tearfully turned to face Helms: “I’m so sorry,” she said.
‘Good kid ... bad choice’
On the day after Allen was sentenced, Helms told an Observer reporter about her son.
Bullabough loved to take things apart as a boy — his scooter, the lawnmower — just to see if he could put them back together. He didn’t always succeed.
The oldest of Helms’ two children, Bullabough had always loved adventures — the dangerous kind. As a boy, he had to get stitches after backflipping on a trampoline. He took another trip to the emergency room for an allergic reaction after he and his friends threw rocks at a hornets nest — and got stung.
“He always loved to live on the edge,” Helms said.
As an adult, he liked to joke around, but worked hard, his mother said. He worked the night shift at a warehouse in Huntersville, loading trucks and driving a forklift.
But Helms knew her son had other talents. He was a gifted artist who could draw lions, fairies and mythical beasts, his mother said. He even designed his own tattoos, including one of an anchor on his foot.
“Mom, this is my way of trying to anchor my life into the world,” Bullabough told her.
“I always wondered if he could have gone to some sort of art school,” Helms said. “I think someone would really have liked what he was doing with his art. But he never got that far.”
Helms said she knew her son had been drinking too much since breaking up with the mother of his child. But she didn’t know he had a drug problem, she said.
“He was a really good kid,” she said. “He just made a really bad choice.”
Helms doesn’t like the plea deal that Allen received. She wanted to see her convicted of murder. But it has been a year and a half since her son’s death, and Helms said she needed to “close that chapter so I could move forward with my life.”
Now Helms hopes her son’s death will send a message to other drug dealers: “There will be consequences if you do this kind of thing to someone’s loved one … Maybe they’ll understand you will pay for what you did to someone’s life.
“If it helps stop this mess, at least my son died for a worthy cause.”
Allen, who has begun serving her 127 to 165 month sentence, said she, too, hopes that something positive will come from it all.
“I wouldn’t wish for anyone to have to suffer the mistakes I have made,” she wrote in her letter to the Observer. “So if by sharing my story with others I could change someone’s path, alter someone’s perspective, or just plant a seed in someone else’s broken heart, it would be my greatest accomplishment.”