HOPEWELL, Va. (WRIC) — A local mother filed a $13 million dollar lawsuit against the Hopewell Police Department and other authorities alleging they’re responsible for her son’s fatal overdose. Donna Watson says her 31-year-old son Troy Howlett was working as a police informant when he died.
She alleges he ingested the drugs Hopewell Police forced him to buy while working undercover. “They put my son in harms way,” said Watson.
Watson tells 8News Howlett got hooked on pain pills after a car accident when he was just 17. He was in and out of recovery and during a setback Watson claims police recruited her son. She said, “The police found him in the car and they took him to the hospital.”
Howlett was already on probation for illegal drug use. Watson says police threatened to arrest and charge him in the latest incident if he didn’t work for them as an informant.
“My son is pleading momma I can’t go to jail, I’m scared,” said Watson. The mother claims police gave him cash, a camera and sent him undercover to buy drugs.
She said, “I know my son he wasn’t strong enough to do something like that. It is like putting the kid in the candy shop, you can’t put him back in the same situation.”
Watson was right. Text messages between Howlett and detectives show he told police he has “relapsed” and tested positive for drugs. Yet in a text message the authorities said he was “good to go” and sent him back out on the streets. “After they knew my son had tested dirty, they should have pulled him off,” said Watson.
Days later Howlett overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin. Howlett’s death certificate lists the cause of death combined fentanyl toxicity.
Watson said, “They used my son to do their dirty work.”
The lawsuit has been filed against Hopewell police, the City’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, the former Hopewell police chief and other officers. Watson’s lawyer Colleen Quinn alleges the Hopewell Police Department knew Howlett was addicted to opioids yet forced him to purchase the drugs in his role as an informant.
Quinn said, “To use him as an informant, knowing they are sending him back in to purchase the thing he is most vulnerable about and could kill him, that’s just reckless.”
While some may argue it was Howlett who decided to ingest the drugs Quinn says police were holding over his head the possibility of returning to jail.
To make matters worse, on the day Watson was to lay her son to rest, Hopewell police surrounded the funeral home. “There was three Hopewell Police and two were in tactical gear which was scary,” said a witness. 8News spoke with two witnesses at the funeral. 8News is not identifying either of them because they fear retaliation. Both describe a shocking scene in front of mourners. They say officers arrested Howlett’s best friend in the middle of the funeral.
“They put his hands behind his back and cuff him and I was like, are you all kidding,” questioned witness two. Both witnesses say officers could have made their arrest before or after the funeral but waited until the service started. “Everyone was horrified,” said Watson.
“They could have waited,” said witness two. “It was just unnecessary,” said witness one.
The friend was supposed to speak at the funeral but instead was escorted by police down the church aisle to say his good-byes. Watson said, “He’s in handcuffs and shackles.” The friend tried to hug Howlett in his casket but cuffed and shackled, he lost his balance.
“He couldn’t do it. He fell into the casket,” said witness one.
According to court documents his crime was alleged credit card fraud and allegedly failing to pay child support. “I was so angry the next day because you can’t get a do over,” said Watson. The Hopewell mom is seeking damages for the incident in a companion lawsuit.
She said, “I just couldn’t believe the police were so disrespectful.”
None of legal action will bring back Watson’s son but the mother hopes it will get Hopewell Police and other law enforcement to think twice about using vulnerable addicts in this practice. Watson says, “I want awareness I want it to stop, I don’t want it to happen to anyone else again.” Watson has set up a GoFundMe to continue her fight.
8News reached out to the Hopewell Police Department and the Commonwealth’s Attorney. We were told “no comment.”