A daughter dies, a family mourns,
a community asks ‘why?’
by Mark Craddock
WALSENBURG —On June 17, at 7:29 p.m. Huerfano County Dispatch received a call of a woman detoxing from drugs, in need of medical assistance. She was having trouble breathing and was unconscious, according to the caller.
At 7:32 p.m., the dispatcher entered a line into the log: “RP stated it’s Quanisha.”
Such a personal log entry may seem out of place, but in small-town Walsenburg, it is understandable. Most everybody knows everybody, especially those who grew up here, especially those who stand out in some way. Quanisha Baros, age 22, was known. She was born and raised primarily in Walsenburg. She came from a large extended local family. She had been an angry, rebellious girl from an early age. As a teenager she had her share of run-ins with her parents, teachers and the law.
And she was a stone-cold addict.
At 7:34 p.m. an ambulance arrived at 509 W. Ninth Street, staffed by EMTs Mike Gonzales, Darcy Saint-Peter, Benjamin Gladden and paramedic Brad Mullins. At nearly the same time, Sheriff’s Deputy Morgan Chapman and Captain Craig Lessar arrived.
Quanisha’s father Jose Baros said his ex-wife had dropped Quanisha off at that house days earlier. Regina Tenorio said her daughter was struggling with her addiction and had been sick, but did not want help. She had been staying with her great-grandmother and a succession of friends. This was just another address; possibly another friend, possibly another place to score.
According to the EMT report, Lessar told emergency personnel on arrival that the home “has been under investigation and is not safe.”
The EMTs reported they wheeled their cot to the front door, but abandoned it there because of the clutter in the house. They proceeded to what appeared to be a storage room, strewn with old food, drinks, clothing and tools.
In the middle of the room, a gaunt, malnourished-looking woman was lying naked on a bare mattress. EMTs estimated she weighed between 85 and 90 pounds. Two garbage bags were under her head and torso. A towel covered her genitals.
She was not breathing. She had no pulse.
Her skin was warm, pale and dry. Vomit had pooled to the right of her head. A black tar-like discharge stained the mattress beneath her, a sign of rectal bleeding. Dried blood surrounded her nostrils. Most of her front teeth were missing. Track marks dotted both arms.
Lessar stayed with the EMTs. Chapman gathered the house’s residents together to take statements.
The team began cardiopulmonary resuscitation immediately. They inserted an IV needle in her leg. They hooked their patient to a defibrillator, but got a “no shock” message – somewhat counterintuitively the first indication that Quanisha was not yet dead.
There are certain situations in which shocking the heart is not indicated. One of these is PEA, pulseless electrical activity, a condition in which some electrical signals are getting to the heart, but it still not beating. If a clinical definition of death is the cessation of brain activity, a PEA indicates that there is at least a quiet, flickering whimper of life, even if only in some deep, autonomic crevasse of the brain stem.
But life, however tenuous or faint, however unlikely, is the EMTs’ calling.
The CPR continued. With every compression, dark blood with a strong odor streamed from Quanisha’s nostrils. Lessar told emergency workers that one of the bystanders was becoming agitated and recommended quickly moving the girl to the ambulance. A second ambulance arrived. Quanisha was placed on a scoop stretcher and carried to the cot, then wheeled to the ambulance.
Emergency workers continued chest compressions, injected her with 1 ml of epinephrine, inserted a tracheal tube, hooked her to a heart monitor, and again noted a PEA. But her heart was still not beating. Her chest rose and fell, but only in response to artificial resuscitation. Five minutes later, she was given a second dose of epinephrine.
At 7:55 p.m., some 20 minutes after beginning treatment, emergency workers left for Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center’s ER.
En route, they noted that the PEA waveform appeared to diminish. They adjusted the tracheal tube and continued compressions on her tiny, gaunt chest. They transferred her to the emergency room, where they administered a third injection of epinephrine, telling Dr. Ginger Dunham Smith that Quanisha “appeared to be in PEA throughout the call and remained unresponsive.”
Emergency room personnel continued CPR. They gave Quanisha a dose of Narcan, a drug to counter opioid overdose, just in case. It did no good. Compressions continued on Quanisha’s battered chest, which rose and fell with artificial breaths. Blood and bile continued to ooze from her nose. The futility of the moment became increasingly clear.
Dr. Dunham Smith noted, “CPR continued for a brief period to assure confirmation of EMS history and that indeed patient had been in asystole since their arrival on scene with pause to find patient still in asystole, no spontaneous resp, no pulses, pupils fixed and dilated, no heart tones.”
“Asystole,” sometimes called “flatline,” means the heart is at a total standstill. There is no beating and there is no electrical activity.
Quanisha Baros was pronounced dead at 8:07 p.m.
An autopsy revealed Quanisha did not die of a heroin overdose. Her death, like her life, was not that simple.
There was no measurable heroin or other opioids in her bloodstream. The amount of methamphetamine in her blood, 564 ng/ml, would be just barely enough to register as positive on a drug test. No one knows, or is saying, where she got or how she administered the meth found in her system. But it was almost certainly not enough to kill her – absent other severe medical problems.
The autopsy showed the inner lining of her heart was weak and a valve compromised, probably the result of infections common to intravenous drug users. The sac around her heart was filled with a milky fluid, another sign of infection. She had been bleeding internally. Over the years, she had sustained kidney, liver and lung damage. Dr. Dunham Smith indicated in her ER notes that she suspected Quanisha was septic, suffering from a blood infection that, in itself, is often fatal.
Quanisha’s final hours were one last, desperate, long-shot gasp of hope; her damaged heart pounding squarely in opposition to a lifetime of anger, disappointment, self-abuse and dark, abject fatalism. Until it didn’t.
She died of the ravages of addiction, coupled with a battle to get clean that proved fatal. She was weaker than she knew, more sick than anyone suspected. Her frail body simply could not handle the torture of cold-turkey withdrawal.
The El Paso County Coroner listed her cause of death as methamphetamine intoxication and endocarditis. He ruled it an accident.
The preceding narrative is based on Huerfano County Dispatch logs; sheriff’s office reports and body-cam footage; as well as EMT, hospital and coroner’s reports. Many were compiled by Jose Baros, Quanisha’s father, in his search for answers in the immediate aftermath of his daughter’s death.
Beyond the Stats,
Context is Everything
In 2016, Huerfano County led the state in drug deaths, per capita, according to a report by the Colorado Health Institute. The county’s stats in 2017 and early 2018 are similarly bleak.
In the face of this stark headline, however, context is everything.
With about 6,600 residents, tiny Huerfano County’s six drug-overdose deaths made it statistically the worst in the state. But six overdoses represent a typical weekend night in many big-city emergency rooms. Indeed, preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates some 200 people a day die from drug overdose – more than 72,000 in 2017 alone. In Colorado, El Paso County led the state in 2016 with 141 overdose deaths, followed by Denver County at 138 deaths.
In 2016, Colorado as a whole recorded 912 overdose deaths. And 2017 data, though not final according to the CHI report, suggests that number rose to 957 deaths.
The numbers clearly demonstrate Colorado is not immune from the one-two punch of methamphetamine and opioid addiction which has flummoxed the nation. It is a plague which cuts across traditional demographics – impacting rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old with equally savage indiscriminance.
The causes are many and the solutions mystifying and complex.
But Huerfano County and other similar rural outposts may hold a key to the solution. Statistically, the county represents a microcosm of the addiction problem writ large. But with so few deaths, the opportunity exists to put names and faces, life stories and case histories to the raw numbers.
Like Quanisha Baros, each drug-related victim is a three-dimensional person whose life transcends demographics and cold statistical analysis. Within the stories of these lost neighbors and friends may lie a key to understanding the nature of the addiction crisis. By letting the dead speak, we may hear the whispers of solutions that have so far eluded us, nearly 50 years after President Richard Nixon declared a nationwide war on drugs.
Letter from Quanisha: Part 1
Shortly after Quanisha’s death, Jose discovered three letters written to him in her final days. It was weeks before he could bring himself to read them. He shared one of them with the WJ:
Good morning! I hope you slept well. I’m writing this letter because it has always been easier to say how I feel and express my feelings through writing. And there is a lot I need to get off my chest. And it is easier to write it to you than it is to talk about it first. Especially right now because I can’t keep my emotions under control to get it out. I have so much anger built up, and hurt, and guilt, that I was letting it destroy me. And I refuse to keep letting it.
First off, I HAVE/NEED to apologize for never giving you a chance to be in my life because of the hate I had let my mom build up in my head since I was a kid. You never deserved that. And it wasn’t fair to you, to me, or my brother or sister. I don’t know if I’m right on the times and ages but if I remember correctly I was in Kindergarten or first grade the first time you and her split up. I remember her always blaming me for the reason you left. I always remember her treating me so bad telling me I was a mistake and she should have never had me. She would always take me and drop me off at Grm. Lelas and come back for me days before it was time to go back to you. So I remember becoming so rebellious as a kid hoping to get her attention, when the school would call her to send me home with her instead she would either get mad and send me with Gma. Lela’s & Gpa. Art and then got tired of that and just started telling them to call you instead. And that made me even more rebellious against everyone because I was so hurt I felt my mom didn’t love or want me and I blamed you because she always made me feel like I was the reason you left and that’s why she didn’t want me. I don’t know if you remember when you took her to the biker run in Sturgis and you guys got back and we were all at the house and you and her were in the bathroom and I was laying on your bed watching TV being nosy at the same time LOL. I seen you guys kiss and I remember running up the hall all happy and told everyone mom and dad are back together!! So young, hoping it would get better. Then we moved to Gunnison. I hoped things would be better and they were for the most part that I can remember. Until the end. And then we moved home in the middle of my 6th grade year right after volleyball season. I played my last game and we left…
But when, where and how did things go so horribly wrong?
What put Quanisha on a path that led to a soiled mattress on the floor of a Walsenburg home, a bed in the Spanish Peaks hospital ER, a cold metal gurney at the El Paso County Coroner’s Office?
“You know, it started out in the womb,” Jose said, recalling the day he first learned his wife was pregnant with Quanisha.
“I walked into the house and it was quiet so I started hollering for her,” he said. “I walked down the hall and asked ‘what’s going on?’ She was in her bedroom on her knees cleaning out her closet and crying profusely when I walked in.
“‘I’m pregnant,’ she said. I said, ‘good.’ She said ‘no, I don’t want another kid. I don’t want to be pregnant. I’m done.’ So all through her pregnancy she was angry because she didn’t want to have another kid. So when Quanisha came she was just different because her mother never had any relationship with her, really.”
But Tenorio remembers it slightly differently.
“We thought we would be done at two, then she came along,” Tenorio said. “I still had her… Once she came, it was all good.”
Tenorio admits Quanisha was a difficult child to raise.
“She was a little shit. Ever since she was little, she was crazy,” she said. “She had a little ride on the van when she was about two years old. Later, she drove the car backwards into the pool. She started off like that.”
“I still care for her. I still love her. I always will.”
Jose says he is not laying the blame for Quanisha’s death at his ex-wife’s feet. Theirs was an often-tumultuous, on-again, off-again relationship with overtones of substance abuse on all sides. It seems inevitable it would take a toll on the children. But many children live in broken homes. Not all become drug addicts. Not all die in a pool of their own vomit.
Jose says he has been clean and sober for years and is an ardent Christian. But in his younger years, including Quanisha’s earliest years, he was hardly a choirboy. He abused drugs, principally cocaine. He drank to excess. He dealt drugs. But he was careful, and he was lucky. He never got caught.
He remains careful today, speaking only in broad strokes about those years, lest someone is still listening.
Baros recalled a large county-wide cocaine bust several years ago in which the sheriff’s office swept up many of the area’s biggest drug dealers. He avoided the sweep because of dumb luck. “By the grace of God, I didn’t get caught,” he said. “But I was, like, that close.”
“Police called them the ‘dirty dozen,’” Jose said. “I’m told I was number 13.”
and a Reckoning
Earlier this year, Jose brought his three children together for a rare reunion. It was part celebration and part intervention; painful recriminations, and blunt predictions.
Quanisha had been jailed for several weeks in El Paso County and had been transferred to Huerfano County, where she was released. Son Ramon was in Huerfano County Jail. Oldest daughter Toni had kept in contact with the family.
“Quanisha had been clean for almost a month, because she’d been in jail, so her mind was pretty clear,” Jose said. “I thought, ‘this is it. I can keep this going. I can help her.’ My son was locked up at the time. It had been several years since I had the opportunity to be with all three of my kids at one time. I can bond him out. He can stay with me and I can help him. Ramon was going back to jail on his charges, but we would have a little time together.”
Over five days, Jose said the children and he were able to share some painful truths.
“We had a lot of conversations at that time. It was one of the only times when they opened up to me about how they really felt about everything, all the things that happened in our lives… About the roads that they were on…
“And I told my daughter there’s only two kinds of addicts like you, the ones that are still using and the dead ones. I said you can join the very few right now that you’re clean, if you go someplace for a year where you continue to get clean. But if you go back out, you’re going to kill yourself. You’re going to die.”
He told his daughter he would spend the intervening year fixing up a house for Quanisha to come home to, a home she could eventually bring her son to.
Jose had a similar message for Ramon.
“I told my son when you look at your life and the road that you’re on it’s the same road that my brother Stevie was on. His whole life. And it led to his grave,” he said. “I said ‘if you don’t change your ways and the things that you’re doing, you’re probably going to go to prison for a long time and when you come out you’re probably going to end up dead, or with no life.”
“My daughter ended up dead and my son’s in jail and is probably going to go away for a long time.”
Letter from Quanisha:
… We came home and you had to go to Alamosa. And she was always mad. She had us alone. Then she started working at Loaf and was always at work. I was 11 years old at that time. Mom was all I had at that time and I didn’t want to be left alone all the time so I would always either go with him or with Harmony or Brittan. And by that time she had already told me she hated me and didn’t want me so much that I felt like why should I listen to her and be there then? Then it got to a point where we hated each other. I was 11 years old drinking like a fish and smoking like a train. I started telling her hateful things back. It got really ugly …
Back to Her Old Ways
Baros recalled a terrible night of withdrawal Quanisha experienced shortly after she returned to his home.
“She would start screaming, just screaming,” he said. “Her legs would be shaking violently. At times her whole body would bounce off the bed just shaking. I was deathly scared about what was going to happen. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to help her. I prayed over her. I prayed over her. I just didn’t know what to do for her. I sat up all night with her. It just happened all night. She’d wake up screaming and I’d go in and rub her body and pray over her. I said I have to do something or she’s going to die here. She might die in my house.”
By daybreak, Quanisha slept. Baros called a rehab facility.
Quanisha initially was receptive, but on the long drive to the Denver rehab facility, she began making excuses, having second-thoughts about the one-year commitment. They stopped at a convenience store in Colorado Springs. Quanisha bolted. She was in the wind.
Jose said that was the last time he saw his daughter alive.
Letter from Quanisha:
… The night mom drove to Alamosa and found out about you and Gloria, me and mom spent the night out in Navajo for our cousin Martin’s birthday party. We all stayed out there because his mom wouldn’t let us leave drunk and mom knew. By the time we got home she was already back. Me and mom had no clue she even went up there. When we got home she was in the room crying. As soon as me and mom walked in she started calling me a little bitch telling me that I finally got what I always wanted and that it was my fault that you left her again. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember calling you leaving you the most awful voice-mail because it reminded me of when I was little all over again. I was so hurt and so angry that I called Harmony and asked her and her mom to come pick me up. That’s when her mom was dating Ed. I remember after they picked me up we went out to his trailer because they were fighting and he broke out the windows on her truck and owed her money but didn’t want to give it to her and I was so mad at the whole world and she was like a mother figure to me that I took my anger and hurt from you and mom I had built up out on Ed and uncle Pete and that is the day we got caught for stealing their plants, and I dragged them into it because of my anger.
They let us go that day but came to the house to arrest us the next day and mom wasn’t even there. We had to send Martin to go find her to tell her because she didn’t come home that night.
It’s not that I didn’t love you.
You Live With’
“About a week before she died, they told me that Quanisha was back in town and she was really sick,” Jose said. “She didn’t want my help because it meant a year of her life. That’s all I could do for her.”
At some point in Colorado Springs, Quanisha said she was beaten up, her mother said. She had lost several teeth in the fight.
“That’s what she told us,” Tenorio said. “None of her ribs were broken and stuff, so we don’t know. She lied a lot.”
Quanisha was staying with her great-grandmother, Tenorio’s grandmother.
“Grandma didn’t want her to stay there,” Tenorio said. “Well, she did, but Quanisha was sick. She kept telling my grandma ‘I’m dying.’ We didn’t know what to believe. We all know she was sick from the drugs and stuff. We didn’t know it was this bad.”
But by this time, older sister Toni said Quanisha was showing serious signs of illness.
“She was spitting up blood,” Toni said. “She wasn’t able to go to the bathroom.”
“She told me, ‘Mom, I think I need to go to the hospital,’” Tenorio said. “So I told her, ‘well, Quanisha, we’ll take you in the morning. But by the time I called my grandma’s house at 9 o’clock she was already gone. Grandma said ‘oh, she said she had a headache so I gave her $10 to go buy medicine. I said ‘grandma, you just gave her $10 to go buy some more drugs.’ And then after that we did not see her for a couple days.”
Then came Sunday, June 17.
“The day she died, she texted me in the morning and said ‘Dad, are you going to church?’” Jose said. He told his daughter no, he had something else to do.
It was Father’s Day, a day which will now carry the sting of guilt, the day Jose feels he failed his daughter finally and completely. Quanisha reached out. Jose rebuffed her. Later that day, she died.
“So I’ll have to live with that, knowing that if I had said ‘yes, I’ll go to church with you,’ I would have seen how sick she really was and I would’ve got the doctor and they might have been able to save her. But I said I have other plans.
“Will I carry that for awhile? I probably will. Can I blame anybody? No. Because I make choices in my life, too, just like everybody else. Sometimes you make good choices and sometimes you don’t.
“The choice you make is the choice you live with.”
The One Who Made It
Toni, the oldest of the three Baros children, managed to avoid the troubles that befell Quanisha and Ramon. But how?
She admits that, like her siblings, bitterness and resentment filled her childhood because of her parents’ breakups.
“When they broke up, Quanisha felt like she was blamed for it, but at the same time their first breakup I blamed myself, too,” she said. “When there was another woman involved and they split up, we as kids didn’t really know what was going on, so we blamed ourselves. We kind of got stuck in the middle of it all…
“And we all rebelled. Quanisha was not the only one. I did the same thing. In fifth grade I stopped wanting to do my homework, started doing what I wanted to do.”
But at age 15, Toni discovered Job Corps. She leaped at the chance and never looked back.
“Me and my dad didn’t have a good relationship at that time so I said ‘I don’t have to live under your roof anymore. Cool,’” Toni said. “So that’s where I got out of it.”
Toni said she later graduated high school, lived with the family in Gunnison for six months, then ventured off on her own to Colorado Springs.
“Ever since then, I’ve been kind of doing my own thing,” she said.
Toni reminisced about the travails of growing up with a sister like Quanisha.
“It was hard. We were different,” she said. “But I still loved her.”
Toni said Quanisha liked to fight. She liked to start fights. And even she didn’t seem to know why.
“We had our little fights here and there,” Toni said. “She was always the one to throw the first punch and it was always me the one trying to protect her. But she always took it the wrong way and I was wrong for some reason for trying to defend her, I guess. But that’s just who she was. I don’t know if she would have ever changed.”
But Toni is still the oldest sister. She still harbors the guilt every oldest sibling feels at some point, the regret that she couldn’t do more for her younger brother and sister.
“I felt bad because I wasn’t there for them,” she said. “But I tried to tell them, like, do better. ‘Brother, you have a good job. Keep it. Sister, you have a son, take care of him.’ I said ‘You’re going to put your son through the same things you felt?’ And now he has to live without a mom.”
Toni said she is not speaking from some high perch of sanctimony. She had her own three-year dance with ecstasy.
“I loved ecstasy,” she said. “It was my big thing. But after awhile I said I just can’t do it. I woke up one day and said I’m not going to do it anymore. And I stopped. That took three years of my life…
“That’s what I tried to tell my sister. You choose to do these things. And once you get so far, sometimes you can’t control it… With hard drugs, the meth and heroin, I know it’s not as easy, because I’ve met plenty of people who have abused who say you just can’t stop. I guess mine was a little different because I was able to just go cold turkey without being sick.”
To See Forward,
At Quanisha’s funeral, Jose looked out from the pulpit across the assembled group and saw so many of his lifelong friends and acquaintances, so many still embroiled in the drug life. Remorse overcame him. Or maybe it was survivor’s guilt. He was lucky. He got out. But his daughter still died, his son was still jailed.
“A lot of people who got hooked on cocaine many years ago are still doing it – well, cocaine is not the thing anymore, it’s meth and heroin – so the same people are still out there living that lifestyle that leads to nowhere,” Baros said. “A lot of them are still my good friends. So they often ask me how did I do it because I was just as bad as they were.”
Jose said he was fortunate to have a man who cared enough about him to pester him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I kind of got tired of him asking me, so I went with him,” Baros said. “I liked what I heard so I kept going back. And I found sobriety. And I made it.”
“My only regret is I wish I would have found Jesus instead of AA 17 years ago,” he said. “I think that would have been something a little different for my kids. It would have been a whole lot different for me. But you can’t live in that. You can only live today and for today.”
As Jose eulogized his daughter that day, as he saw his own past in the eyes of his friends, the future in the eyes of their children, there came a sad realization.
“People often say in this town, how do we get the drug dealers off the streets?” Baros said. “I say look back at history. Look back at the dirty dozen. Their kids are doing what they did.”
And Jose Baros, “Number 13,” the one who got away clean but could not spare his children, knows bitterly of which he speaks.