I grew up in East Petersburg and West Hempfield. Growing up I lived with my mom and dad until everything fell apart, and my dad left. For a long time, it was just me, my mom, my sister, and our dog. My mom was a stay-at-home mom because she was injured due to a car accident. She was in and out of surgeries to repair the damage, so she was home with us constantly. My dad traveled a lot so even when he did live with us, he was never home. My sister was two years younger than me, and we were pretty much twins the whole time growing up. We were both super tan, blonde haired little girls and were just really happy. She was always attached to my mom, and she had the chubbiest cheeks ever.
We shared a room, and then we had a playroom, and it was just filled with Barbie toys. We constantly played Barbies all day and night as long as we could. It was so much fun. We did competitive gymnastics together, so we were both on the same team and level. We would leave school and go to the gym. We’d eat dinner in the car, get home, go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again. It was just the two of us, and we did gymnastics camp in the summer too. The best memories I have with her are at the beach. My mom would take us down to the beach and we would camp for weeks at a time. Then, we would come home for a couple of days and go back to do it all over again. We were just constantly playing in the sand making creations and playing in the ocean.
When my dad left for good it was really hard on my sister. She didn’t want him to leave. I wanted him gone because I watched him hurt her all the time. I’ll always remember watching him choke her for not finishing a glass of milk. I even told my mom I wanted a divorce from him when I was eight. I didn’t realize that you can’t divorce your dad. Soon after he left, our relationship began to shift. There was a lot of fear. Is he going to come back? What’s he going to do to us when he comes back? The bumps in the middle of the night felt like, “What’s that? Is he coming back for us?” At that time, my sister really started changing her behavior, her attitude, her happiness. My grandpa died shortly after my dad left. He was really our light, our male role model, and her best friend. I think her being so young at the time really affected her ability to communicate that she was having a rough time with both the loss of my grandpop and dad.
After moving to a new area and school, my sister always looked out for the underdog person and people being bullied. The teachers would complain about her, and she would get in trouble. It spiraled downhill quickly. We never knew if she was the one disrespecting teachers or the wrong one in situations. Her friend group just went completely the opposite way of what a good path would be for a middle schooler. She started drinking, and I tried to tell my mom and I tried to tell my family that something was going on, and nobody wanted to hear it.
Her usage began to progress at this point. At first, she was really discrete about it that nobody knew. I could tell that she was drinking a lot. Due to my mom’s disability, she had OxyContin, morphine and oxycodone available in the house. My sister began stealing her pills. My mom would notice that pills were missing, and Tori was taking them. Her behavior was changing and she was becoming more erratic, but again, I don’t know if anyone knew what to do but nobody really stepped in. I remember being extremely frustrated when my family was not listening. I was trying to do everything I could do to prevent what I knew was going to happen.
As my sister spiraled downhill, my mom’s condition just constantly deteriorated. We had this tight little family of three now just completely fall apart. I spent a lot of my time from 14 years old until I graduated college just trying to keep my family together. I was so angry, and I just became completely miserable. I lost a lot of my childhood. Looking back, I was in a really dark place. It was on me, because if somebody was going to do it, it was going to be me to keep the family together. It was difficult. You have to find that line between giving tough love and loving for the moment regardless of what’s going on. Do you just choose to keep pouring out love because you know something bad is going to happen even when it does, the three of you are all that you have?
When she was 14 or 15, Tori started using heavy drugs. She began missing school, acting out, acting violently toward my mom and me, and disappearing without us knowing where she was. At that time, she did not have too many interactions with the police. It wasn’t until she got caught shoplifting and that she was arrested for the first time. From there began a repeated cycle. She would violate parole, go to jail for three to six months, then she would get out from jail and start over. We would be like, “Okay, we got this. You’re going to stay clean.” My sister and I would write back and forth when she was in prison, and it was just all supportive words.
She eventually started to go to rehab right from jail. That was good for her, but every time she would come back home, she would find the same old people, the same family drama, the same adults that were willing to help her with her habit. She wasn’t able to hold a steady job ever. She would come home and be so excited to start over and have a whole new life ahead of her. Shortly after she got home, it would be, “Can you drop me off here? Can you come pick me up here?” At the middle of the night, “I need to go here.” I knew that these were bad places. That is when the tough love would set in, because I would say, “No. I’m not going to go; I’m not going to pick you up; we’re not going to start this all over again.”
When my sister was in prison, she was contacted by a guy named Pedro, who invited her to be a pen pal, and they developed a trusting relationship. He became a friendly face to her. He would tell her that he’s working with my mom, saying, “This is what I want for her. This is what’s good. I’ll buy her clothes; I’ll deal with everything when you get out.” My mom was completely naïve to what was going on. When Tori got out of jail, Pedro forced her into sex trafficking. The night she died, Pedro was actually pimping her out and had bought the hotel room. The guy that was there when she died, his name was Louis, and Pedro they had gotten into an argument, because my sister wanted out. She didn’t want to do it anymore. I guess at that point, she was probably using the drugs just to forget about everything that was happening. She fell over in the bathtub, hit her head, and that’s where she died. Louis did call 911, but he was found running down the staircase of the hotel, and there were no charges, anything like that.
During this time, she would send me texts, that would say, “Hey, how’s it going. I love you.” I really thought I had my sister back. The night before she died, she actually messaged my mom, saying, “I need help. Can you come pick me up?”
During my sister’s drug use, there was always this one officer who would come pick her up if she had a warrant, and he would treat her decently. He would come to our house just to make sure that she was doing okay. Then, once she started really going off the deep end, he would work with me to try to find her. When she would be on the run, we would work together to try to get her picked up so that she could go back to treatment.
I remember having this dream about me and my sister, and we were little girls. We were playing on our sidewalk in front of our house. We were both so happy. While I was dreaming, I woke up to the same officer who had been helping my sister. I don’t really remember answering the phone. I just remember him saying, “You need to come to the door.” I woke up, I went out to the door, and he was there. He said, “I need to talk to you. It’s about Tori.” I said, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to let you know she’s home again.” He said, “She’s not coming home.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “She’s dead.” After he told me that, he explained to me that she was in Valley Forge at the casino. The coroner down there had some questions for me and asked if I would be willing to call to talk with him. I was living in the house by myself, because my mom was so sick, and wasn’t able to care for herself. The coroner had told me she died the night before around 5pm. It was so dark out, and I should have been super tired, but all I could think about is, “What’s next?”
My mom was living with my grandma at the time. My mom obviously wasn’t in good condition, and my grandma is getting up there in age, so we had to figure out a way to tell them. I really felt like I had to take care of it, and I had to figure it out, because if I didn’t, it wasn’t going to go well. Growing up with just my mom and sister, a lot of our family never understood the bond we had. They were very distant from us. The last thing I wanted was for them to have anything to do with my sister’s death or how to deal with it or planning her funeral. They didn’t have anything to do with her healing process, so why should they have anything to do with what happens now?
She died December 8, 2015, and then her funeral was shortly before Christmas. On January 11, 2016, I was sworn in as a police officer. After Tori died, I decided to make it my life goal to let her story live on in me. Whenever I meet somebody, I’m able to look at them as a person and not just as a user or whatever their issues are. A lot of people I deal with have mental health issues. Most people are just trying to survive. Similarly, I completely believe Tori was using drugs because she couldn’t cope with what was happening in her life, and she had no idea how to communicate that. A lot of my work as a police officer is oriented toward trauma-informed care and supporting kids in the community.
Her death has affected me in so many ways both positive and negative. I have knowledge that not many people can bring to the table because of my experiences. When I’m working and I’m dealing with people in addiction or their family members, it makes my job a lot easier because I can relate to them. I think a lot of the people I deal with know that I have some level of understanding, and I don’t have a problem telling them either. It also makes my job harder because a lot of people don’t understand, so you’re dealing with your personal emotions toward the subject. Some people are completely clueless, and you have to stay professional, but that can be hard. However, there are a lot of people at work who support me when it comes to dealing with an overdose death. I had a couple of them who will ask if I’m okay when I’m dealing with it, which I really appreciate. Yet at the same time, I’m grateful that I can be there for a family experiencing that because I have been where they are. It can be a lot at times.
I would never trade what I went through for anything because Tori is in Heaven right now with my mom and they are no longer suffering. They are completely happy with each other in Heaven. Sometimes it sucks being the only person down here, but they get to live out their life. Right now, I’m just down here living for them and for everyone that I can help. Tori really helped me a lot.
“After Tori died, I decided to make it my life goal to let her story live on in me. Whenever I meet somebody, I’m able to look at them as a person and not just as a user or whatever their issues are.”
People who are using are obviously at a high risk for being taking advantage of. They’re at a much higher risk for a lot of things, and because of my personal experiences, I know that exists. I know trafficking happens, and I know how easily someone can get pulled into that lifestyle, especially when they’re so vulnerable. There are not many more situations as vulnerable as being someone with substance use disorder and feeling so ashamed of the way they’ve been living and the choices they’ve made. They’re such an easy target. That helps me in my job too, because now I know it and I can see it. I think trafficking is something a lot of people don’t want to see because it’s hard to accept that it still happens to people.
The best advice for another sibling I can think of is just to love as much as you can, whenever you can, and try not to enable them. I think it’s important to address a problem and to deal with it, not to let it fester. But as much as that’s important, so is loving the person and supporting them.
This is why I’m sharing my story. I always try to find long-term solutions, and I think that’s one of the ways that we can be the most effective as police officers and as members of the community. Addiction and mental health issues are one of those things where you cannot just keep putting a band-aid on it over and over. It’s a deep-rooted problem, and it’s not just an individual problem; it’s in the whole community. The only way that it would ever be fixed, if it ever can be fixed, is through understanding and awareness. The bottom line is we all have something that we struggle with. Police officers, military personal, all of us have deep-rooted issues that we need to fix. It takes a lot of courage to see that in ourselves, and it takes a lot of empathy to see that in somebody else.