Jessica Rose had the credentials of a rising courtroom star: a lawyer with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, an assistant public defender in Jacksonville, a private practice on Clematis Street.
A young attorney brimming with talent and promise, she also struggled with an addiction to drugs, a battle that shattered her career, scarred her family and ultimately took her life.
Just before 9 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2015, she was found dead on the bathroom floor of her West Palm Beach apartment, a white unplugged electric cord in her left hand, a syringe and spoon with heroin residue on the sink above her. She was 32.
Her death is no more tragic than any of the other 215 heroin-related overdose deaths in Palm Beach County in 2015. But it underscores how the heroin epidemic is killing people from all walks of life, even white-collar professionals who don’t fit the stereotype of drug addicts in seedy urban alleyways.
People like Victoria Satterfield, the daughter of a former U.S. ambassador, who studied ophthalmology at the Duke University School of Medicine and worked at an eye center near JFK Medical Center; John Yeend, a longtime Lake Worth resident who founded a respected accounting firm; and Sam Deford, who earned a physics degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder and worked at a Delray Beach marketing agency.
“No matter how smart you are or how many degrees you have, the disease will always come back if you feed it,’’ said Michael Pike, a West Palm Beach attorney who dedicates his personal time to helping lawyers with substance abuse problems. “This disease has no face, it has no discriminatory intent. It takes everyone.’’
Jessica’s death shocked many people at the state attorney’s office, which is responsible for charging drug traffickers with crimes. They knew her when she worked in the office in 2012.
“Heroin abuse cuts across all socioeconomic lines. Families need to know this can happen to anyone. It’s not just relegated to people in the shadows,’’ said Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who didn’t work with Jessica but met her during his campaign for the office in 2012.
“She was intelligent and thoughtful and kind. It’s a tragedy. There are so many families going through what Jessica’s family is going through now and we speak to those families, unfortunately, too often,’’ he said.
The daughter of a Michigan gastroenterologist, Jessica — whose parents wouldn’t comment for this story — had a background that impressed her future employers. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, where she concentrated on litigation and international and corporate law.
On her application to the state attorney’s office in 2011, she said that she helped raise her two young sisters after their mother left home when she was 12.
She participated in high school symphony, taught herself to play the guitar and piano, and studied in England, France and Spain.
She also had a history of abusing prescription drugs, cocaine and “heroin intravenously,’’ starting about 10 years ago when she attended law school in New York City, according to a statement her father gave to the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Jessica “was hospitalized several times in the last few months for depression, anxiety, bipolar (disease) and drug withdrawal,’’ and for a Xanax overdose in 2015, according to the ME report.
She had spent time in treatment facilities, including Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, for substance abuse and depression, according to the report.
Although the report said Jessica “recently voiced suicidal ideations,’’ her father could not confirm to authorities whether the overdose was accidental or intentional. The ME’s office listed the manner of death as “undetermined.’’
Jessica made a positive impression on many people she worked with over the years. They described her as outgoing, confident, intelligent and eager to seek advice.
On an application question asking what she learned from a mistake she made, Jessica wrote: “To pick myself up after I have failed. I’ve learned to not give up and keep fighting.’’
She was hired in September 2011 as a victim witness coordinator for the State Attorney’s Office. Three months later, passing the Florida Bar, she was appointed as an assistant state attorney under Michael McAuliffe.
But after her transfer from county court to juvenile court in March 2012, Rose’s supervisors were “made aware of instances’’ where she made errors, didn’t prepare for cases and offered pleas without consulting the victim, according to a memo in her personnel file.
At one hearing in May 2012, “it was obvious that Jessica did not know her cases, was using terms incorrectly and could not answer simple questions from the judge.’’
In June, “employees were feeling uneasy” because Jessica “had been repeatedly asking for money, food and rides.’’
The complaints in her file make no mention of substance abuse concerns.
On June 19, Jessica quit after State Attorney Pete Antonacci told her in a memo that “it would be in our mutual best interests to receive your letter of resignation immediately.’’
She landed a job three months later with the Public Defender’s Office in Jacksonville.
At first, Jessica was “an excellent attorney,’’ said Greg Strickland, a former Jacksonville police officer who worked as an investigator in the office when Rose worked there. “She could walk right into the courtroom as soon as she got here. There was no training necessary for her. She was well-prepared.’’
It wasn’t long, though, before Strickland and others noticed problems. “She wasn’t making it to court,’’ he said.
She was fired on June 26, 2013. Her termination letter does not explain why she was fired, but Strickland said one reason was performance problems related to her addiction issues with alcohol and pain pills.
“I don’t understand why she would have gone the direction she went in, but she definitely spiraled out of control after she got here,’’ he said. “She was highly educated. She was good in the courtroom.”
After she left Jacksonville, Jessica returned to West Palm Beach to work in private practice, according to her resume.
The day before she died, Jessica’s roommate said she was “in a good mood” because she “had a job interview at Duffy’s” scheduled for the next day and “possible other interviews with unknown law firms,’’ according to a police report.
In an autopsy report, Palm Beach County Medical Examiner Michael Bell said Rose, who was also on anti-depressants, “died from an alprazolam (Xanax) and heroin overdose.”
Jessica’s death shocked many people who worked with her over the years, apparently unaware of her struggles.
“I thought she was absolutely a wonderful person. I thought she was going to go a long way in the office,” said Alton Kelly, who was director of investigations for the public defender’s office in Jacksonville when Rose worked there.
“I don’t want to say she pulled one over on me. I’ve been in law enforcement for 40 years. I think I’m a pretty good judge of character. Just talking to her one on one, I wouldn’t have dreamed that because she seemed so energetic and she loved her job.”
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Daliah Weiss wrote a condolence message on Jessica’s online obituary: “For a short time I was Jessica’s supervisor at the prosecutor’s office when she was hired on as an attorney. Jessica was a kind, thoughtful, and sweet person who will be missed.’’
“She was a sweetheart,’’ said Strickland. “What she wanted to be, what she set her life to be, was completely interrupted by drug addiction. Then, of course, it was her demise.’’
Opiate abuse climbs among attorneys
The Florida Lawyers Assistance Program offers help to attorneys with substance abuse problems.
While alcohol and cocaine are two of the most common abuses by lawyers, Michael J. Cohen, the program’s executive director, said he has noticed an increase over the past five years in opiate abuse.
On average, the program helps 30 or 40 lawyers a year in Florida, Cohen said. Opioid abuse, mainly prescription pain pills, “is between 5 and 10 percent of our caseload. Before that, five or six years ago, it was maybe 2 percent. Heroin we don’t see that often.’’
He said he hopes Jessica Rose’s story will prompt other people to seek help.
“The stigma is there. The shame is there. Part of that is because people’s pictures of an opiate addict is somebody with a needle in their arm, not a lawyer who is taking 15 OxyContin,’’ Cohen said.
“Your (stereotypical) picture of the junkie under the bridge is not the only picture.’’