Overdose deaths during pandemic included newlywed, songwriter, new mom
Evan Kraus was a newlywed who loved to fish for tuna off eastern Long Island. Nick Krukowski was a mate on the Port Jefferson ferry and a songwriter who enjoyed old-time country music. Joe Gaffney was an auto mechanic devoted to his three children. Michael Ronan had decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, and Alexus "Lexi" Bonasera, was a new mom.
They were among more than 100,000 opioid overdose victims lost during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic that unleashed pain and loss across Long Island and the nation. The victims were parents and children, brothers and sisters and friends with talents, passions and dreams. Each left behind people who loved them, people who will carry their memories – and their grief – for the rest of their lives.
Alexus 'Lexi' Bonasera
Alexus Bonasera struggled for years with drug abuse, but she seemed to have put those problems behind her by the time she met Patrick Collins, an architect who became the love of her life and the father of her son Liam, now 2 years old.
“She was an amazing mother,” Jacquelyn Bonasera of Oyster Bay, Lexi's mother, told Newsday. “She loved that baby to no end.”
Bonasera described her daughter as smart, sweet and funny -- someone who aspired to be a professional musician. A soulful singer whose biggest influence was another Long Island artist, Mariah Carey, Lexi -- as she was known to those close to her -- was writing songs, recording music and making videos in the months before her death. She loved animals – especially dogs – and was loyal to friends and family.
“Lexi loved meeting new people and talking to people,” Collins said. “I think that helped her (manage her substance abuse issues) over the years. All that ended with COVID.”
The progress Lexi had made in freeing herself from substance abuse was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bonasera and Collins said in interviews. For one, she could not return to work at bars and restaurants that were shuttered, members of her family said.
The social isolation caused by the pandemic halted the progress she had made, and Lexi slid back into drug use. Her family said she died of a fatal fentanyl overdose on July 14, 2020 at 28, leaving behind a partner who was to propose to her, a toddler and a grieving mother.
The pandemic and social distancing restrictions meant Lexi could not get play dates in Centerport with other parents and children, no more trips to the park with Liam. “She did a lot with other parents and kids and all of that came to a screeching halt when COVID came," Collins said.
The day she died, Collins went to work and texted her. When she didn't respond, Collins rushed home, where he said he found Lexi on the floor of their bedroom and called 911.
Bonasera said Suffolk police told them Lexi had used cocaine heavily laced with fentanyl, a potent opioid responsible for thousands of deaths on Long Island.
Collins had planned to ask Lexi to marry him when they went away later in the week she died, he said.
Evan Kraus lived life at full speed before he died at 36 from a cocaine-fentanyl overdose on March 21, 2020, his loved ones said.
Intelligent, funny and fearless, Kraus was an avid outdoorsman who loved fishing, hunting, hiking and camping and routinely persuaded friends to embark on adventures, family members said.
Kraus and his younger brother, Eric, frequently fished for tuna and swordfish off eastern Long Island in their small boat, family members said. Evan had a tattoo on his arm that said “Sempre Avanti” – Italian for “always moving forward.”
“He was passionate, everything he did was big,” Evan’s mother, Gina Kraus of Shelter Island, said in an interview with Newsday. “He couldn’t just fish for small little snappers, he had to go for big tuna.”
Evan’s widow, Emily Kraus of Southold, said she was attracted to him because of his zest for life. “He got me to go deer hunting,” she said. “A big thing that drove us to each other was our love for nature and adventure.”
Evan’s friends told Gina Kraus he was always there for them when they needed him. “He was the kind of person you wanted to be around,”Gina Kraus said. “His friends told me that, he brought a calm and a smile to the room.”
The greatest day of Evan’s life, his mother said, was Oct. 5, 2019 – the day he married Emily on Shelter Island. Gina Kraus says it wasn’t just a magical day for her son, but for her, too. Evan gave her a daughter-in-law.
“It was the happiest days of his life,” said Gina Kraus, a first-grade teacher in the East Hampton school district.
But the craving for drugs for the recovering addict roared back not long after that happy day, his wife and mother said.
It was the early weeks of COVID-19, when New York City was the epicenter of the global pandemic, and the support Evan needed evaporated overnight as he grew increasingly depressed and anxious.
“The pandemic, for someone who was fragile, is so overwhelming,” Gina Kraus said.
The outpatient drug program he was enrolled in temporarily shut down. Kraus was reluctant to go home during drug binges, fearing he would get virus and infect his loved ones. The 12-step groups he relied on transitioned to Zoom and Skype.
“Nothing compares to being there in person, nothing compares to having someone giving you a hug, looking you in the eye, somebody touching you,” Gina Kraus said.
Kraus thrived during periods of sobriety, his family said. He started his own tree service, then sold the business. He got his captain’s license and earned a living transporting boats on the East Coast.
When Kraus died, his mother took out a full-page ad in the Shelter Island Reporter that included a picture of her lost son and thanked those who supported him in times of recovery. She and other members of the Beading Hearts – a support group for those who have lost loved ones to drugs -- visit Suffolk jails weekly to aid nmates struggling with substance abuse. Her mission in life now, she said, is to prevent others from experiencing the same loss and grief her family has endured.
“These are people who are worthy of respect,” Kraus said. "These are members of our community.”
Nick Krukowski provided his friends and family with hours of entertainment when he told them stories about things he witnessed during his long walks around Port Jefferson or people he met while working as a mate on the ferry to Connecticut, his mother, Mary Enkler of St. James, said.
She described her son as funny, kind and personable, someone who had a knack for connecting with others. He was also an artist who liked to play guitar and write songs. Willie Nelson and Hank Williams were his heroes.
“Nick was a joy,” Enkler said through tears during an interview with Newsday. “He was a gift.”
His life was turned upside down when COVID-19 – and the economic lockdown and social isolation that came with it – arrived on Long Island in early 2020, his relatives said. His shifts on the ferry were slashed, along with his paychecks. Social distancing prevented him from hanging out with co-workers in his studio apartment near the Port Jefferson ferry terminal. The weekly dinners with his mother, sister and other loved ones were halted. His walks around Port Jefferson didn’t provide relief; the businesses were mostly closed, the sidewalks were empty.
Krukowski was 31 years old when he died on April 16, 2020.
His mother said Krukowski had struggled with drugs before he got into a program to treat drug dependency. Enkler said her son, who grew ujp in St. James and Smithtown, thought he had put opioids behind him years ago.
But Enkler said he could never shake anxiety. “That was the thing he could not overcome, the sense of extreme anxiety."
When Enkler learned her son was addicted to heroin, she said the news hit her hard: She, too, had been addicted to heroin once. “I could not believe that I could not see this sign in my son,” she said.
Krukowski eventually got a job with the Port Jefferson Ferry, becoming a certified seaman. He enjoyed being on the water, his mother said. He liked the camaraderie of the crew and meeting new people.
The job came with an added benefit, too: drug testing. Krukowski had to stay clean to keep his job.
In the months before his death – and before the coronavirus lockdown – Krukowski was happy, fulfilled in his job, loved and supported by his family and friends.
Her son's death, Enkler said, has left a gaping hole in her life. The pain of losing a child is overwhelming.
“I do not want this to ever happen to anybody else,” she said.
Joe Gaffney fought hard to overcome heroin addiction and win his family back in 2019, close relatives said.
Suffolk County Child Protective Services had learned that he and his girlfriend had been treated at a hospital for an overdose and appointed Gaffney's parents, Patricia and Charles Gaffney, as guardians of their children, ages 14, 7 and 1, family members said.
Gaffney, an auto mechanic, and his girlfriend participated in court-ordered outpatient treatment, they passed court-ordered drug screenings, and they got their kids back and moved into a house a few blocks away, Patricia Gaffney said.
“They were getting better and they were getting sober and clean because they wanted those kids back more than anything,” Gaffney said. “Then COVID came, 2020 came, and that is when things went pretty downhill.”
Gaffney's outpatient drug treatment temporarily shut down and Child Protective Services paused drug screening and monitoring, Patricia Gaffney told Newsday,
Without guardrails, Joe Gaffney relapsed into drug use. Gaffney’s son – the third oldest of her eight children – died at age 33 from a drug overdose on Aug. 14, 2021, his family said.
Her son's death, Gaffney said, has “broken” her large, tightknit family. “It is like losing your arm and trying to function again,” she said. “But you can’t, you don’t, you just muddle through and do the best you can.”
Gaffney struggled with anxiety and depression as well as drug abuse for much of his life, family members said. Patricia Gaffney said her son was funny, loving, generous, and was deeply devoted to his girlfriend and kids. He was protective of his seven brothers and sister, and worked as an auto mechanic.
“He wanted to be a major league baseball player. That was his dream,” she said.
Gaffney began using alcohol and drugs – Oxycontin, Percocet, marijuana – when he was in middle school, his mother said.
Gaffney overdosed several times, with his father administering Narcan, a drug that reverses overdoses, at least three times, Patricia Gaffney said.
“He would slip, fall and come back again,” Patricia Gaffney said.
Gaffney's fatal overdose occurred on Aug. 11, 2021, after he took a Xanax pill that had been laced with a fentanyl analogue, his family said. He died three days later in a hospital.
The family has rallied around his children, she said. But loss and grief will shadow them for the rest of their lives, Patricia Gaffney said.
“How do you tell a 7-year-old that daddy is in heaven now?" she said.
Michael Ronan was 24 in July 2020 when walked out of Mohawk Correctional Facility in upstate Rome and into a world transformed by COVID-19.
Businesses were shuttered, restaurants were closed and the once busy streets of his hometown, Huntington Station, were deserted.
“He left one world, a world that was open,” said Michael’s uncle, Jim Ulrich, a former Brookhaven resident. “He comes back to a place that is completely different. I think the pandemic for him was like coming into a different culture."
Finding a job was difficult after the economy shrank because of coronavirus restrictions. Without a car, he found it difficult to get around Long Island, family members said.
Ronan had been imprisoned after pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree robbery, his father said. He was sentenced to 3½ years and was released on parole after serving most of that sentence, according to state prison records and family members. He returned to prison after he got involved in a fight over drugs in Florida, his family said.
“Every time he got in trouble,” Susan Ulrich said, “it was drug-related.”
His family remembers him as a bright, sensitive soul, always concerned about the welfare of his friends. Ronan liked to work with hands and could take things apart, then reassemble them. He was a big -- 6-foot-3 -- and loved sports, particularly football and wrestling. He had been a Boy Scout who volunteered at local food banks. He told his family after his release he had decided to enlist in the Army.
“He was a very good kid,” said Michael’s father Jim Ronan, a longtime Huntington Station resident who now lives in Florida. “But he just seemed to find trouble.”
He struggled for much of his life with anxiety, relatives said. “He just did not have coping skills and when things would get hard, he would turn to self-medicating,” Susan Ulrich said.
Ronan got a job after he was released from prison but he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and had trouble sleeping, his aunt and uncle said. He sought counseling but never seemed to be able connect with a support network.
Ronan’s mental health deteriorated too, his family said, after his mother, Laura Ronan, became ill in the fall of 2020. Still on probation, Ronan was unable to visit her in Florida, where she died on Nov. 28, 2020. “He started to torture himself, ‘Well, if only I had not been in jail, I would have been there to to take care of her,’” Susan Ulrich said.
Ronan died of a heroin overdose on Jan. 14, 2021, less than two months afer his mother’s death, family members said.
The loss and grief that followed Ronan’s death, the Ulrichs said, are reminders that people who struggle with substance abuse are complicated individuals.
“They are real people, with families and stories and highs and lows and struggles,” Susan Ulrich said. “These are real people. It was not their dream to become drug addicts."
WHERE TO GET HELP
Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: Sixty-six year old-non-profit with offices in Nassau and Suffolk, LICADD helps connect individuals struggling with substance abuse and their loved ones with counseling and treatment services. 24/7 hotline can be reached at 631-979-1700. licadd.org.
Family & Children’s Association: Garden-City based agency that provides licensed addiction treatment services and mental health counseling, along with peer support/recovery coaching to assist those who have survived overdoses. 516-746-0350, fcali.org.
THRIVE Recovery Community and Outreach Centers: Provides support and services to people recovering from opioid abuse and other substance abuse issues. THRIVE – Transformation, Healing, Recovery, Inspiration, Validation and Empowerment – hosts 12-step meetings at its Westbury (516-765-7600), Hauppauge (631-822-3396) and Westhampton (516-939-1743) locations as well as classes on everything from meditation to financial literacy. THRIVE centers also host lively drug- and alcohol-free social events. thriveli.org.
SUFFOLK STOP ADDICTION: Created by Suffolk County officials, the website provides a comprehensive list of resources for people seeking help with substance abuse and mental health issues. suffolkstopaddiction.org
DASH HOTLINE & CRISIS CARE CENTER: Operated by the Family Service League, DASH (Diagnostic Assessment and Stabilization Hub) provides 24-hour care to people seeking treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders. DASH also offers peer counseling and operates a mobile crisis team that travels to homes, schools and businesses. 631-952-3333.
F.I.S.T. (Families In Support of Treatment): Provides support to families struggling with a loved one’s addiction. Contact Anthony Rizzuto at 516-316-6387 or by email – Anthony@Familiesinsupportoftreatment.com.