NBC15 Investigates: Mollie's story, a face for a new direction

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - It's an unlikely pair: a criminal defense attorney and the chief of police. They're usually on opposite sides of the courtroom. However, something personal has pulled the two men in our community together.

NBC15 Investigates Hannah Anderson and Chief Photographer Jeremy Nichols sat down with Attorney Chris Van Wagner and Madison Police Chief Mike Koval in an exclusive interview.

Every picture tells a story.

"Mollie was a beautiful girl," Van Wagner said. "She always lit up a room."

It's a story of promise and potential.

"She had talent. She had drive," Van Wagner said.

Van Wagner remembers his oldest daughter Mollie for her warmth and beauty. But he also remembers the darkness and despair.

"She pushed away her family and pushed away her friends," Van Wagner said.

Photos in the albums tell a different story than those at the police department.

"The booking shot, the mugshot, we are not sugarcoating anything," Van Wagner said. "The beautiful pictures of Mollie don't tell the whole story. The rest of story includes arrests, living on the street for a while ..."

Mollie's story included addiction.

"She carried on many times, but she was always insistent that she could overcome this herself," Van Wagner said. That's the falsehood that's the untruth."

Mollie overdosed on heroin in 2014.

"They [emergency response crews] were angels in blue that day. They were guardian angels that day," Van Wagner said.

Madison Police revived Mollie that day with a dose of Narcan-- the first administered by a responding Madison Police Officer. Mollie was a young woman soon to be the face of a new direction for the police department.

"This letter was a catalyst for me because it came from a bereaved dad who was grateful," said Madison Police Chief Mike Koval.

Koval said he uses Chris Van Wagner's letter at any talk he does about addiction or overdoses in the community and has read it to more than 600 employees.

"He [Chris] painted the picture of getting ready for a funeral during Thanksgiving time, and the saving of Mollie prevented that," Koval said. "I think that's what I needed to tell my officers."

Koval says the letter puts a face to a purpose for officers carrying Narcan.

"Chris gave me this foundation for me to build this house," Koval said.

Bernie Albright heads up the Madison Addiction Recovery Initiative, or MARI program.

"Maybe if someone is brought back to life one time, it's enough of a wake up call," Albright said.

MARI is a pre-arrest diversion program meant to help non-violent addicts.

MARI is funded by a $700,00 grant, the Strategies for Policing Innovation Initiative, which is a collaborative effort among the Bureau of Justice Assistance, national training partners, state and local law enforcement agencies and researchers.

"If they [those who have overdosed] are willing to do it, we will fast track to the opportunity to treatment in lieu of a criminal charge," Albright said.

Since MARI started in Sept. 2017, 108 people have been referred to the program, 22 have completed it, and as of Nov. 14, 20 people were in treatment.

The program works like this: when Madison Police Department Officers contact a MARI eligible person, they provide a referral to Connections Counseling for an assessment, according to a MARI pamphlet. Those who are eligible are Dane County residents who commit low-level, non-violent offenses driven by a substance use disorder. People on probation or parole are not eligible for MARI.

After six months of compliance with program requirements, the original charge will never be filed. Avoiding a criminal record improves the ability to obtain schooling, housing and employment.

Part of MARI includes a recovery coach. The coach is a trained employee of Connections Counseling with lived experience, assists the MARI participant in developing and following through with a personal plan of recovery. The coach also acts as a bridge between treatment agencies and the recovery community. They help the MARI participant find additional resources including recovery support groups and meetings.

"Success for us is someone who is willing to go into the program at least begin treatment," Albright said.

"Bernie is taking calls 24/7 now. He has his phone by his bed stand if it means we can get one more referral," Koval said.

Addiction doesn't care how perfect the picture is, or who's in it.

"We saw her in August. We had a really nice visit with her. She was lonely but she was sober," Van Wagner said.

Mollie died a month later of a heroin overdose.

"She was found by her roommate. She had probably been dead 36 hours," Van Wagner said. "Her dog sat by her side, it was it ... It was hard news to get."

"Look at the pictures: Aug. 29 this year. She looks pretty good. We didn't expect it," Van Wagner. "If that news can be spared one person, it would be wonderful, just wonderful, so why not?"

Included in Mollie's obituary, Chris and family requested donations be made in Mollie's name and honor to the Madison Police Department for the purpose of purchasing more Naloxone. So far, about $14,000 in donations have been received.

The donations have also helped expand the MARI Outreach Team, which debuted in October 2018. The team is comprised of a MARI Coordinator and members of the treatment community. Each week the team makes follow-up visits with overdose subjects and their families, offering services and providing them with Naloxone.

A MARI Success Story: Shawn Sveum
One of the 20 people who've completed the MARI program is Shawn Sveum. Sveum is a mother of two and worked full time when she developed an addiction to prescription pain killers. Sveum was prescribed the painkillers initially for her Fibromyalgia, which is widespread muscle pain and tenderness.

Sveum was one of MARI's first success stories, but it didn't come without work and a realization of hitting rock bottom.

Sveum said she overdosed three different times, and recalled one of the times during her interview with NBC15 Investigates.

"It was a Sunday morning. My daughter came upstairs to ask me a question," Sveum said. "I was in bed sleeping. She found me and my lips were blue. I woke up again to a room full of people."

Sevum said she did the heroin to avoid the withdrawal symptoms. However, after overdosing at work one day, she woke up to two police officers that would make recovery possible.

"These two lady police officers were there. They said, 'We've just started this program. We're not taking you to jail.' She said it's a program where we help addicts and get them into recovery instead of jail."

Sveum said the MARI program worked for her.

She went through six weeks of intense out patient treatment, for three hours a night for four days a week. Then, she would attend weekly meetings for an hour and a half. She said her recovery coach was instrumental in her recovery story.

There are resources to the right of this article highlighted in blue, click to them to connect with other resources to help people in your life living with addiction.

If you have an investigative story idea for Hannah Anderson, email her at handerson@NBC15.com, and include in the subject line "15INVESTIGATES."