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January 24, 2006 - Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)

Judge Orders Woman's Prison Term In Heroin-Death Case Cut In Half

By Michael A. Scarcella

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Federal authorities aggressively went after a Bradenton woman, Nicole Clare Capobianco, when she was facing 20 years to life for selling heroin to a man who later died of an overdose.

Government prosecutors charged Capobianco under a rarely used provision that provides a maximum life sentence for a person whose drug-dealing contributes to the death of a user.

Federal officials said then that they wanted to set an example, and Capobianco was their target.

Capobianco, a former waitress who is 25 now, got 15 years in prison when the dust settled in late 2004. Her cooperation helped authorities track down and convict nearly a dozen members of a widespread heroin trafficking ring.

But now, in a quiet move -- one that prosecutors didn't tell the victim's family about -- Capobianco's prison sentence has been cut in half. A federal judge recently ordered Capobianco to serve 87 months, or a little more than seven years.

Family members of Michael Tippery Jr., who died in June 2003 of a heroin overdose after buying the drug from Capobianco, say they never wanted Capobianco to spend the rest of her life behind bars.

But they are dismayed that prosecutors didn't tell them about the effort to get Capobianco released earlier. And nobody told them about the reduction when a judge signed off on it about a month ago.

"To have it be so much in the public eye for so long, and to come away with a sense that it was swept under the rug, that leaves me with a sour taste," Tippery's father, Michael Tippery Sr., said.

Usually, defense attorneys ask for a reduction in prison sentences. In the Capobianco case, the government did the asking.

Capobianco "did an outstanding job testifying and held her own despite vigorous cross-examination," an assistant United States attorney, Kathy J.M. Peluso, said in court papers.

"I am not not naive enough to believe that deals are not cut," Tippery said.

Capobianco's mother, Bradenton resident Lisa Capobianco, declined an interview request.

She did say the reduced prison sentence will give her daughter a chance to rebuild her life sooner, and she is grateful for that.

Capobianco is serving time at the women's federal prison near Tallahassee. She talks with her mother often by telephone.

On the afternoon of June 7, 2003, Bradenton resident Michael Tippery bought a gram of heroin from Capobianco.

Tippery passed out on the sofa at a friend's house later that day. He was sweating all night long, and he had difficulty breathing.

Nobody called Tippery's parents or 911 until after he died.

Tippery said the friends who were with his son as he died are as culpable as Capobianco, if not more, but none of them was ever charged.

"She's responsible for her mistakes; he's responsible for his," Lisa Capobianco said in an interview with the Herald-Tribune in 2004. "She shouldn't be punished for his mistakes."

Tippery's death came during a rash of heroin overdoses in Bradenton and Sarasota that investigators first thought was caused by tainted heroin.

Authorities went after Tippery's dealer, whom they quickly determined was Capobianco.

Detectives found heroin, needles and cash in a rolled-up towel hidden in the closet in her condominium.

Capobianco was arrested and charged with drug trafficking, sale or delivery of heroin, and possession of drugs and paraphernalia. State prosecutors later dropped the case in favor of the longer sentence possible under the federal charges.

Last year, a federal judge gave four Bradenton men prison sentences ranging from 12 to 30 years for their roles in the distribution ring.

The men were among 10 people named in an indictment that charged a New York man with aiding and abetting in the distribution of heroin that killed Tippery.

Authorities named Ismael Rolon Ayala as the Bradenton-based ringleader who received and distributed heroin from Jean Carlos Mejias Castro of New York between 2001 and 2004.

Ayala was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while his right-hand man, Juan Bautista Lugo, got about 22 years. Castro was sentenced to about 14 years behind bars.

Tippery says he hopes that when Capobianco is released from prison she will be a role model in the community and educate students about the perils of drugs.

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