Michelle Albanese Valletta didn’t recognize the number on her phone when she woke up to a call on the morning of April 24.
When she called back, a teenage girl picked up. It was Malari Lewis, 18, who’d recently started seeing her son, Brendan Pennisi.
Pennisi wasn’t breathing, Lewis told her. Frantic, Valletta told her to call an ambulance. Lewis said she couldn’t. Valletta, confused by the answer, asked her where she was — she’d come meet her. The Tim Hortons on Upper Wentworth, Lewis told her. She was calling from the store’s phone.
When Valletta got there, Lewis led her around back of the plaza to a dumpster behind the Staples store. She opened the lid and crumpled to the ground as emergency crews rolled into the lot.
Pennisi was dead inside the bin.
A month later, Valletta, 39, sits curled up on her couch in the living room of her east Mountain home. She still has nightmares about that day, but she wants people to know about Pennisi’s death — she wants to raise awareness about mental health and addictions.
Her son was on a wait list for rehab when he died. She thought they had time.
“I never thought that he would die,” she says. “It never crossed my mind.”
Brendan Pennisi was just 20 years old.
His mom doesn’t want drugs to define who he was just because of the way he died. He liked soccer and music. He was a big brother. He had ADHD and was a bit of a follower, his mom says, wanting more than anything to fit in with his friends.
Around 15, he started smoking pot, but his parents — who had already split by then — were on top of it, they thought. There were meetings with his principal, and he was put into programming.
He had a learning disability, his mom says, but he graduated high school. Around the time he turned 19, his weed smoking became too much and he moved out of his dad’s house to his mom’s. A few months later, he took off and went to Waterloo.
He’d stolen his mom’s laptop before he left — a red flag, in hindsight. Valletta “flipped out … but then you love your kids unconditionally, right?”
She now says he sold the laptop for drugs.
Valletta didn’t know the details of her son’s life in Waterloo — or the extent of the trouble he was in — until she got a call from police. After an episode of crystal meth-induced psychosis, he’d been arrested. Her son — who didn’t have a criminal record — was in jail.
She went to the address where her son had been living and was horrified to discover it was a flop house.
“It was pretty scary,” she says. “I couldn’t believe the way he was living. I wasn’t aware of it at all.”
She knew he was getting into trouble, but it had never occurred to her to ask him if he was doing crystal meth.
She wanted him out of there, out of jail, but she knew he needed help.
“I talked to the Crown … I didn’t want to bring him home. I wanted him in rehab. But she said, ‘We don’t do that,'” Valletta says — as an adult, the court can’t force him into treatment.
But when he was released on bail, she lied and told him that he was ordered into treatment. He agreed.
Just 10 days before his death, Valletta spoke to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto about rehab but was told there could be a two- to three-month wait.
In the meantime, Pennisi went to a doctor to fill out the treatment paperwork. After that, he went to stay with his mom’s brother in Burlington, where she figured he’d be away from his former influences in Hamilton.
Again, Valletta thought they were on top of it. They were looking forward. She thought he had time.
“These kids … two days, 10 days … they don’t have it,” she knows now.
Valetta had known Lewis peripherally through a family friend, a girl she used to take care of on weekends. Pennisi met the girl through his mom, when Valletta took her one day to pick up her social assistance cheque.
Pennisi and Lewis barely said a word to each other, Valletta remembers. So when she found out a few days later they had been talking, she was surprised.
She was angry when she found out, too, that her brother had allowed Pennisi to go out to see her. And that Lewis was now staying at the house.
After Lewis’ second night there, and an argument, the two got up early on April 23 and snuck out, taking some of the uncle’s belongings with them, including his cellphone.
The two took a bus to Hamilton to her grandpa’s house but Lewis says they were kicked out.
They then bused up to Lime Ridge Mall, where they bought two blue bandanas, a two-litre bottle of pop and two e-cigarettes. Lewis says they ran up and the down escalators and laughed until she fell and cut her knee.
Then she asked him if she should take him back to his mom’s. But he didn’t want to in his current state — he had been popping pills all day from two baggies he had in his pocket, she remembers. Lewis says he had a baggie of about 40-50 yellow pills.
Valletta says Gabapentin pills — used to treat nerve pain — were found in her son’s pocket.
Lewis says she had taken only a couple. They had argued about the drugs and she had taken them away, saying he’d had too many, but in the end she let him have them.
After the mall, she says, “we had no place to go at all.”
So they walked behind the plaza across the street and checked the dumpsters for a dry one. They laid down a piece of cardboard and hopped in. It was freezing that night.
“We were laying there for a little bit … I really loved him … he was holding me, facing each other,” Lewis remembers.
In the morning, she woke up and he wasn’t breathing. She ran to the Tim Hortons to call Valletta.
As the wailing sirens arrived, Lewis was put in a cruiser and taken to the police station where she was arrested on outstanding warrants. Today, she’s in custody at a facility in London. Lewis was not charged in Pennisi’s death. Read more…