GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A night of partying with friends and a series of tragic decisions stole the bright future of an aspiring model.
“I know if Savannah could have gotten help before her cardiac arrest, she’d still be here and it would just be a life lesson,” said Karen Ellison, whose only child Savannah Widner died almost one year ago.
Instead, Ellison said, Savannah and her friends were too scared to call for help when the Rockford High School graduate felt sick after the girls took what they thought was a “party” drug called ecstasy, molly or MDMA. It turned out to be pure meth.
Both can be fatal, though methamphetamine and ecstasy are generally not as deadly as opioids like heroin, methadone and fentanyl.
“I just need to share with people that this is what can happen,” Ellison said. “It’s not safe. It’s never safe… They thought that it would be OK. They thought, ‘We’re just going to be at home, we’re not going to be out anywhere, and we’re not going to be driving or at a club or anywhere where it’s going to be dangerous. It’s just going to be all of us, and we’ll be fine.’ And they decided to try it. She made the ultimate sacrifice to show it’s not safe. It’s just never safe.”
Ellison said she’s certain her daughter, Savannah Widner, 20, would want her story told so others don’t make the same mistakes she did.
She also wants to stress the importance of calling 911 for help early if you or a friend is in medical distress, even if it might mean getting in trouble.
HOURS BEFORE SAVANNAH GOT TO THE HOSPITAL
Widner had just finished up a shift at Logan’s Roadhouse in Caledonia in November 2018 when she joined her cousin and some co-workers at a home two of them shared in southern Kent County.
“Our dispatcher received a 911 call that an approximately 20-year-old female was not responding,” said Andy Hinds, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department detective who investigated Widner’s death. “After she had used the drug (around midnight), Savannah suffered increases and decreases in temperature, didn’t feel well and was vomiting.”
Karen Ellison said the girls were too afraid to call 911 right away.
“Throughout the course of the night she was just getting sicker and sicker and her friends didn’t know what to do and she didn’t know what to do, but the one thing that they didn’t do because they were too scared was call for help. They didn’t want to get into trouble,” she said.
Nine hours after the group ingested the capsules filled with white powder, on the morning of Nov. 11, 2018, Widner suffered cardiac arrest.
“She collapsed out of the shower into her cousin’s arms,” Ellison said. “Then they decided to call 911.”
It was too late.
Savannah Widner was pronounced dead at Metro Hospital.
The death certificate listed the cause as “acute methamphetamine toxicity.”
Ellison got the call from police as she drove to have brunch with friends.
“I really probably said to him, ‘You don’t have the right person. There’s no way that this happened. She’s not in the emergency room with cardiac arrest. You have the wrong person,’” Ellison recalled.
When she got to the hospital, doctors told her Savannah’s cardiac arrest was related to amphetamines.
“I just remember jumping on the table and just screaming at them to save her. Take me if they needed to but save her. She had just turned 20 years old and she had her whole life ahead of her,” she said. “It wasn’t happening. It wasn’t real. I just screamed at the top of my lungs.”
The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Dr. David Start, said it’s impossible to know if earlier medical intervention could have saved Widner’s life.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Start, Kent County deputy medical examiner. “I just don’t know. It’s hard to answer that question. (Although) if one’s in the ER being monitored, there’s certainly a much better likelihood of surviving. … The best thing you can do is call for medical help.”
DEFENDANT: ‘I DIDN’T KNOW ANYONE WAS GOING TO DIE’
Looking into who supplied the drugs that night, Detective Hinds traced Facebook messages back to a former co-worker of the girls: Anthony McMillan, 25. Prosecutors say McMillan bought the drugs he sold to the girls from an acquaintance, Brittany Stubblefield. Both McMillan and Stubblefield were charged criminally with delivering the meth to Savannah’s friends that night.
Target 8 questioned Stubblefield outside a recent court hearing.
“Nothing touched my hands,” Stubblefield said. “No money. No drugs. Nothing at all. I was literally just there.”
Stubblefield claims she only connected McMillan with another man, a dealer who has not been charged due to lack of evidence.
“I have nightmares because of this. I feel terrible,” Stubblefield said of Widner’s death.
“I’m just so sorry. From the bottom of my heart, I did not mean for any of this to happen… I didn’t know anyone was going to get hurt. I didn’t know anyone was going to die,” she continued through tears.
Target 8 reached out to Anthony McMillan and those who were in the house with Widner that night. They either did not respond or refused to comment.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said his office chose not to charge McMillan and Stubblefield with delivery causing death because they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the drugs McMillan and Stubblefield provided to the girls were the drugs ultimately given to the Widner.
“There were too many gaps to actually show that; a lot of different people were involved,” Becker wote in an email to Target 8. “Can we actually say some other drugs were not in the home, which were the ones given, that actually provided the fatal dose? We really could not, but we could clearly show these two individuals delivered narcotics that night, so we made the decision to file those charges.”
Becker also pointed out that because there was a death involved in the case, the sentencing guidelines do call for prison sentences for McMillan and Stubblefield. The maximum penalty for delivering of narcotics is 20 years in prison.
Becker said his office made the decision not to charge Widner’s friends even though they are the ones who actually delivered the drugs to her.
He pointed out that her friends did ultimately called 911, cooperated with the police investigation and are covered, at least in spirit, by Michigan’s Good Samaritan law.
“While the Good Samaritan Law technically did not come into play since there were no drugs present in the home by the time authorities arrived, it is these types of situations the policy wants to encourage,” Becker wrote. “We want individuals to call 911 and try to get help, instead of avoiding or hiding an overdose situation. I don’t think we would send an appropriate message if we charge individuals who were clearly using with the person who passed away, and who sought help when it became apparent it was needed, with a delivery causing death. It would negate the whole idea behind Good Samaritan.”
MODELING CAREER CUT SHORT
When she died, the outdoorsy and artistic Widner was perfecting her modeling portfolio while working at Logan’s Roadhouse.
“I told her that because of her adventurous side, for her to see the world, the modeling thing was definitely going to get her on a runway in Milan or on a beach in Tahiti,” Ellison recalled.
Widner was 17 when a Filipino designer based in Grand Rapid spotted her across Rosa Parks Circle.
“He was like, ‘You’re 5’10” and very slender. You’d be perfect for modeling my designs,’” Ellison recalled. “Of course I was nervous about that, but she did several photo shoots and runway shows and it was something that she really loved.”
RC Caylan, the designer who discovered Widner, called her death “heartbreaking.”
“I spotted her across Rosa Parks Circle one summer day back in 2016,” Caylan said in a text exchange with Target 8. “She was very sweet, easy to work with, definitely a loss… She was young and her future was bright.”