HAZEL PARK, Mich. - You may not know the name Ken Thornsberry, but you likely know his story.
When he was 18 years old he was sentenced to more than 6 years in prison after he had a consensual sexual relationship with his then 15-year-old girlfriend. Thornsberry was convicted under Michigan's "Romeo and Juliet" law and because of his case the law was changed in part: No longer would those convicted under the law have to register as sex offenders. Michigan's age of consent remains 16.
However, that was not where Thornsberry's story ends. The Local 4 Defenders have been following his story for more than a decade, from his efforts to change the legislation, his former girlfriend's push to defend him and to where his life went after he lost his teen years behind bars.
Thornsberry seemed to regroup and move forward, but then we got a call from his mother. Her son was dead.
Mother left grieving
Francine Giordano enjoys looking at her son's artwork.
"He was really good with a pen. He liked pen art," she said.
At times, his illustrations can be dark and somewhat frightening.
"One of his friends told me something about him always feeling like his heart was ripped out when he was young. And that nobody could ever understand him," said Giordano.
Thornsberry's childhood was like many -- filled with sports, family, and friends. But everything changed toward the end of high school. At age 18 he started dating a 15-year-old student with whom had a consensual sexual relationship. The age of consent in Michigan is 16. Thornsberry was charged and convicted. Overall, he served more than 6 years in prison, partially because he violated his parole and saw his 15-year-old girlfriend once he was released. He was sent back to serve more time.
"I had no idea it was illegal, because when you walk around the hallways of your high school you aren't thinking of legal issues if you find someone you are attracted to or like," he said.
That was Thornsberry back in 2011 when he was 25 years old. He talked about his story and how his case helped change the law so "Romeo and Juliet" offenders are now able to get off the sexual predator list.
"He is not a predator and he did not do anything wrong. We were just young and in love, and people did not like that," said Emily, his former girlfriend. "So it wasn't worth him having his whole life ruined over a relationship."
Giordano said she thought he son handled the situation well.
"I think he had a lot of, you know, depression over it, emotional, but he wasn't bitter towards anyone," she said.
Transition out of prison
The mother tried to help transition her son from prison life to the real world, but it was a struggle.
"I think when he went into prison he was forced to sort of be a man and protect himself and grow up that way, but he never grew up in the ways of life," she said. "Everyday life. Learning things. You know, he had no clue on what to do with a bank account, how to save his money and all the normal stuff that a young person would learn as they're going through the years."
Thornsberry got a string of different jobs but always found it hard to concentrate while dealing with his emotions.
"That's when he was prescribed Adderall," said Giordano. "He actually seemed calmer, not so anxious, but he also seemed more with it. Together. Like he could do stuff and concentrate."
But then Giordano noticed her son started saying he was running out of Adderall. Later she would realize that was a sign he was abusing the drug.
"And that, I think, is part of the addiction. You just don't want to ever stop feeling the way you're feeling at that moment," she said.
Adderall on the streets
Since Thornsberry couldn't get a prescription refill, he turned to the streets.
"I didn't know that it was so bad out there that people were selling stuff and cutting it with other things that could kill someone," said Giordano.
That's exactly what happened to Thornsberry. His mother would later find out he took a late-night trip with friends to Detroit near 8 Mile Road and John R to buy what he thought was Adderall. Toxicology reports would show the drug was actually laced with fentanyl. Thornsberry overdosed and died that night. His body was found in a van.
"And I know for a fact that if he thought fentanyl was in the Adderall that he was buying, he wouldn't have took it. You know, he wanted Adderall. He didn't want anything else," said Giordano.
Back in 2011, Thornsberry played his guitar for us, telling us he was looking forward to his future and to share what he had learned so others wouldn't make the same mistake.
"I could probably talk to anybody walking out of high school and they would have no clue first of all what a 'Romeo and Juliet' case would be and what a sex offense would be," he said.
Now in his death, he is teaching another lesson: The dangers of addiction.
"I just saw so much for his future," said his mother.
It's taken a year for Francine Giordano to share her son's story, but she said she felt she had to, that other parents need to realize the dangers of Adderall, addiction and opioids. She said if one life is saved by her sharing her son's story, then her coming forward is worth reliving the pain.
If you know someone struggling with addiction, here are some resources for help:
- How to Help an Adderall Addict
- CARE of Southeast Michigan
- Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority
- Access Oakland
You can read more about Michigan's "Romeo and Juliet" age of consent law here.
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