New London man's death at sober house ended long struggle with addiction

New London — Christopher Brunner was redeemable, according to his family and friends, and although his overdose death in 2016 was sudden, it was not altogether unexpected.

The 48-year-old passed away in a New London sober house following a decade struggling with an opioid addiction that began with pills and ended with heroin.

A family man who had always had a knack for making others smile was gripped by an addiction “that started him on a path and he slowly slid down the hill from there,” according to his younger brother, Matthew Brunner of Maine. “None of us wanted that call, but all of us had the feeling it was coming; he was slipping and falling a little further.”

He left three children and a stepdaughter, along with his mother, two brothers and two sisters.

Christopher Brunner was one of five people who died in New London of heroin or opioid-related overdoses in the first six months of 2016, according to an analysis of available data by The DayMost of the people who overdosed, like Brunner, were men, but most of them were younger, in their 20s, according to the analysis.

His death was due to “acute heroin, fentanyl and hydromorphone toxicities associated with nordiazepam use.” Heroin, fentanyl and hydromorphone are all highly addictive opioid-based drugs while nordiazepam is a muscle relaxant commonly used for treatment of anxiety disorders.

A year prior to Brunner’s death, the Drug Enforcement Administration had issued a nationwide alert in response to a surge in overdose deaths from heroin laced with fentanyl.

The local response to the opioid epidemic was to equip emergency responders with the opioid-reversal drug naloxone. But Christopher Brunner was past the point of return in the early evening of March 20, 2016, when a roommate found him hunched over in a chair in front of a television in his bedroom. Brunner was pronounced deceased at the scene.

The multi-family house at 80 Ocean Ave. is home to a mix of recovering alcoholics and addicts, many with nowhere else to go, according to resident Russell Chandler.

Police found nine different prescription bottles with Brunner's name on a box spring being used as a table. On a nearby dresser there was a burned metal spoon with narcotics residue and a bottle of lactose powder. In a trash can nearby there was the parts to a syringe, a burned plastic baggie and four paper baggies used for narcotics packaging, according to a police narrative of the scene. The baggies were marked with “new arrival.”

The sober house where Brunner was living was formerly run by Serenity Living Recovery Centers, Inc. but has been passed into private hands since the death in 2015 of the nonprofit’s executive director Mark Webber. Chandler, a recovering alcoholic with six years of sobriety, now holds the lease.

Chandler said Christopher Brunner appeared to have had a lot of health issues in addition to his fight to stay sober. He said while it is a rule of the house to stay sober and never to bring drugs or alcohol in, there are times when people slip up.

He said Brunner was having trouble finding a job and had checked himself into the local detox facility at least once during his approximately three-year stay there.

“He was a nice guy with a heart of gold,” Chandler said. “He was always looking for something to do. He was trying, he really was. I don’t think anybody really wants to be a drug addict.”

Sober houses, more than 30 of them in the city, have come under greater scrutiny of late and the city last year tried to institute a voluntary registry program for the operators. This year proposed legislation would require the operators of the sober houses to register as a business.

Chandler said there are many people coming out of drug rehabilitation programs with simply no place to go. He took on the responsibility of keeping the home open after Webber’s death and tries to keep at least two beds open for those in need while collecting enough rent from others to pay the landlord. There was also a house manager in place at the time of Brunner’s death.

“It gives them a chance to get out, get a job, or else they end up in the shelter and back on the streets,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Matthew Brunner said while frustrated with the fact that his brother died at a place where he was supposed to be recovering, he doesn’t blame anyone else.

“I just wish they had done more to help him keep a needle out of his arm,” he said.

Through the years, Matthew Brunner said there had been glimmers of hope that his brother would recover and mend relationships battered by his addiction.

“It’s hard for all of us. He was my best friend growing up, my hero. He was best man at my wedding and I was his best man — twice,” Matthew Brunner said.

He said his brother’s addiction started like too many others — with a prescription given after a car accident that included an “ungodly amount of OxyContin.” When the supply ran out his brother was in and out of withdrawal, facing turmoil in his life and “trying to do whatever they can to get the next bottle of pills.”

The two grew up in the Bridgeport area and later in the Westport area. One example of the bond between the two, Matthew Brunner said, was when he got married and moved to Maine. Only a year later that his younger brother followed suit, moving into a home about a block away with his 3-year-old daughter.

At some point, Christoper Brunner lost his job and fell deeper into a pill addiction “but it hadn’t yet taken over his life,” his brother said. Matthew Brunner had even taken over care of his brother’s daughter. He said the family knew about the problems but felt helpless.

“It did not help for him to make the best decisions,” Matthew Brunner said of the addiction. “We tried. The whole family sat down at one point, we tried to do what we could. He was never the type of guy to sit in a group setting and listen to others.”

When Christopher Brunner moved back to Connecticut it appeared the downward spiral continued and he was “burning bridges,” his brother said, and falling in with a group of people that he thinks led to heroin.

Public records show Christopher Brunner also started having run-ins with police. Between 2010 and 2014, Connecticut court records show he had two narcotics possession convictions along with a probation violation and burglary conviction that led to a stint in prison.

“At some point you kind of had to know. You do what you can. I told him I’m going to have to bury you at some point,” Matthew Brunner said.

Matthew Brunner suspects his brother never left New London because he was “getting what he needed.”

“When he was not well, everybody would say if he just knew the good the rest of us know is in him. He’d probably have the power to get over this,” Matthew Brunner said. “He was a good dude. Everybody loved him. It was a long process and you burn a lot of bridges along the way. He lost a lot of friends along the way because very rarely are you doing right by anyone. Before that he could do no wrong.

“Nobody stopped loving him, but there was only so much you could do,” he said.

g.smith@theday.com

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