A former Harrison football player profiled in a recent Journal News/lohud story about athletes who become addicted to heroin through prescription pain medication was found dead Sunday afternoon in his parents’ home, police said.
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The Westchester Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed the death of 20-year-old John DeFonce on Monday.
DeFonce had recently completed a four-month program at St. Christopher’s Inn in Garrison and was a resident at its halfway house in White Plains.
Harrison police received a 911 call from his parent’s Park Avenue home at about 3 p.m. Sunday reporting an unresponsive man. Police said they arrived to find DeFonce dead on a couch in the basement apartment. No drugs or drug paraphernalia were found, investigators said.
A spokesman from the Medical Examiner’s Office said Monday that while medical records show that DeFonce had a history of substance abuse, no definitive cause of death has been established.
“We’re waiting for toxicology reports to determine if there’s any evidence of drugs,” the spokesman said.
Vin Nicita, a former teammate on the Harrison High School football team, said DeFonce, who played center, left school before their senior year. Nicita, who played quarterback, said he had seen him recently in town.
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“He was one of the funniest kids I ever met,” Nicita said. “He was always looking to have a good time and always put a smile on his face. He tried to keep same personality throughout everything he was going through.”
Police said the case is being handled as an “unexplained death,” pending the autopsy results. They said a toxicology report listing what, if any, substances were in DeFonce’s system won’t be available for six to eight weeks.
According to David Gerber, the director of counseling at St. Christopher’s, DeFonce was away from the facility on a weekend pass at the time of his death.
In a late-summer interview, DeFonce told The Journal News/lohud he traced his drug addiction to pain pill prescriptions he received for a football knee injury in high school. When his doctor refused to write him more prescriptions, he said, he began buying drugs on the street. Enrolled in Concordia College, DeFonce said he left on medical leave early in his freshman year to try to deal with his drug problem.
“I bounced from rehab to rehab,” he said, adding that it was while he was being treated for addiction to pain medications that he turned to heroin after hearing that it “hits you better. You feel better.”
DeFonce said the addiction became so severe that a year and a half ago, he woke up in a hospital emergency room after overdosing on heroin and Xanax. When he was released, he said, he shot heroin in a friend’s car in the hospital parking lot. He decided to seek help last summer, he said, while spending 45 days in the Westchester County Jail for bail jumping.
After being arrested and accused of credit card fraud, DeFonce said, he checked into a rehabilitation facility in Florida, not realizing that by leaving the state he’d jumped bail.
“My lowest point was sitting in that jail cell,” he said. “That’s when I decided I wanted to change.”
A 21-day stint in rehab at Phelps Memorial Hospital didn’t take, so he entered the St. Christopher’s program in October last year. But not until he had his mother stop en route at a gas station, where he went into the restroom and shot up a dose of heroin as “a last hurrah.”
The credit card and bail jumping arrests weren’t his first brushes with the law. In February 2012, DeFonce was arrested by Harrison police on sex abuse charges involving a 10-year-old boy. He was charged with two felony counts each of first-degree criminal sexual act and sexual abuse, and two misdemeanor charges of child endangerment. The disposition of those charges was not made public; DeFonce was granted youthful offender status and his court record was sealed.
“Everybody who enters into treatment recovery has demons from their past,” said Gerber, of St. Christopher’s. “John was a good-natured young man who was well respected for the work he was doing at such a young age.”
During The Journal News interview, DeFonce said things seemed to be looking up. He’d just bought a car, and was taking classes in animal behavior and planning to become a veterinary technician.
“I have hope,” he said. “I see a future for myself. I enjoy things. I don’t think about drugs all the time. I live in inner-peace and appreciate the little things.”
Funeral arrangements, being handled by the Coxe & Graziano Funeral Home in Mamaroneck, are pending.