North Fayette family healing as ordeal ends
Jason Stiffler picks up his daughter, Holland Starr Stiffler, 2, while her mother, Rachel Bellaire, watches at their home Wednesday in North Fayette.
Rachel Bellaire and Jason Stiffler with their daughter, Holland Stiffler, 2, at their home in North Fayette on Wednesday.
Cailin Dericka Stiffler
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A woman and two men sat side by side on a bench in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse late last month, waiting together during jury deliberations in the trial in the death of an 18-month-old who ingested OxyContin.
Cailin Stiffler's mother, her father and the man who left the half tablet that killed her were there supporting one another after their lives were ripped apart by a run of substance abuse, betrayal, loss and grief.
Rachel Bellaire and Jason Stiffler had had a good strong relationship.
He immediately took to her son, who was 10 months old when they started dating, and soon thereafter, they had a daughter of their own, Cailin.
"Instant family," said Jason, 26.
Things went well for a while, but then in the summer of 2007, they were forced to move out of their apartment and into a single bedroom at Jason's mother's house.
The four of them, stuffed inside a room smaller than 15 by 15.
"It was miserable," said Rachel, 26. "We were fighting constantly.
"In my mind, I was thinking, 'this isn't what I want for my kids.' "
She had begun hanging out with an old friend, Sean Czambel, who loved her children, and eventually started seeing him.
Jason, who had begun drinking in an effort to cope, didn't know exactly what was going on with Rachel, but he knew there was something.
"She wouldn't tell me anything," he said. "We weren't doing too good. She just said, 'I'm leaving.' That's when she was going to move in with Sean."
But before that could happen, Cailin somehow got hold of a half a pill when she was at Sean's house with her mother on Jan. 24, 2008. Rachel didn't know that Sean had been using OxyContin, and she didn't know what had happened that day, but saw that her little girl with the big blue eyes and dimples who loved to dance was not feeling well. She thought she was coming down with the flu and took her home.
Later that night, as Rachel and Jason sat on their bedroom floor watching television while Cailin lay on the bed resting, the toddler stopped breathing.
Jason called 911 and began doing CPR.
An ambulance arrived within two minutes and raced Cailin to a Weirton hospital.
From there, she was flown to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
Doctors did not know what was wrong, but suspected it was a rare heart condition.
There was nothing they could do. Cailin was brain dead.
For 2 1/2 days, Jason and Rachel stayed at her bedside. A friend brought them a CD player, and they played for her the song for which she was named, "Cailin" by Unwritten Law.
They had their daughter baptized.
Then, Jason and Rachel had to decide if they wanted the little girl to remain on life support.
They chose to let her go.
She was pronounced dead at 11:03 a.m. Jan. 27.
"She died, and it brought us closer together," Jason said.
"It completely changed both of our lives," Rachel said.
They ditched their friends who had been bad influences. He stopped drinking. She stopped seeing Sean, and they moved into their own house.
"I don't know how we even coped after," Rachel said.
"You gotta just keep trucking on," he added.
They both agreed that it was her son, Dexter, who helped them through.
He was 3 when Cailin died.
"He was devastated," Rachel said. "He knew exactly what was going on."
The family tried to move on with their lives, but in May that year, toxicology results from Cailin's autopsy showed that she died from an OxyContin overdose.
A detective showed up at Rachel and Jason's home to tell them.
"My jaw just dropped," she said.
"I couldn't even believe it," Jason said.
When Sean found out, he realized it was his fault and went to police. He told them he had used that day: Cailin must have gotten one of his pills.
Jason described his reaction as one of disbelief and confusion.
"We didn't even know Sean was doing that stuff at that point," he said.
"I was heartbroken for Sean immediately," said Rachel. "The first thing I thought of is how is he going to feel? He loved her. He had a roomful of toys in his house he bought for her.
"I felt so bad for him, but at the same time, my kid is dead."
Jason, whose calm and even-keeled demeanor complements Rachel's, kept his temper in check.
"I'm usually very passive about everything," Jason said. "I hated him at one point. I kept blaming it on him."
But, as time passed, his anger dissipated.
"I knew it was an accident," he said.
"It's hard to be mad at someone when you know what a good person they are," Rachel added.
But then, the bottom dropped out again.
Someone filed a complaint with Washington County Children & Youth Services that Cailin had died from an OxyContin overdose.
The agency took Dexter away from Rachel and Jason in September 2008.
They haven't been allowed to see him since.
"Those were probably my darkest days," said Rachel. "I was a mess. I cried and cried and cried.
"I didn't know how they could come take my son."
Then in March 2010, the Allegheny County District Attorney's office charged both Rachel and Sean with criminal homicide and endangering the welfare of a child.
The case dragged on for more than two years, and finally went to trial last month before Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman.
The homicide count was thrown out against Rachel, and she was found not guilty on the other.
A jury hung on a count of involuntary manslaughter for Sean, but found him guilty on the endangering charge.
He will be sentenced on the misdemeanor on Aug. 20 and likely faces probation.
The three remain friends.
"We support Sean 100 percent," Rachel said.
"I just try not to hold a grudge," Jason said. "I understood where she was coming from.
"It was an accident."
Since the verdict, Rachel has begun hoping she may soon see her son again.
They are scheduled to have a hearing later this month, and she hopes that the judge will at least allow her to begin having visitation with Dexter, now 7.
"We talk about him like he's still here," she said. "Hopefully, he will be."
She also hopes to be able to get a job. Rachel has been unable to find work since she was charged. She loves children and working with them. Her ultimate dream, she said, would be to go to nursing school and become an obstetrics nurse.
In the meantime, Jason continues to work afternoons at a union position at a grocery store warehouse.
He earns enough to keep the couple in their small, rented house in North Fayette. But her family has to chip in, occasionally, to pay the attorney representing them in the family court case.
Rachel and Jason went on to have another daughter, Holland, in July 2009, then a son, Logan, born in January as the case was moving toward trial.
Worried that Rachel would go to prison, they decided to give him up for adoption, finding a "dream couple" from eastern Pennsylvania. The couples are friends now, and Rachel and Jason are "aunt and uncle" for Logan.
Holland, an outgoing, blond-haired girl, knows all about Cailin and calls her "Sissy." They visit her at the cemetery twice a month, and Holland takes gifts for her. On Thursday, she had a shiny silver and purple pinwheel for Cailin.
On other visits, they write messages to Cailin on paper, stuff them inside a helium-filled balloon and send them up to the heavens.
"I haven't had a calm moment since then in my life," Rachel said. "I haven't had time to grieve."
She has a tattoo of an angel on her upper left arm.
The lyrics from Cailin's song run through it.
"When all my love starts running thin, I got you, my own Cailin."
First Published June 3, 2012 12:00 am