The needle in the family tree

The needle in the family tree

The season offered hope for an end to the opioid epidemic. For three families bound together by a deadly night on Broadway, though, it brought six months of searing questions.

After Danielle’s Fall

Izzy Walker, 10, pauses for a moment from doing backbends and cartwheels in her bedroom at her grandparents’ house in South Park.

The needle in the family tree

The season offered hope for an end to the opioid epidemic. For three families bound together by a deadly night on Broadway, though, it brought six months of searing questions.

After Danielle’s Fall


June 25, 2018

Story by Rich Lord

Photography by
Stephanie Strasburg

View the entire Needle in the family tree series


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Reporter Rich Lord and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette want to hear how your family has been affected by the opioid epidemic. Your responses will be considered for publication. Email with any questions or concerns you might have before sharing your stories.

The speedball that hit Danielle Walker on a December night in Beechview took a terrible bounce.

Ask a hard drug user to describe speedballing -- mixing cocaine with heroin, fentanyl or both -- and you’ll hear about a divine rush, 10 minutes of knowing how God must feel, a smooth ride down. Next comes the craving for more.

Danielle’s speedball, though, sent her ricocheting into the wobbly lives of her best friend, Raven, and their sometime neighbor, Vincent. The collision shook the lives of their parents and of their children, already scattered by heroin’s storm to homes in South Park, McKees Rocks, Oakdale and Long Island, N.Y.

If you’ve known someone like Danielle -- a golden child lured by addiction -- then you understand the effects of her collapse on everyone around her. Now imagine that a loved one’s death orphaned a daughter and her brother who had never met each other. Then add one, last indignity.

Maybe that speedball would send you on a wrenching search for answers.

A streetlight illuminates the Broadway Avenue building in Beechview where Vickie Turley, Raven Iandiorio and Vincent Zeitlman all lived at various times. The building was home base for seven weeks of partying that led up to the deaths of both Ms. Turley’s and Danielle Walker's significant others.

The people who count the bodies in Allegheny County are hoping that the autumn of 2017 was a turning point in our opioid crisis. Fatal overdoses during the last quarter of last year were half what they were in late 2016, the medical examiner announced in May.

Even if the worst is over, though, the effects of our opioid binge will endure.

This is the story of one overdose late last year and how, over six months, it affected the lives of 10 people, including five children. Multiply that by the 4,000-plus drug deaths in our region since 2014, and you can picture overlapping ripples of pain fading into the future.

Those ripples don’t always fade smoothly. You get through a few good days, then something happens -- like Donna Walker’s discovery, in May, of a 6-month-old voicemail from her daughter on her husband’s phone. Danielle was 37 when she left it, the week before Thanksgiving.

Listen to Danielle's voicemail to her parents

Photos from Danielle Walker's upbringing in the suburb of South Park. "They were happy kids," Danielle's father, Martin, said of his three children.

“Just so you know, I’m up early,” Danielle began. “I’m staying in a safe place out by Etna. … I didn’t even drink last night. …I mean, two beers does not count. And I went to sleep.”

She said she can’t go back to rehab yet. She had some court dates to make, some paperwork to get through.

“I’m safe. And I will keep in touch. I love you guys. ... I have to get my life together. Love you. Bye bye.”

Donna is a flight attendant. Her husband, Marty, works for a company that services the mining industry. For 30 years, they’ve lived in a South Park colonial, now guarded by a grumpy dog named Rooney and decorated with plants and photos of their children: Marty Jr., Maura and their firstborn, Danielle.

“We called her Diaper Danni,” said Marty, because when Maura needed to be changed, Danielle rushed to it.

“She got straight A’s” in elementary and middle school, Donna said. “She was put in gifted in first grade. You never had to ask her to do her homework. … I always called her ‘my doctor.’” Dancing school, piano lessons, soccer and softball -- Danielle did “nothing excellent, but everything good.”

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Danielle Walker and Shaun Urcini with baby Izzy in 2009. (Courtesy of Walker family)

After graduating from South Park High in 1998, Danielle worked for General Electric Capital and took some college classes. She found her man, Shaun Urcini, two years younger and also from South Park.

She was listless, though, writing her mother letters saying she was “struggling to be a good person, but ... falling back into it,” Donna recounted. “But we didn’t know what ‘it’ was.”

Danielle Walker, left, at 31, and Shaun Urcini, right, at 28, at their daughter Izzy's preschool graduation in Finleyville. (Courtesy of the Walker family)

Danielle and Shaun both drew drug possession charges in 2005. By the time Danielle got pregnant in 2007, Donna and Marty knew enough to help her to get a prescription for Suboxone, which quenches the craving for opioids and makes it hard to get high. When Isla Capri “Izzy” was born in 2008, the Walkers paid off the new parents’ court fines, bought a townhouse and leased it to them. Maura baby-sat while Shaun and Danielle worked.

“So we wanted to give them a fresh start with Izzy, and they did,” Donna said. “They loved her to pieces."

If you’ve known parents with drug problems, you won’t be surprised that love didn’t cure addiction. Danielle spent more and more time in bed. Donna and Marty took to baby-sitting Izzy for days at a time.

One day, Marty took Izzy to the townhouse to pick up her soccer shorts and found a backpack full of syringes in the laundry room. “That's when we took the legal steps" to get custody, Marty said. Danielle didn’t fight it. Also in 2015, the Walkers evicted their daughter from the trashed townhouse. She and Shaun drifted to Beechview.

In Izzy, the Walkers got a 7-year-old with big anxieties.

"When we first got Izzy, we weren't allowed to leave the house,” Donna said. "Finally, I said, ‘Izzy, why is it that we have to be so close to you all the time?’ And she said, ‘Because I woke up one night and my parents weren't here.’ And I said, ‘Well, that makes sense, but that's never going to happen again.’"


Izzy uses her body to prevent her grandparents’ golf balls from rolling off the green and into the water as they play miniature golf at Sunset Golf in South Park.

Estimates are that some 82,000 Pennsylvania grandparents are raising 89,000 grandkids.

Imagine what it’s like to see your kids reach adulthood, feel like you’re ready to relax -- and then have another young child thrust into your household.

Donna Walker and her 10-year-old granddaughter Izzy Walker look through photos of Izzy and her mom in their South Park kitchen. Izzy calls her grandmother "Mom Donna" and her grandfather "Big."

Now imagine three children.

Brenda Verbonach, 56, raised four daughters. Now she cares for two granddaughters and one infant grandson, all jammed into an Oakdale mobile home -- “not a double-wide,” she notes -- that she shares with her boyfriend.

Every day is a scramble to get the girls, 14 and 8, to school, the baby to day care, herself to work as a billing assistant, and then to ensure that everybody is back in the trailer, safe, fed, bathed and then in bed. At least her boyfriend helps out, and the girls tend to their baby cousin.

“It’s not the ideal situation for everyone, in a sense, but this is their life, this is their family, this is home,” Brenda said. “They have two dogs, they have a cat, they had a fish until the cat ate it.”

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Brenda Verbonach, 56, holds her grandson while sitting with her granddaughter Airyonna, 14, in her Oakdale mobile home. Ms. Verbonach works full time in addition to caring for three grandchildren, after raising four daughters of her own.

Brenda’s grandson is the child of her youngest daughter. The granddaughters, Airyonna, 14, and Kalysta, 8, are the children of Brenda’s eldest, Raven Iandiorio. They arrived three years ago, after Raven pleaded guilty to prostitution.

Raven’s sometime business partner: Danielle Walker.

Raven remembers the day they met, along the Red Line tracks in Beechview. Danielle made an impression.

Kalysta, 8, plays with her baby cousin. With her grandmother raising three grandchildren and working full time, Kalysta and her 14-year-old sister Airyonna help with the baby and each other as much as they can outside of school.

“She was into herself. She knew she was pretty,” Raven recounted. There was a lot of ugliness in her life, though. According to Raven, Shaun Urcini “would make her go out and do what she had to do, to get high.”

Danielle and Raven weren’t taking care of their children, but they tried to look out for each other.

“We would see people together to make money, so we could get high,” Raven said. “This is a hard thing to do, to go out and sell your body to make drug money. I was comfortable with her, to go out and do that.”

Raven, 35, didn’t come from the piano-and-soccer set, as Danielle did. Raven hadn’t done well in school, had a hard-drinking boilermaker father and a family that moved a lot, from Beechview to Brookline to Fayette County to Brentwood. But the two women clicked.

“I just felt like I’m broken and she was broken, and nobody really liked her in the neighborhood,” Raven said. “I wanted to be friends with her, and protect her.”

Raven rented a second-floor apartment on Broadway Avenue in Beechview. Sometimes Danielle crashed there. The guy renting the first floor was a former boilermaker, who used to drink with Raven’s dad. People called him “One-Eyed Vinnie.”


Vincent Zeitlman made the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with his painted head at a Steelers game in this December 1996 photo by Post-Gazette photographer Darrell Sapp.

If you’ve read the Book of Job, Vincent Zeitlman’s life will seem familiar.

He was an altar boy at St. Catherine of Siena in Beechview. After high school, he became a boilermaker. He boasts that the Steelers were undefeated in his six trips to see them in Baltimore.

“I had all the money in the world,” he said, “and I didn’t do drugs. … I did whatever I wanted, when I wanted.”

He drank a lot, he admitted. The upside: At a bar one night, he turned to find Randi Hornyak sitting on the next stool. He was a decade older than she, but they adored each other.

“I came out of my coma, addicted to pain medicine.”

Then came the 2003 car accident that shattered half of Vincent’s face and damaged much of the rest of his body.

“I came out of my coma, addicted to pain medicine,” he said. He also woke to the news that Randi was pregnant.

Vincent got back to work as a boilermaker, his burdens weighted by pain and a hated nickname, but lightened by opioids. “I took the pills for the pain relief,” he said. “The high was just a bonus.”

Randi liked the high. Sometimes she took his pills, Vincent said, and in 2011 his doctor suspected misuse and cut him off.

Like so many prescription opioid users have done, he and Randi turned to heroin, Vincent said.

He quit working. Randi’s diabetes worsened, affecting her kidneys. She died in 2015, at the age of 34, from multi-system organ failure due to septic shock.

That left Vincent alone with an achy body and a preteen daughter. “Instead of doing sports and stuff,” he said, “I taught her how to cook.”


On Jan. 1, 2016, police patrolling the Wilkinsburg Park-n-Ride lot found Danielle Walker and Shaun Urcini sitting in a car with Suboxone, the prescription anti-anxiety drug Clonazepam, and a bunch of needles and empty stamp bags. Police brought her to the Allegheny County Jail, but staff there wouldn’t accept her, “due to her being six months pregnant,” an officer wrote in an affidavit.

At the time, Donna and Marty had no idea that their daughter was actually pregnant. She’d claimed to be with child enough times -- in obvious bids for monetary help -- that they’d developed boy-who-cried-wolf skepticism.

“If I don't get out of here, it's going to kill me. You have to get me out of here.”

The Walkers learned of their grandson only after his birth, from another relative. When they confronted Danielle, she told them that she had arranged her son’s adoption by two gay men, so that she would be his only mother. She had an agreement with the Long Island couple that they would bring her son to Pittsburgh every other year.

“She kept saying, ‘Mom, tell me I did the right thing. Tell me I did the right thing,’” Donna said. “And then she was crying.”

Danielle was also hanging around with Vickie Turley, now 50, who moved to the Broadway apartment above Vincent Zeitlman’s after Raven Iandiorio was evicted. Danielle, Shaun, Vickie and her boyfriend, Andrew Heim, went on what Vickie later called "a seven-week run" of partying.

Not long after, on June 12, 2017, Andrew, 47, killed himself with a gunshot to the head. The next day, Shaun died at 34 from an overdose of cocaine and fentanyl.

Would that scare Danielle straight? Donna hoped so. Mother and daughter talked about moving to North Carolina.

Danielle said, “‘If I don't get out of here, it's going to kill me. You have to get me out of here,’” Donna recounted. “I said, ‘I'm going to.’”

First, though, Danielle had to get clean.


Izzy, 10, stands with her grandmother, Donna Walker, at a door of their home in South Park. "I hope she has some good memories," Donna said of her dreams for Izzy. "I hope whatever memories, bad ones she does have, just disappear in time. Hopefully replace them with new ones. I just hope she's happy and healthy."

One evening in April 2017, as Vincent Zeitlman was making dinner for his daughter, his face began to hurt -- more than usual.

“I was in pain. I went into the bedroom and snorted one bag,” he said, meaning heroin, or fentanyl, or a mixture of the two.

Whatever it was, it was too strong for him. The next thing he remembers was the shock of Narcan bringing him out of an overdose, a bunch of medics, and his daughter staring at him.

“That look of terror on her face, I’ll never be able to get that out of my mind,” he said. “Never.”

Police charged Vincent with child endangerment, writing in an affidavit that Vincent’s daughter “hasn’t had a physical, needs glasses, has a persistent toothache and an ingrown toenail,” plus anxiety and depression. The officer gave Vincent credit for trying, at least, to get his daughter to a doctor: “Zeitlman took [his daughter] out of school to walk a round trip of four miles to an appointment in the rain,” he wrote, “but arrived late and therefore wasn’t able to be seen.”

Children Youth and Families placed the 13-year-old girl with a relative in McKees Rocks.

A final insult: Vincent’s Yorkshire terrier ran away. Bubba had been his gift to his daughter on her fifth birthday.

“He kind of just lost everything,” said Vickie Turley, who has known Vincent for decades. “He's kind of a lost soul himself. You do get lost when you're in that world."


Danielle Walker’s best shot at getting clean started with a cheap shot.

In September, a man strolled up to Danielle, kicked her in the leg, punched her in the head, and left her motionless on a sidewalk. Someone captured the attack on video, and sent it to KDKA-TV reporter Marty Griffin. He found Danielle, reached Donna and connected them to Gateway Rehab.

Video One of the videos Danielle Walker watched of her daughter while waiting for a bed to open at Gateway Rehab. (Courtesy of Izzy Walker)

Waiting for a bed at Gateway, Donna and Danielle holed up in a series of hotel rooms. If you’re familiar with the app, then you’ve probably seen plenty of videos of kids lip-syncing songs and skits. Donna’s phone was full of clips of then-9-year-old Izzy acting out silly scenes. Danielle loved them.

“She just sat there in awe of her daughter, how beautiful, and she'd laugh and say, ‘Izzy's mouth doesn't match those words,’” Donna said. “She just watched those things, over and over."

Once Danielle reached rehab, Donna told her family, “Guys, this is it. This is it. She's going to beat this thing and get better."

Post-rehab, on the day after Thanksgiving, Danielle was arrested for driving off in a Sharpsburg man’s Chevrolet Cruze while downing a Four Loko malt drink. It was her fifth jail stint that year, but Donna chose to see the bright side: She knew where her daughter was, and she wasn’t doing heroin.


On Wednesday, Dec. 6, a prosecutor withdrew the most serious charges against Danielle Walker, and she was soon released. She didn’t call home.

Instead, on the freezing evening of Dec. 7, she and Raven Iandiorio showed up at Vickie Turley’s apartment. Danielle had a bottle of vodka. She asked Vickie’s son whether he thought she was a “good soul.” After a while, Danielle and Raven headed downstairs, to Vincent Zeitlman’s place.

Vincent didn’t want them there, he insisted later. Danielle had a history of stealing from him. Plus he was trying to stay sober. Since April, he had instituted a rule: No shooting up in his apartment.

But he didn’t quite manage to kick them out. And somehow, cocaine, and heroin spiked with fentanyl, got into his apartment, and into Danielle’s veins.

In separate interviews, Vincent and Raven said that Danielle started acting strange.

Vincent said Danielle “started shaking and stuff. We picked her up, put her in the shower."

“She was in the shower, singing, dancing,” Raven said, and after that, “she was fine.”

“We had her in the shower, pouring a freezing cold shower on her, holding her, and that's when we started dancing, we got her dressed, and then she fell down, or lay down, and went to sleep,” Vincent said, adding that he wrapped her in his blanket. She “was snoring, very loud. And then when the snoring quit, I figured she’d got comfortable.”

“And I went to go make money,” Raven said. “When I got back, that’s when. … Vinnie asked me to go into the house, and when I went in, she was dead in there.”

Vincent had a bag valve mask -- sometimes called an ambu bag -- that medics left behind when he overdosed. He tried it on Danielle. “Even Raven tried mouth-to-mouth,” he added.

The one thing they didn’t try was 911.

“I wanted to call the cops, but he wouldn’t let me,” Raven said. “He said if we did, we’d have no chance to get our kids back.”

"Because I was fighting with CYF to keep my child,” Vincent said, “and I figured if they seen this happened at my house, then I'm screwed."

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Danielle Walker’s body was found by police in this walkway outside of Vincent Zeitlman’s old Beechview apartment.

That night, as Danielle danced and snored, Donna painted her bedroom. She was nervous. She hadn’t heard from Danielle for two straight nights. Izzy, too, seemed anxious.

When Donna’s phone rang the next morning, it wasn’t Danielle. It was Marty Griffin, asking how she was holding up, in light of what happened to her daughter.

The T makes its way down Broadway Ave., past the block where Danielle was found.

“And I said, 'Marty, she's in jail. She's fine. Nothing happened to my daughter,'” Donna said.

After she learned the truth, Donna called her husband, then set about making arrangements and writing a searing obituary.

"The only advice we have for those families living with addiction, be angry, hurt and frustrated but end your conversations with 'I love you,'" she wrote. "Danielle always did and now we wish we had. If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever."

Izzy took her mother’s death much harder than that of her father, six months prior. Donna and Marty let her stay home from school for two days and asked her how they should mourn. Izzy suggested a pizza party decorated with pictures of her parents together.

“She got this big, new dress,” Donna said. “I let her pick it out.” Around 100 relatives crowded the house. “Everyone was telling [Izzy] how beautiful her mother was. … She wasn't embarrassed of her anymore.”


Izzy kisses her dog, Rooney. Rooney is one in a line of dogs and other pets that Izzy uses to measure the various times in her life.

Did you ever accept a bitter reality, only to have the facts take a turn for the even-worse?

Donna and Marty Walker went to Broadway Avenue and met Vickie Turley. They visited Vincent Zeitlman and looked at the dirty rug where, he said, their daughter died. “We legitimately left feeling like they cared for her,” Marty said.

Only later did they learn that when first responders arrived, Danielle wasn’t found on Vincent’s rug. She was outside, in the narrow, concrete walkway beside the apartment building.

“Someone put my daughter out in an alley,” Donna said.

"Like an old beer can,” Marty added.

As a cold winter wore on, Donna wondered, almost obsessively: What if the drugs didn’t quite kill Danielle, but the cold did?

Even after the medical examiner ruled that Danielle died of “mixed drug intoxication [involving] cocaine, fentanyl, heroin,” Donna was haunted by the spectre of the cold creeping through her daughter’s body -- maybe dead, or maybe barely alive.

“And every time I'm outside and my fingers get so cold they hurt, I wonder if she woke up to that,” Donna said.

She and Marty called and visited police detectives and commanders, begging them to look into the source of the drugs, the movement of the body -- anything.

"Investigate!” Donna cried. “She was a human being. I know she was a pain in the butt because she was an addict. ... But investigate!”

And what about Danielle’s son? When Danielle was alive, Donna could at least hope that she, Marty and Izzy might be included in the boy’s biennial visits to Pittsburgh. Instead, the Walkers didn’t even know their grandson’s birthday.

They hesitated to tell Izzy about him. If she knew she had a brother she couldn’t meet, they figured, it would just rip the scabs from her grief.

On the other hand, what if the brother and sister could meet?

Through some Facebook sleuthing, the Walkers found the couple who had adopted their grandson. "I messaged them straight away,” Donna said. Her pitch: “Please, please don't make this another loss. Let us have some relationship.”

The adoptive parents didn’t respond. The Walkers wrote them a letter. They got back a polite note, with the couple’s lawyer’s office as the return address. As Marty summarized, it “basically says, thanks, no thanks.”

Izzy's Mother's Day cards to her grandmother Donna Walker.


In mid-January, Donna and Marty Walker were back on Broadway, placing a bouquet and a sign that read: “Danielle Walker, daughter, mother to Izzy, loving member of our family. R.I.P. Danni. She was more than an addict! She was loved.”

A few days later, the little memorial was gone.

In March, they stopped by the home of the Sharpsburg man whose car Danielle took in November. Maybe he had some of her belongings. The man handed them a grocery bag packed with women’s clothes.

Video “I want to know what she had on when she died, I want to know everything, but no one knows,” Donna Walker said of her efforts to piece together her daughter’s final weeks, which brought her to a Sharpsburg home.

But they couldn’t have been Danielle’s. She would never have worn pink and orange.

In late March, Donna and Marty sat in the back of a hearing room in Pittsburgh Municipal Court, awaiting Vincent Zeitlman’s first hearing on charges that he endangered his daughter.

Vincent came in a little late and took a front seat. Then he looked back at the Walkers. Then at the judge. Then at the Walkers.

District Judge Tony Ceoffe called the case and proposed that the hearing be rescheduled for June 1 -- a typical postponement.

“Can I show you this, quick?” Vincent interrupted, handing a paper to the judge. It was a letter from the state Department of Human Services, saying that allegations that he abused his daughter were deemed “unfounded,” and would be expunged from that department’s files.

He asked the judge why, if the charges were unfounded, he was still in trouble. Why wasn’t his daughter back with him? The judge told him to come back in June.

As Vincent left the courtroom, he was flanked by Donna and Marty. Could he talk?

Vincent Zeitlman walks beside Donna Walker as he leaves his court hearing for child endangerment.

As they walked down Ross Street, Donna raised the hood of her dark blue windbreaker against the drizzle. Vincent vented, for a minute, about the system that kept his daughter from him. Then he turned to Donna.

"I'm sorry, what's your name again?" he asked.


"I'm sorry, I'm just really, really mad right now,” he said.

They climbed a set of stairs into a restaurant and took seats. Donna lowered her hood, clutched her eyeglasses in her hands.

"I just really want to know, why didn't you call 911?” she asked Vincent.

"It happened so fast. We were dancing with each other,” Vincent stammered.

"But Vinnie, you know what drugs do,” Donna continued. “It happens fast.”

She went on to tell him that she believed her daughter may have died from the cold, not from the drugs. "How did you know she was dead?" she asked.

Video Donna Walker confronts Vincent Zeitlman, one of the last people to see her daughter Danielle alive on the night she fatally overdosed.

"When I tried to wake her up and she didn't,” he said. “I have nothing to hide. I mean, I'll tell you anything you want. Just ask."

"Why did you put her outside?” she asked immediately.

“Because I was fighting with CYF to keep my child, and I figured if they seen this happened at my house then I'm screwed," he said.

Donna asked him, “You have a child?"

"Yes,” he said.

"Well, how would you like it if [someone] put them outside in that cold?"

"I think about it every day before I go to bed,” Vincent answered. “Look, Danielle and I weren't enemies. She just was a pain in the ass, but we weren't enemies. We were friends."

"But what friend didn't call 911?” Donna asked, her face tense. “I just, I don't understand that part of it."

She pulled from her purse a photo montage. "I brought this to you so you could see what Danielle looked like five years before. That's her child now. That's her beautiful daughter. And that's what she looked like five years before. Now, someone put her outside. I'm just really concerned that my daughter froze along with overdosing."

"No. No,” Vincent insisted. “She, there was, there was no heartbeat. There was no pulse. There was no breathing.”

Donna pressed on. "[Y]ou have a daughter. If someone did this to your daughter, what would you feel about it?"

"Exactly,” he said, his eye on hers. “Hey, go buy a gun and shoot me. Put me out of my misery. Seriously. Because I ..."

"For a moment, I thought about it,” Donna said, “but you know what? I'm not that kind of person.”

Donna Walker holds a list of questions she has for Vincent Zeitlman after his court hearing. “How did you determine she was dead and not dying?” Ms. Walker asked.


As they rose from the table, Vincent’s hands shook. He tried to give the Walkers his cell phone number but couldn’t remember it.

“I felt really bad for Donna. I really did,” he said later. “I’ve lost a lot of my friends to [drugs]. I can’t imagine losing a child to it.”

Stress can cause you to make rash decisions. As they left the restaurant, Vincent abruptly resolved to get a drug test. The Family Court lab was just up the street. Maybe, if he passed, it would help his effort to get his daughter back.

He wasn’t the best father, but he wasn’t the worst, he insisted on the way to the lab. Just look at his phone. He talked with his daughter at 8 p.m. the prior evening. She’d also texted him, asking his OK to watch something on Netflix. He sees her every Saturday, sometimes takes her to a movie.

If only he could persuade the county.

In the beige waiting room of the Downtown Drug Screening Laboratory, Vincent refused to sit, despite the fact that fewer than half of the chairs were occupied. He worried that the seats might harbor bed bugs.

Eventually, a Health Department worker escorted him into a bathroom. Then another called him into an office.

He came out carrying a form, on which someone had scrawled the letter X next to the letters “OPI.” Opioids. He had failed.

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Airyonna, 14, feeds a bottle to her baby cousin.

Without her friend and business partner, Raven Iandiorio spiraled downward.

Five days after Vincent’s hearing, she answered her cell phone. “I’m in a house where I have to go out and make money to get us high every day,” she said. “I want to get clean so bad. I want to get my kids back.”

Circumstances made that difficult. “I’m in active addiction right now. I don’t even have an ID, so I can’t even go to rehab,” she said. “I’m not doing OK,” she said, “and I miss my mom and my kids. … I gotta go.”

Brenda Verbonach, 56, holds her granddaughter, Kalysta, 8, in the living room of her Oakdale mobile home. Kalysta and her 14-year-old sister, Airyonna, came to live with their grandmother three years ago after their mother, Raven Iandiorio, pleaded guilty to prostitution charges.

Her daughters, Airyonna and Kalysta, had seen Raven at Christmas, but that was it for the winter. Then, around April 7, Brenda Verbonach got a call: Raven was in UPMC Mercy with a severe infection and several abscesses.

The family hurried to Raven’s bedside. “She was talking about leaving [the hospital],” Brenda said. “She said, ‘I can go out on the street and get meds.’ I said, ‘Raven, really. You’re going to die out on the street.’”

Raven stayed and was soon transferred to a nursing home an hour north of Pittsburgh.

Airyonna said her mother looked healthier in the nursing home than she had over Christmas. The 14-year-old said she didn’t want a life like that. She wanted a career -- “the best job ever.”

“I thought teaching, like an elementary [school], because I can’t stand middle school or high school,” she said. “There’s way too much drama.”

She also mused about becoming a makeup artist. She has done “rainbow eyes” on Kalysta. “I’d seen my mom do that,” she said. “I learned how to do makeup from her. She always did dark colors. I like bright colors.”


Vincent Zeitlman folds a T-shirt in the bedroom of his new apartment in Bethel Park. He is working toward getting his daughter back.

Did you see the double rainbow that graced the South Hills late last month?

That day, Vincent Zeitlman was showing off the apartment he’d recently rented in Bethel Park. He was preparing the smaller of its bedrooms for the daughter who wasn’t yet allowed to stay over.

In that bedroom, he had a canvas on which she’d painted a flower years before. He also had a much larger canvas, roughly 4 feet long, blank. At some point, he said, he’d ask her to fill it.

He showed a pencil sketch she’d made of Downtown Pittsburgh, and he boasted of a pastel she’d done of Jesus. “I keep trying to tell her: You can’t go nowhere without God.”

Does he pray? “Every night.” For what? He named his daughter.

“I was just trying to get my pain to go away, and now I’m fighting with CYF to get my kid back,” he seethed. He vowed to leap through “whatever hoops they want me to go through.”

The next hoop: The June 1 hearing on the child endangerment charge. It was one of perhaps a dozen short hearings scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

At 1:05, a court official called his name. No answer.

At 1:11, someone at the prosecutor’s table shouted for him. Nothing.

At 1:31, District Judge Robert Ravenstahl called the case. But Vincent wasn’t there.

The judge granted a prosecution motion to accept the allegations in the officer’s affidavit. The case was transferred to a Common Pleas judge, who, court staff said, would almost certainly issue a warrant for Vincent.

Izzy’s photo of the double rainbow over the South Hills from her kitchen window.


Izzy tries to catch fake snow falling at a Christmas-themed miniature golf hole at Sunset Golf in South Park.

The day after the double rainbow, Izzy Walker showed off her iPad photo of the colorful arcs.

“It was hailing and then raining and then it finally stopped,” she said, pointing out the back window of her South Park home.

Her grandmother, Donna, had been cutting her hair when her grandfather, Marty, alerted her. "He said, ‘There's a rainbow,’ and then I looked at it, and it turned into a double rainbow,” she said. “That was the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen!”

Izzy's Alphabet

Izzy worked with the Post-Gazette to show us more about who she is and what’s important to her by photographing her life as an alphabet and writing captions for the photos. Here is a selection of her work from A to I.

It’s a wonder that she had time for a haircut. She was finishing fourth grade and carrying straight A’s, preparing for a dance recital at which she’d perform to Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe” and Meghan Trainor's “Better When I'm Dancin,'” heading for a school art show at which her work is featured, playing piano and soccer … and she recently learned that she is a sister.

"I remember when [Donna] told me,” Izzy said. “We were in GameStop parking lot because we were about to go get me my Nintendo Switch."

“I said, ‘Remember how crazy mom was, and dad? They did some crazy things,’” Donna recounted. “I said, ‘Mom had a baby. … Mom gave him to some guys.’”

Donna told Izzy that the family hired a lawyer to try to get them a visit with the boy. That lawyer, Lou Emmi, thinks he can make a case that the Walkers have the right to meet Danielle’s son.

“We don’t want to interrupt his life,” Marty said. “We want Izzy to have a relationship with him.”

Izzy knew that it was not a family decision that swept her brother off to another state. It was the result of the drugs that sickened her parents. And while she didn’t know that heroin deposited Airyonna and Kalysta in their grandmother’s Oakdale trailer, or put Vincent’s daughter into the care of a relative in McKees Rocks, Izzy was aware that such circumstances are no longer rare.

What would she tell other kids whose parents are sick with addiction? Izzy picked up a big chunk of watermelon. "I don't know,” she said, with a little squirm. She doesn’t like to be pushed to talk about her parents, their troubles, their deaths.

But sometimes, Donna said, Izzy’s thoughts about her mother emerge. It happened the other day, when Izzy and Aunt Maura played the “what kind of animal would you like to be” game.

“Izzy was going to be a unicorn. Maura was going to be a dolphin,” Donna recounted. “Izzy said, ‘What kind of an animal do you think my mommy would like to be?’ Maura said, ‘A bird. … Because she would want to fly around and see everything.’”

Donna agreed. She hasn’t abandoned a ritual she developed in December: Every day, she moves the box containing Danielle’s ashes to a different spot in the house.

On the day after the double rainbow, the box sat next to some anemic-looking Venus flytraps. Donna knew her daughter wasn’t in that box, in any real sense. But it was, in the end, the only thing she could do. “I know she’d be bored to death in one spot.” 

View the entire Needle in the family tree series

Rich Lord

Stephanie Strasburg

Design, Development Zack Tanner

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