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Judge shares daughter's fatal struggle with drugs, mental illness

The call came at 3:10 p.m. last Thursday.

Claire E. Martoche called her father, Salvatore R. Martoche, to tell him she had returned safely to her Lockport apartment, after three weeks in a Pennsylvania residential treatment program for people battling drug addiction and mental illness.

“Hey, Dad, it’s Claire. I just wanted to call and let you know I’m here,” she said in the voicemail.

She said she was settling back into her apartment and playing with her cat, Abby.

“I love you, and I will talk with you soon,” she added. “OK. Bye.”

That’s the last recording her family has of Claire Martoche. She apparently died a few hours later of a drug overdose, probably from fentanyl, heroin or a combination.

As they prepare to bury their middle child Friday morning, Salvatore and Mary Dee Martoche agreed to tell their story, to raise awareness about the deadly plague of drug addiction, especially when combined with mental illness. They want to show this can happen to any family. They want to support other families dealing with a similar loss. They want to lobby for more resources to fight opioid addiction. And they want people to remember Claire.

“I want her life to count for something, her death to mean something, to help somebody else,” her mother said during a lengthy interview. “She would have wanted to help somebody else.”

“We don’t want this tragedy to diminish her innate goodness and tremendous desire to help others,” said Salvatore Martoche, retired State Supreme Court Appellate justice. “She would look at this as an opportunity to maybe help other people. She would approve of that.”

Most families dealing with drug addiction and mental illness see their emotions rise and fall, often dramatically and quickly. So it was with the Martoche family, including their other children, Amy and Christopher.

Two months ago, Claire Martoche was looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with her family in their Florida condo. But within hours of arriving there, she found someone to sell her drugs, probably heroin or fentanyl. She overdosed in the bathroom while talking to her sister on the phone. Her mother gave her CPR, before emergency workers found a pulse, administered Narcan and rushed her to the hospital.

Back in Western New York, the lack of proper treatment facilities forced her to go to the facility in Bradford, Pa. That is where she, her counselor and her parents shared a long, positive phone conversation before she returned home last Thursday.

Then after her family, aided by neighbors and friends, couldn’t reach Claire all day Friday, her sister Amy called Lockport police the next day. They entered her apartment Saturday and found her body.

Claire Martoche, an overdose victim at 43.

Her brother, Christopher, may have explained the situation perfectly, that she may have been thinking, “I’m off this stuff. Tomorrow I’ll start my new life, but just one more for the road.”

Mary Dee Martoche believes Claire fully intended to have dinner that Thursday night, then get up the next day to buy groceries and attend her scheduled treatment meetings.

But the Martoches know that their daughter’s twin diseases could force her to con her loved ones.

“How can we know for sure?” her father asked.

The Martoches talked with pride about Claire, born June 20, 1973. She made friends easily, showed talent as a gymnast and swimmer, had a knack for math and science and was fearless. She went to Nardin Academy, before graduating from  Buffalo Seminary in 1991 and earning a degree in mass communication and journalism from St. Bonaventure four years later.

Looking back, they think her mental illness dated to puberty. She overdosed on aspirin at age 15 and and had to have her stomach pumped. She later became a risk taker, a bit of a “wild child,” turning to drugs. She was beaten up once outside a Main Street bar in Buffalo.

She later was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, leaning more toward depression, along with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

After college, she sold computer equipment at Ingram Micro Co. and worked other jobs before her mounting problems made work impossible. Some days, she couldn’t get out of bed.

“The illness definitely became more significant as she got older, and then she began using opioids. It was just a snowball going downhill,” her mother said of the drug addiction. “I think we could have beaten the mental illness if it was only mental illness. But we couldn’t beat them both.”

Salvatore Martoche talked about the two faces of their daughter.

“Claire could be this loving, caring, concerned person. But when that beast took over, it was a sea change in her personality,” he said. “It was all about doing what she had to do and saying what she had to say to feed that beast.”

Claire, according to her mother, wanted a happy life, with a husband and children, just like her siblings have.

“But she couldn’t figure out how to change her life to allow that to happen,” she said. “It wasn’t that she didn’t want that. She wanted it desperately. She had a lot of unhappy times... She was bright, she looked around and saw that she didn’t have what other people had.”

Salvatore Martoche, a former U.S. attorney here, became animated in talking about the nation’s drug problem, especially the opioid addiction killing so many people in his daughter’s generation. He railed against the perception that drug addiction is a weakness, rather than a disease. He talked about the “bastards” who deal or over-prescribe drugs. And his wife called the lack of long-term treatment facilities shameful.

That’s why they wanted to share Claire’s story.

“It would be so wonderful if somebody could benefit from this,” her father said. “It would validate her life.”

“It would allow her to continue living,” her mother quickly added.

Nothing is worse than having to bury your child. The Martoches know that, but they want her funeral to be the celebration she never had as a bride or new mother. They cling to some consolation, as they prepare for a Mass of Christian Burial at 10 a.m. Friday in Holy Cross Church on Seventh Street, Buffalo.

“She didn’t suffer,” her father said. “She went to sleep. She was in her home. She wasn’t on the street. Those little things, I’m grateful. I’m also grateful that her struggle is over, that her unhappiness and her fear are behind her, that she’s in a happier place with her God and her family.

“My grieving is for this lady sitting across the table from me,” he added, referring to his wife, “for Claire’s brother and sister, for her nephews and niece and for me. We’ll never have her in our lives anymore. She was such a sweet girl when she was well.”

There's no denying the family's heartache.

"The pain will never go away," Salvatore Martoche said. "It has a hold on my soul. We know it will be there forever, until we're together."

Claire Martoche will be buried in the family plot in Forest Lawn – between her parents’ future graves.


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