QUEENS — Nicholas Rappold was just 21 years old when he was found slumped over in his Jeep near 165th Street in Flushing, Queens, dead from an opioid overdose.
After investigators found a prescription from New Jersey anesthesiologist Dr. Stan Li, who sold Rappold painkillers at a basement clinic he ran every Saturday, they crafted a manslaughter case that would send the doctor to New York state prison for up to 20 years.
But five and a half years into his sentence, COVID-19 killed Li.
"I wanted Dr. Li to spend every moment in jail and reflect on what he did," Rappold's mother, a school cook, told us Tuesday outside her job in Queens. "I'm sorry it ended that way but God has a reason."
The news of Li's death has stunned the law enforcement professionals who tried his case, including Bridget Brennan, a special narcotics prosecutor.
"Nobody wanted this to be a death sentence," Brennan told PIX11 Tuesday. "My office is, of course, shocked by that — and it's very sad."
Brennan explained the significance of Li's case, which was prosecuted in 2014, resulting in two manslaughter convictions and multiple guilty verdicts for recklessly selling highly-addictive opioids like OxyContin.
"This was the first time in New York state that any doctor was charged with manslaughter for recklessly prescribing," Brennan said.
Former prosecutor Charlotte Bismuth presented the case to the jury, and was getting ready to release a book, "Bad Medicine: Catching New York's Deadliest Doctor," when she learned of Li's death.
Bismuth was upset about the circumstances.
"I do not believe that anybody deserves a painful, lonely and isolated death," she told PIX11. "Around the country, we have over 270,000 reported cases of inmates who have contracted COVID. There have been more than 1,700 deaths," Bismuth said, "dying of an uncontrolled infection."
Bismuth said it stings even more knowing many others weren't held liable for their roles in the opioid crisis.
"I also think about the current news about the Sackler family and all those who have escaped accountability," Bismuth added.
The author was referring to the family owners of Purdue Pharma, manufacturers of OxyContin, who reached a $225 million settlement with the Department of Justice in the fall, acknowledging they misled doctors and the government about the addictive nature of their company's signature opioid. But Purdue Pharma and its owners avoided criminal prosecution
"We know the Sackler familly withdrew more than $10 billion from the company at a time when they anticipated lawsuits," Bismuth said. "Those who are able to 'game' the system because of their wealth and their access are being saved from much more."
Bridget Brennan said if any good came out of the Li case, it was this:
"The conduct is really changing," Brennan said of doctors and pharmacists. Her office has prosecuted scores of them. "There's a real deterrent effect of bringing criminal charges against medical professionals."
That deterrence won't bring back Nicholas Rappold, who was on a break from Nassau County Community College when he died.
His mother said he was first exposed to opioids when he went to the hospital after being sucker-punched in a fight.
A short while later, he hurt his back while lifting an air conditioning unit and started using painkillers.
Margaret Rappold said her son told her about his problem a month before his death, and she was able to get him into outpatient rehab.
"He was doing very well, until he slipped," she said.
Margaret Rappold said her son was very kind, and a local boy with special needs was hysterical when Nicholas Rappold died.
"He said Nicholas was the only one who would really talk to him and not make fun of him," Margaret Rappold recalled, getting emotional as she remembered the anecdote.
It hits her harder this time of year.
"Especially now around the holidays is when you really miss him the most," the mom said. "It's like every single day of your life you realize they're not going to come walking through that door and say 'Hi Mom,' and give you a hug and a kiss."