Mushroom Cloud

Dan Bucci was shot to death by police. But that's not what really killed him.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped Cedar Lee Theatre
The video begins with a still shot of a sidewalk, taken from the dashboard camera of a police cruiser. In eerie silence, the car shifts into drive, plunging into the lamplit street. When the audio cuts in, the radio is playing "Karma Chameleon."

. . . Every day is like survival . . .

"Which way is he running, north or south?" asks a voice, through the static of police dispatch.

"Caller states he was heading toward Marnell," comes the answer.

The cruiser blows through a stop sign. Then it happens.

In the black void ahead, a form takes shape. As the cruiser slows down, the outline becomes clear: a young man, athletic and naked. He's sprinting toward the car at full tilt, like a caveman charging his prey. He's closing fast. The glare of the headlights reveals that he's smeared with blood. He leaps onto the hood of the car, hurdles the roof, and disappears from view.

There's the sound of glass shattering, as the young man punches through the driver's-side window of a second cruiser. Then comes the unmistakable crack of gunfire.

"Shots fired," the radio reports. "Subject down."

The young man's voice is utter anguish.

"Let me die," he moans.

"Juvenile?" someone asks.

"We have no idea at this time."

His name is Dan Bucci. Two weeks before, he celebrated his graduation from high school. One week before, he turned 19. Tonight, he twists in a pool of his own blood.

Dan Bucci could hardly wait to be born. The delivery of his older sister, Melissa, was long and painful. But Dan's birth on July 22, 1984, was a sprint. "Danny came out fast," says his father, Fred Bucci, "and he never stopped running."

As a boy, his family called him "Crazy Legs," because he tore around the house like a dog on fire. His father sometimes stopped him to ask, "Danny, what are you doing?" and he'd pause just long enough to say, "I dunno," then -- zoooom! -- he was off to the races again

When he hurt himself, which was often, Dan would ask his mom, Lauri, for a Band-Aid. He thought Band-Aids could cure anything. If he had a headache, he'd wear a Band-Aid on his forehead.

He inherited his father's intensity. Fred, a taut drill sergeant of a man, was once among the worst drug addicts in Mayfield Heights. By age 13, he'd overdosed on pills for the first time. By 18, he was facing a seven-year bid for forging prescriptions.

A chaplain convinced him he could start anew. He accepted Christ and was born again.

Life was different after that. The judge showed mercy and gave Fred probation. He married Lauri, a pretty, spiky-haired woman he'd met at church. Although quieter than he, she was no less passionate. Fred poured his energy into his heating-and-cooling business, which provided a comfortable childhood for their two children. The family lived on a suburban street in Mayfield Heights, in the biggest house on the block.

In 1989, Fred and his close friend, Armand Tiffe Jr., founded Cornerstone Community Church, an evangelical ministry. This was Fred's way of sharing the message that turned his life around.

Fred's company sponsored a baseball team, and it was there that Dan met his best friend, Joe Rosenbaum. Joe was a scruffy, skinny kid, frequently at odds with his parents. The Buccis welcomed him as one of their own.

From then on, the boys were like brothers. They were both thoughtful but headstrong kids. They rarely fought, but when they did, it was a blowout. Inevitably, they'd drift back together, apologies unspoken.

They were bound by a mutual distaste for authority. In church, they ignored the sermon, scribbling jokes and cartoons on the envelopes meant for tithing. On weekends, they explored Dan's neighborhood on their bikes. "All our lives, me and Dan were trying to be adults," Joe says.

Their childhoods ended one summer after Joe got into a fight with his parents. They asked the Buccis to put him up for the night. But when Dan heard, he was less than enthusiastic. "I kind of had something planned tonight," he said.

He didn't want to say what it was, but Joe wouldn't let the subject alone. Eventually, Dan confessed that he and another boy were going to try LSD.

Joe wanted to try too. Dan said no; he sheltered his friends from his bad habits. But after an hour of nagging, Dan agreed, on one condition: It would be the first and last time. Joe promised.

That night, they pitched a tent in Dan's backyard, stocking it with a CD player, a black light, and packs of Newports. A third friend, Frank, gave them each half a tab, telling them it was a full hit. It tasted bitter.

Forty-five minutes later, the acid took effect.

Suddenly, the world looked entirely different. It was as much spiritual as visual. Life isn't about pleasing people, Joe realized. It's about being who you are.

They spent the rest of the night joking around and playing pranks on each other. At daybreak, they walked up the street to buy orange juice to enhance their high.

On the walk home, Joe reflected on the past eight hours: There was no turning back. No way he wasn't going to do this again.

Within weeks of their maiden voyage, they were tripping again. For six months, the next tab was no more than a phone call away. When acid dried up, the boys sought new highs. They were particularly enamored of Robotripping -- guzzling Robitussin to space out. Before long, they were doing it three times a week.

By the time he was 16, Dan was clearly out of control. One day, Dan was huffing Office Duster -- compressed air used to clean computer keyboards -- when he passed out behind the wheel of his car and plowed through an unoccupied bus stop.

When Fred found out, he warned his son about his own experiences with drugs, about overdosing, almost dying, narrowly dodging prison. Turning to the book of Romans, he reminded Dan what it said about the sins of the flesh. But the boy wouldn't listen.

"How will I know if I don't find out for myself?" he said.

"You don't need to eat rat poison to know it's bad for you," his father answered.

By then, Dan looked like every rebellious kid. His sharp, angular face was topped with an unruly mop, dirty blond, except when he dyed it fire-engine red. His jeans were more like dresses. He put a hole in his ear big enough to pass a Sharpie through -- a trick he never tired of demonstrating.

But contrary to appearances, Dan was exceedingly polite. Friends noticed how respectful he was, always saying "Please" or "Thank you," complimenting their moms for delicious dinners.

It wasn't just courtesy that made Dan so appealing. He had a way of making ordinary life fun. He was forever tinkering, trying to make things better. He once rewired his room so that he could turn on his lights, TV, and stereo at the flick of a switch.

His father looked on in wonder. "Nobody ever taught him that," he says. "He figured it out himself."

Ever curious, Dan plunged headlong into danger. For the Fourth of July one year, he enlisted his friend Christian Klein -- a smart, well-mannered kid from church -- to make homemade fireworks. As they scraped phosphorus from a model-rocket engine, the friction ignited the fuel.

"All of a sudden, there's a flash," Christian says. "My hand's on fire! I'm hitting it on the ground to put out the flames. It's chaos."

Christian escaped with only minor burns. The lesson was apparently lost on Dan, who called a week later with another idea. "He said we could use a sledgehammer to try to break the rocket engine apart," Christian says with a bemused chuckle.

Among his friends, Dan's reputation achieved mythic proportions. "A lot of people thought of him as Dan Bucci the Unstoppable," says Armand Tiffe III, the son of the man who founded the church with Dan's father. "He thought he had this reputation: 'I'm not going to sissy out now.'"

That attitude also applied to getting high. He once told Armand, "I wanna do every drug in existence. I want to try everything and experience it all."

He found common cause on an Internet Relay Chat channel devoted to drugs, where he signed on under the screen name "Override." Anonymous kids were sharing tips for better living through chemistry. "It was like a whole underworld to me," says Joe.

One day early in 2003, Melissa, Dan's sister, went down to the basement and found him hunched over pharmaceutical equipment. He was using a scale to measure small quantities of powdered DXM -- the active ingredient in cough syrup -- which he was stuffing into empty gelatin capsules.

"Are you gonna start selling drugs?" she asked.

"No, I'm just interested," Dan said.

"Just be careful," she warned.

She wasn't the only one who was worried; Joe had concerns too. By then, he had tempered his own consumption, after overdosing on Robitussin and spending a horrific night in the hospital, fighting for his life. It hadn't slowed Dan down; he was taking painkillers practically every day.

He was trying to mend a broken heart. Dan had recently discovered his girlfriend was cheating on him. Prone to dramatic gestures, Dan handed her a knife to symbolize how deeply she had wounded him.

Joe listened as Dan recounted the story one night when he was trashed, lying on a trampoline in his backyard and staring at the stars through glassy eyes. It was one of the few times Joe saw Dan cry.

In mid-July 2003, Dan was prowling the IRC, looking to score acid. He struck up a conversation with a guy called "Intrauma," who said he might be able to hook Dan up. Dan had recently totaled his car, so Joe drove him to the Rhythm Room, a low-rent East Side club where Intrauma was DJing. "I don't have anything tonight," the man told them. "Talk to me later."

Two weeks passed, and Intrauma called with good news: He couldn't get acid, but he knew a guy who was looking to unload psychedelic mushrooms. Intrauma gave Dan the number for Matt Palinkas. Dan arranged to have the 'shrooms delivered that night.

He invited half a dozen friends over to his house. They ordered pizza from Domino's and settled into the basement rec room to watch Donnie Darko, while Dan awaited the call from Palinkas.

The phone rang at 11 p.m.; Palinkas was waiting outside. Dan and his friend Jennifer each bought an eighth. Back inside, Dan showed off his score.

"Melissa, look," he said to his sister, dangling the sandwich bag of dried brown fungus.

"You've got pretty big balls to do that in this house," she said.

Dan logged onto the chat room for advice on how to consume the 'shrooms, which smelled like manure. Someone suggested grinding them into a chocolate milkshake. Another told him to man up and eat the damn things.

Dan scarfed down the whole bag. He surfed -- a drug information website -- to read up on the drug's effects. At 11:45 p.m., he logged back into the chat room to report his progress.

"Oh yeah," he typed. "I'm coming up."

Soon after, the trip started to go bad. "I think something's wrong," Dan told his friends. "My eye hurts." They turned on the lights and checked him out. His pupils were like saucers, his left eye clouded with blood.

Dan gradually grew more distressed. He felt uncomfortable having so many people around. Claiming that his dad wanted them out, Dan sent them packing. But their departure didn't improve his trip. "Can we go for a walk?" he asked Joe.

The two wandered the same streets they'd biked as boys. As if by magic, a mallard waddled into a neighbor's yard. Dan thought he was hallucinating, but Joe saw it too.

On the way home, it began to feel like the old days, when drugs were a consciousness-expanding sacrament, rather than an everyday habit. Dan's spirits had brightened considerably. He told Joe that the first thing he wanted to do in the morning was kiss his mom and dad.

Home at last, Dan sprawled out on the couch in the rec room. "You have no idea how good I feel," he said, his eyes closed, a wide grin on his face. Joe asked whether he was going to sleep, and he said yes. After setting the alarm -- he had to work at Home Depot in the morning -- Joe passed out on the futon in Dan's room.

By 2:21 a.m., when Dan signed back into the drug chat room as Override, his mood had radically changed.

"Fuck this," he typed. "I hate this world. I'm going to kill myself. Look for me in the news tomorrow."

"Really, Override?" someone asked.

"Pull a ripper then, Override," someone else wrote, referring to the practice of killing yourself on a web camera.

"You think I'm joking," Dan wrote. "Everybody look for it in the news tomorrow. Search your hardest."

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA," someone interrupted.

"I live in Ohio," Dan continued.

"Mayfield Heights.

"My name is Dan Bucci.

"I am going outside to kill myself.

"With my knife."

Outside, Dan went about the grim business of slicing himself to pieces. He stabbed his left and right pectoral muscles. He stabbed his abdomen three times. He slashed his neck and forearms. He kept cutting till he was a bloody mess.

Then he began shattering his neighbors' picture windows. "Call the cops!" he yelled.

By the time police arrived, Dan had stripped off his clothes. He charged the first cruiser and hurdled it. He ran to the driver's-side door of the squad car behind it.

Sergeant Kelli Fiorman looked out her window to see a naked man, covered in blood, flailing his arms and screaming like a savage.

Get back, she warned.

Dan shattered her window and thrust his knife toward her.

She drew her revolver and fired two shots.

The crazed attacker fell from view. She backed across the seat and through the passenger door.

"Shots fired," she radioed. "Subject down."

Fiorman circled the car and found Dan squirming in his own blood. She kept her firearm trained on him, as another officer aimed a taser.

"Sarge, are you OK?" an officer asked.

"I'll be OK," she said. "That was the scariest fuckin' thing I've ever seen."

When EMS arrived, paramedics draped a blanket over Dan, strapped him to a backboard, and loaded him into an ambulance bound for Hillcrest Hospital.

Meanwhile, police retraced Dan's steps. They found blood droplets leading down the street and onto the sidewalk, where they found Dan's socks and black shorts. The trail led to the intersection, down another street, into the Buccis' driveway.

At 5:20 a.m., Fred Bucci was awakened by a loud knock. It was the police. Officers told him they believed his son had been involved in a police shooting. They showed him a Polaroid of Dan, intubated and in intensive care. He was at the hospital, fighting for his life.

At Hillcrest, the Buccis found Dan on life-support. Word of what happened spread, and before long, more than 100 friends and church members flooded the hospital. They held prayer vigils in the waiting room.

But it was all for naught. A neurologist determined that Dan was brain-dead. The Buccis agreed to terminate life-support. At 1:28 a.m. on August 1, Fred prayed over his dying son as Dan quietly slipped into eternity.

In the days after his death, the video of Dan running bloody and naked through the streets was all over TV. One station even used it to promote its nightly news, until people from Cornerstone Church shamed it into pulling the clip.

Cuyahoga County Assisting Prosecuting Attorney Kestra Smith reviewed dashboard videos, police statements, and witness accounts before concluding that the shooting was justified.

Even as their own actions were scrutinized, police investigated the events that led up to the shooting. Within days, detectives learned that Dan had purchased psychedelic mushrooms from Palinkas.

On August 5, the cops raided his home. They were greeted by his grandmother, who refused to let them in. Officers escorted her upstairs, while others went down to the basement to arrest Palinkas, who was asleep in his bed. He awoke to see guns pointing in his face.

At the station, he provided a written statement. He claimed to have bought the mushrooms from a kid he had met, whose name he didn't know. But they smelled bad, so he decided to sell them to Dan.

"I am very sorry that this has happened," wrote Palinkas. "It's horrible that someone is dead because of these drugs."

Palinkas was jailed, his bail set at $100,000. Prosecutors charged him with two counts of drug trafficking and one count of drug possession.

Facing up to 11 years, Palinkas pleaded no contest. At his sentencing in April, he was invited to speak. He briefly babbled about being oppressed by "politicians and bureaucrats" before regaining his composure and saying, "I respectfully decline to make a statement."

Judge Michael J. Russo sentenced Palinkas to 30 days in jail and two years' probation, admonishing him to "get a job and get out of your parents' basement." Palinkas is appealing the verdict.

In explaining the relatively lenient sentence, Russo said there simply wasn't enough proof that the mushrooms had directly led to Bucci's death. Dan bled out at the hospital, and the many blood transfusions he received cleansed any traces of drugs from his system.

As time went by, his friends began to speculate that the 'shrooms he ingested were tainted. "I believe it was laced with PCP, because no one's ever acted like that off mushrooms," Joe says.

Indeed, Dan's rampage bears all the hallmarks of phencyclidine. While psychedelic mushrooms tend to produce a mellow high and a childlike sense of euphoria, PCP is known to make users aggressive, endow them with seemingly superhuman strength, and trigger suicidal thoughts. It would also explain why Dan was running around naked; PCP is sometimes called "Buck Naked" because users often shed their clothes when the drug raises their body temperature.

Experts say that 'shrooms are seldom what they're advertised to be. "Only one-third of 'magic mushrooms' bought on the street contain psilocybin," the active ingredient that produces hallucinations, according to eMedicine, a reputable online health site. "Many are simply store-bought mushrooms laced with PCP."

Yet the full story of what happened to Dan that night may never be clear. Palinkas told police, "If there was something wrong with these drugs, I had no way to know." And Jennifer, the girl who bought an eighth with Dan, flushed hers down the toilet a month after his death.

Dan's headstone in Knollwood Cemetery is a gleaming black monolith visible from the street. Next to his grave is the plot that will be his father's. "I'm in the middle," Fred explains, Lauri standing by his side, "because she wanted me to grab my son's hand on the way up."

That isn't the only memorial to Dan's life. Fred left his son's cell-phone account active, the outgoing message intact.

"You've reached Dan's cell phone," says the voice from the grave. "I'm at work right now, so leave me a message and I'll call you back. Or you can try calling me after five o'clock. 'Bye."

Dan's friends still call sometimes, to remind themselves of the sound of his voice. Last month, on the second anniversary of his death, two kids left messages. One was from a girl, who said, "I love you, Mr. Bucci." The other was left by a boy.

"I really miss you, Dan," he said. "I really miss you."

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