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Westmoreland drug court graduate: 'It feels like I'm starting over'

Renatta Signorini
| Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, 3:21 p.m.
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Judge Christopher Feliciani speak to graduates of Drug Court during the graduation ceremony, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Judge Christopher Feliciani speak to graduates of Drug Court during the graduation ceremony, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Judge Christopher Feliciani speak to graduates of Drug Court during the graduation ceremony, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Judge Christopher Feliciani speak to graduates of Drug Court during the graduation ceremony, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Josh Rimmel (left), 36, listens as Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio talks about his journey of recovery, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Josh Rimmel (left), 36, listens as Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio talks about his journey of recovery, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Josh Rimmel, 36, receives a medal of completion from Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Josh Rimmel, 36, receives a medal of completion from Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Flanked by Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Judge Christopher Feliciani, Josh Rimmel, 36, thanks the court, and those who helped him along the way, as he talks about his journey of recovery, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Flanked by Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Judge Christopher Feliciani, Josh Rimmel, 36, thanks the court, and those who helped him along the way, as he talks about his journey of recovery, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Mike Hayden (left), is introduced by Judge Christopher Feliciani, during Drug Court graduation, at the WestmoreLAnd County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Mike Hayden (left), is introduced by Judge Christopher Feliciani, during Drug Court graduation, at the WestmoreLAnd County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Mike Hayden (left) listens as Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio talks about his journey of recovery, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Mike Hayden (left) listens as Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio talks about his journey of recovery, during Drug Court graduation, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017.

Josh Rimmel had been a defendant in Judge John Blahovec's courtroom countless times.

He listened to speeches about his behavior and was ordered to go to treatment.

None of it worked.

“I wasn't ready,” said Rimmel, 36.

But on Thursday, he was.

Blahovec hugged Rimmel as he graduated from Westmoreland County's intensive drug court treatment program with two years of sobriety under his belt. The retired senior judge said afterward that he's proud of Rimmel and that he doesn't always see a positive outcome when dealing with defendants who have an addiction problem.

“He needed to realize that he didn't need to live his life the way he was living,” Blahovec said. “It was really nice; very, very good to see. His future looks bright.”

Five others graduated from the program Thursday; a seventh who recently completed the requirements was unable to make the ceremony.

In all, 14 participants have finished the treatment court — the first two in June and five more in September.

The special court was initiated in 2015 as county officials struggled with a surging drug epidemic that has flooded courtrooms with cases and prisons with addicted inmates. In exchange for their participation, the defendants can get mitigated sentences. But first, they must go through a rigorous process that includes months of close supervision by probation officials and one of two judges, as well as attending regular therapy sessions, undergoing drug tests and keeping a diary.

“It is not easy to get to this point,” Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio said.

The program costs about $300,000 to operate annually and is funded through court costs paid by defendants, private donations and money from the county's budget. A probation officer will be added early next year, increasing the caseload split between two judges from 50 to about 60. The graduating participants' successes were celebrated Thursday.

Rimmel of Vandergrift jumped right in at the beginning and was determined to succeed.

“When Josh decided to come into this program, I think something clicked for him,” Bilik-DeFazio said. “He was 100 percent committed to changing his life, and he did.”

For graduate Mike Hayden, a 32-year-old from Crabtree, the program gave him confidence and his personality back. Judge Christopher Feliciani admitted that they butted heads at the start, but they've “developed a love-hate relationship with each other.”

Hayden agreed. He's been drug-free for about 20 months.

“It feels like I'm starting over, like I'm starting a new legacy,” Hayden said. “I feel like I'm my old self.”

The number of fatal drug overdoses in Westmoreland County has set record highs every year since 2009. The county recorded 174 fatal drug overdoses in 2016. Through Dec. 15, 158 overdose deaths have been recorded and an additional 25 are being investigated as such, according to the coroner's office.

“As a county, I think we need to stick with what works, and drug court works,” Bilik-DeFazio said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374, rsignorini@tribweb.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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