Family of local overdose victim expresses concern about delay in toxicology tests

ALLEGHENY CO., Pa. — The family of a 21-year-old woman who police suspect died from a drug overdose is motivated and speaking out on what they believe could be a matter of life and death.

Siena Bott died in September.

“She had a smile that could light up a room,” said Sherry Jo Matt, Bott’s mother. “She was beautiful on the inside and out. She would literally give the shirt of her back to anybody.”

Bott’s parents told Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle that she struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues for some time. They said she eventually fell in with the wrong crowd. They believed she had turned the corner when she moved back home last spring.

“She really wanted to make a change and it’s really true, one pill can kill,” Matt said.

On Sept. 14, the 21-year-old was found dead in the basement of her parent’s Franklin Park home. Police believe she died from drug overdose. Her parents, who were away at the time, believe it was a pill laced with fentanyl.

While they struggle with the devastating loss of their oldest child, they are upset that they may not get any real answers about her death for up to five months. They said the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office told them it would take two to five months for toxicology results to come back.

“We’re like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ She’s like, ‘No, it’s eight to 20 weeks.’ We’re like, ‘Why? What takes so long?’ She never said anything about COVID. What she said is that it’s political, it’s money, it’s staff,” Matt said.

What’s even more troubling to Siena Bott’s parents is that Allegheny County police told them there’s not much investigating that they can do until the test results come back.

Target 11 reached out to Allegheny County police on multiple occasions but never heard back.

“The real thing that’s driving us to speak out is the medical examiner told us that five to six fentanyl deaths happen a day in Allegheny County, and if you extrapolate that out for 20 weeks, that’s another 700 people who will die before we get our daughter’s toxicology report. That’s more deaths. That’s more drug dealers on the street. That’s more police officers work. It’s just ridiculous. What takes 20 weeks? It’s lost time,” said Matt, who argued this delay could be a matter of life and death.

The Allegheny County medical examiner, Dr. Karl Williams, sent us a statement explaining that 20 weeks is the exception.

"It all depends on the complexity of the individual case. If the tox (toxicology test) is negative, it comes back very quickly – obviously. If there are multiple drugs, including some that we cannot test but know are present, then those cases have to be sent out to a reference lab.

The office is also compromised by the mandated limited staffing due to COVID. A lot of the casework can be completed off-site – dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, but we are always more efficient full-staffed and in-house.

So yes, turnaround time is not what I desire, although I must say that 20 weeks is an outlier."

Former Allegheny County coroner, Dr. Cyril Wecht, still does autopsies for several counties in western Pennsylvania, including Westmoreland, where he has a medical office.

Wecht told Target 11 that he sends his toxicology tests to a lab in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, and he said it doesn’t take too long to get them back.

“Many of them come back within two weeks, but certainly within three weeks and never more than a month before we have the results back,” Wecht said.

He expressed surprise about the timetable in Allegheny County, especially since the county has a state-of-the-art lab in the Strip District.

“I can’t tell you why. Maybe they need more personnel. Maybe they need more equipment,” Wecht said.

“I’ve heard from families over the years where these have taken much longer than any family would expect,” Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said.

Wagner told Target 11 that the county purchased a special high-tech machine two years ago to do toxicology tests.

“My question would be if that is not the able to handle it, are we short of staff or what really is the holdup? I think it raises a lot of questions, but No. 1, there has to be fair and open communication,” Wagner said.

She suggested that the medical examiner’s office needs to fully explain the reason for the delay to family members. If the delays are COVID-19-related, Wagner said the medical examiner may be eligible for federal funding.

“If that department is not getting what it needs to be able to give these families, fair enough, timely answers then we need to understand why,” Wagner said.

As for Sherry Jo Matt and her husband, they just want to expedite the process, so no other family has to wait like they’ve had to.

“We’re not here to point fingers at the medical examiner’s office. This is really to try find (and) out what is the choke point? What can we do to help, you know? So this is really from our perspective we’re doing this in a positive light to try to, you know, fix whatever problem is going forward,” Tom Bott said.