This is the second of a two-part story. Part One.
One afternoon in February 2009, when Mario Marra was supposed to take his boys to a WWE wrestling event in New York City, he began to complain of chest pains.
“He said he felt like he was having a heart attack, and then he felt better, but I said, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s no way you’re driving,” recalled his wife, Claudia, who was by then well aware of her husband’s addiction to opioid pain medications.
Claudia, who now makes her home in Glen Cove, took the boys from the family’s South Shore home to the city, and at about 8:30 p.m., she called home to check on her husband. There was no answer. “Something didn’t feel right,” she said.
Racing home with the boys, Claudia passed an accident on the way. A car that looked “just like Mario’s” was wrapped around a tree, surrounded by police. Still, Claudia said, she refused to believe that it was her husband, and drove on.
“There’s no way that’s your father,” she told the boys, as the blue lights receded into the dark behind them.
At home, she found Mario’s wallet and cell phone on the floor, which was “not like him,” she said.
Mario had already been rushed to the hospital when Claudia arrived back at the accident scene, and a police officer took her aside. “The cop told me that he was on a lot of medicine — that you could tell, based on what witnesses said — and that he needed help,” she said.
Mario was charged with driving under the influence, and was hospitalized for four days in order to detoxify, she said. A nurse at the hospital, whose son had died of a drug overdose, pushed for the detox, according to Claudia, and Mario was eventually discharged with a prescription for Advil.
Claudia went to the office of the doctor who had been prescribing her husband pain medication, this time, she said, determined to stop Mario’s flow of drugs for good. That doctor — Michael Belfiore, whose office is in Merrick — is facing a fall trial on federal charges of overprescribing opioids to patients.
Belfiore, who last month had the charges against him dismissed on a technicality, is back in the spotlight after being reindicted and implicated in the overdose deaths of two male patients from East Rockaway and Baldwin.
Claudia recalled telling Belfiore, “Listen, Mario got into a really bad car accident, and he almost killed himself.” She said she insisted that the doctor stop prescribing her husband pain pills.
“I’m letting you know that something’s going to happen — that he’s going to die,” she remembered saying. Belfiore, she said, shook her hand, gave her a pain management card and promised to treat her husband “like a kindergartner from then on.”
Two days later, she said, Mario was back at Belfiore’s office, without an appointment. Belfiore wrote him a prescription for 10 fentanyl patches — “probably just to shut him up,” she guessed.
After finding the box of patches on the front seat of Mario’s car, and quickly disposing of them, Claudia told her husband that she was going to leave him. “You’re never going to see the kids again unless you go into rehab,” she said. Mario agreed to get off prescription drugs, and the two made an appointment for him to check into a residential rehab center in Oceanside the following Monday.
That weekend, the family drove upstate for some quality time, at the invitation of Mario’s brother. On Sunday, Mario was dead of a drug overdose.
Picking up the pieces
Claudia didn’t tell her sons, now 16 and 15, the whole truth about Mario’s 2009 death until 2016, she said. “I wanted them to still feel that their dad was their hero, because they loved him, and he was so good with them,” she said.
When a family friend suffered a heroin overdose last year, Claudia decided to tell her boys the truth. Her youngest seems to have dealt with it well, but remains “very private about it,” she said, while the older boy had a tougher time. “He was so upset … He had no idea,” Claudia said. “He knew there was something going on with medicine, and he remembers us fighting about medicine, but he never knew what it was.”
“Ever since then,” she added, “he can’t understand why his father chose drugs over having a life with them.”
Both sides of the family have come together to support one another in the years since Mario’s death, according to Claudia. The family barbecues together on Father’s Day, and Claudia has been seeing “a great person” who now lives with them.
“He’s amazing,” she said. “The kids adore him. Again, he’s not their father, but he’s kind of a father figure to them.”
If any good came from Mario’s death, Claudia said, it’s that their sons — now “amazing scholars and amazing athletes” — are “petrified” of drugs, and probably will never touch them.
Her oldest son, Claudia said, after hearing the truth about his father, wants to attend law school in the future in the hope of prosecuting doctors who overprescribe opioids. “He wants to go after the doctors,” she said, “so if a good thing comes out of it, that would be it.”
Belfiore remembered Mario Marra’s name, he said, only after he became aware of Claudia speaking out about her husband’s death online. “I don’t recall … It was just so long ago,” Belfiore said when asked last week about numerous details in Claudia’s story.
He said he didn’t remember Claudia coming to his office with concerns about her husband, and that he never promised to treat him like a kindergartner, as she contended.
“I would never say that to anybody,” Belfiore said.
Also, Belfiore said he didn’t recall Mario coming to him without an appointment, but he did concede that he might have prescribed him fentanyl, as medical records indicate. This was before fentanyl was “a buzzword,” he said.
Physicians are only required to keep treatment records for six years after they see a patient, according to Thomas Liotti, Belfiore’s attorney. Claudia, however, “had all the time in the world” to act if she knew about problems with her husband, Belfiore said, also asking why she didn’t check Mario into rehab sooner.
Belfiore added that Claudia has “bashed” him on the internet, including in negative Yelp reviews, and said, in his defense, that in 2009, pain management was treated “basically the same” as blood pressure or diabetes management by doctors.
“The patient shows up every month and what do you say?” he said. “You write prescriptions. They said they were in pain, so yeah, I gave them medication for pain.”
“What people don’t understand is that these medications are dangerous if not taken as directed,” Belfiore added. “But I don’t live with these people ... Nobody ever says they’re going to go home and take them all tonight. If he was responsible with the medication, and took it as directed, he’d still be here.”
Liotti, who is defending Belfiore in court by going after pharmaceutical companies for marketing that he claims convinced doctors for years that they could prescribe opioids without significant risk of addiction for their patients, accused Claudia and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Gatz of resurrecting incidents from the past to hurt Belfiore’s case.
“They’re basically trying to prejudice everyone by … dredging up whatever they have to throw some gasoline on the fire,” Liotti said.
As of Tuesday, court records did not indicate that prosecutors would use Mario’s death as evidence, or Claudia as a witness, and Gatz could not be reached for comment by press time.
Claudia said last week that she did hire a lawyer after Mario’s death, with the intention of taking Belfiore to court. However, she said, she was advised that she would need a doctor as an expert witness to testify against Belfiore, and that it would be difficult to pit “doctor against doctor” in court. Also, she said, she was afraid that her husband would simply be painted as a drug addict. Eventually she dropped the effort.
“I said, ‘You know what, let me take it back, and let me just deal with it,’” she said. “I was working full-time as a teacher, and I was raising two boys. I was a mess, and I just wanted to get through the day, so I kind of took that back. I regret it.”