When it is frigid and the wind is blowing hard, Kimmie Sallows forces herself to stand outside, brave the cold and finish a cigarette.
She tries to feel what her son, Michael Reynolds, felt in his last moments of life a year ago today, Jan. 23, one of the coldest days of 2011, as he lay in the backyard of a Plum home and froze to death after an apparent drug overdose. She thinks about the unanswered questions she has, the conflicting stories she’s heard about what happened, the feeling that someone knows something more.
“I just keep thinking I can stand here 15 minutes 'cause he was out there for hours,” Sallows said. “It makes me so sad knowing the cold is a death card.”
She said one Allegheny County detective even told her, had it been summertime, the outcome might have been different.
There are the facts, detailed in reports from Plum police and the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office—and a letter to attorney Timothy Kidd from Nationwide Insurance rejecting the estate’s attempt to hold the property owner liable in the death. Not all those accounts add up on paper, fueling Sallows’ quest to find answers.
Plum police Chief Frank Monaco, whose career includes solving many cold cases during his service with the Pennsylvania State Police, said that despite conflicting information, the bottom line is that officers found one set of tracks in the snow that wound down toward the woods behind a home in the 7800 block of Saltsburg Road, then back up to where Reynolds’ body was found. And there’s the coroner’s report that confirms that Reynolds died of poisoning from a combination of alcohol, cocaine and oxycodone, with hypothermia contributing to his death.
But in recent weeks, Sallows has heard other stories from friends of her son that conflict with the police and insurance reports about how he ended up outside on a day with 5 inches of snow—and temperatures hovering at about zero to 11 degrees—clad in only a T-shirt, jeans and bedroom slippers. She questions why he didn’t have on his jacket or shoes if he had gone outside.
The last communication Sallows had with her son was after 11 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, when she had seen a report of an accident with injuries in Plum Borough on the television news.
Even though Reynolds was 24 years old, Sallows worried, as mothers will, and texted him to make sure he was OK. He texted back at 11:18 p.m.: “Not me. Still at (friend’s name withheld).”
“He always kept me posted where he was at,” she said.
When Sallows got up for work the next morning, her son hadn’t been home and she was “a little shocked,” especially after she learned he also didn’t report to work at Puff Tobacco on Saltsburg Road. She sent another text: “You didn’t show up for work. Your partying has to stop.”
She took Reynolds’ younger brother, Scoot, shopping as she had promised, and when they stopped for lunch at KFC about 1 or 1:30 p.m., it hit her.
“We’ve got to go,” she told Scoot. “Something’s really wrong with your brother.”
Sallows, who works as a waitress at John Anthony’s restaurant in Plum, tried calling the neighbor’s house where Reynolds’ body was eventually found—because he’d sometimes hang out with his friend who lived there—but got no answer. Though nothing looked amiss there, in hindsight, she said she wished she’d checked their backyard before leaving for work.
Just after halftime of the Steelers’ game that day, she got a call from her younger son that police were “everywhere.”
“I didn’t do anything,” he told her. “It’s Michael.”
As best as she can piece together the events, Reynolds had been drinking bourbon and beer, and consumed cocaine. He and his neighbor split an Opana, which they crushed and snorted, then Reynolds took a whole pill himself, according to the Plum police report. He had been at a party in the Oakmont area before arriving at the house across the street from his Saltsburg Road home.
A video tape police secured on a tip from Sallows places Reynolds at the Oakmont service plaza along the Pennsylvania Turnpike at about 5 a.m. The footage shows a car pulling up, three men getting out and Reynolds using an ATM. According to Sallows’ account, derived from a conversation with an employee, he went to the restroom and purchased a Red Bull.
His last call, according to cell phone records, was at 5:01 a.m.—to the friend who lived across the street, where his body was found.
The friend told police that there was a party, and Reynolds had passed out and become unresponsive. According to the police report, the friend dragged Reynolds to his vehicle to take him to a hospital but, en route, Reynolds became conscious and told the friend he didn’t want to go home, so they returned to the driveway of the friend’s house.
The friend told police that he, himself, passed out in the car.
Reynolds’ estate sought damages under an insurance policy held by the friend’s family. A letter to Kidd, the attorney representing Sallows, reports on the insurance investigation, which found the residents of the house not liable for Reynolds’ death.
But it raises some questions when compared to the police report—questions Sallows wants answered.
A male resident of the neighboring house told Plum police that he had found Reynolds’ 22-year-old friend passed out on the porch at 11:30 a.m. However, in the insurance report, the friend’s mother stated she had found her son in the car with the engine running and heat on when she took the dog out at 9:30 a.m. She told the insurance investigator that she turned off the engine and put a blanket on her son because she couldn’t move him—and that a friend came over “later in the afternoon and was able to help (the son) into the house.”
The son told police he woke up in the house and was sick that afternoon. He said he looked for Reynolds, who apparently exited the car into the bitter cold, but was unable to locate him.
But friends of Reynolds have approached Sallows in recent weeks with another story. According to their accounts, Reynolds overdosed in the neighbor’s home, was dragged down the cellar steps and out a back door.
Though he could not speak specifically to Reynolds’ case, Allegheny County Police Assistant Superintendent Jim Morton said it is not uncommon for people who die of drug overdoses to be removed from a home or even dumped along a road by associates. Though county homicide detectives investigated the case, they did not turn up any evidence that would result in prosecution for Reynolds’ death.
The medical examiner’s autopsy report indicates multiple abrasions on Reynolds’ forehead, eyebrow, eyelid, both elbows, forearm and lumbar areas. Sallows can’t help wonder if that backs up the story she is hearing from her son’s friends—or if perhaps there was a fight at sometime during the evening.
There are many more things she has questions about because, in her mind, they don’t add up. She worries, because his death was drug-related, that any discrepancies weren’t investigated as thoroughly as they might have been if he had died of other causes.
“His name is Michael Reynolds, not Michael Statistic,” Sallows said, her eyes steeling with determination.
A 2005 Plum High School graduate, Reynolds was a talented artist who studied at Oakbridge Academy of Arts in Lower Burrell. He specialized in black-and-white portraits, many of which hang on the walls of Sallows’ home.
She admits that he was a hard drinker and sometimes wondered if cocaine use is why he could stay up and “paint, paint, paint, paint, paint.” But he was getting his life together, she said, cutting lawns, working at the store and selling portraits.
Sallows is grateful to her son’s friends, who have kept her going. They leave tributes at Reynolds’ grave in Plum Creek Cemetery—cigarette lighters and bottles of beer, which she opens and pours for him. They have been there for the annual picnics the family had on Memorial and Labor days, for Christmas eve, at the birthday party to celebrate her 50th birthday and what would have been his 25th.
Reynolds was to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding last year. That friend asked Reynolds’ younger brother to serve in his place.
Today, Jan. 23, marks one year since Sallows’ life changed forever. She won’t rest until she feels all the questions have been answered.
“If this whole thing was an accident, just tell me what happened,” Sallows said. “All I want is the truth.”
Until then, she will continue to smoke in the cold. Imagine how her son felt in his last minutes. Hurt. And wait.
Do you have information about this case? Call Allegheny County homicide detectives at 412-473-1300.