Janice Matthews, left, holds a picture of her son Austin Sternberg. (Sam Newhouse)1/2 Janice Matthews, left, holds a picture of her son Austin Sternberg. (Sam Newhouse)
Austin Sternberg in a 2015 Facebook photo.|Provided2/2 Austin Sternberg in a 2015 Facebook photo.|Provided
Janice Matthews vividly recalled the afternoon phone call from the medical examiner’s office a little more than a year ago that left her momentarily stunned.
“At 12:56 p.m. on Jan. 28, I got a call from the medical examiner’s office asking me if I had a son,” she testified Friday in court. “I couldn’t put it together at first. Then she said he’s died.”
Her son, Austin Sternberg, died Jan. 27, 2016, at age 39 after using fentanyl-laced heroin. He was found dead in his apartment when friends came to check on him after he didn't show up at work.
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At the conclusion of the court hearing, Antonio Moreno, 27, who sold the heroin to Sternberg was sentenced to 16 1/2 to 30 years in prison.
Moreno apologized at the sentencing and claimed he didn’t know he was selling heroin laced with fentanyl, an opioid that has been blamed for a surge in fatal overdoses in Philadelphia and across the country.
That didn’t stop Judge Rayford Means from handing down the maximum consecutive sentence on charges of possession with intent to distribute and violations of probation for previous arrests.
Friends and family of Sternberg gave emotional testimony about the impact of his death at the sentencing.
After his funeral services, Matthews started putting together a timeline of her son’s last days. She took pictures of baggies in his apartment with a red smiley face stamped on them and found his last text message to an unknown number, asking, “Can I get two?”
She provided that phone number to the Philadelphia Police Department. An undercover police officer testified at the hearing that he called the number and Moreno answered, later agreeing to sell him heroin in baggies stamped with that same red smiley face on Aramingo Avenue near Somerset Street in Port Richmond. After they arrested Moreno, those bags tested positive for fentanyl, the officer testified.
“This case is so unusual because it never happens like this — the phones, the packets match up,” the judge observed during the hearing. “I have never had a case like this in my life where the dots are connected ...The evidence is overwhelming. This should have been a homicide."
Friends and family recalled Sternberg as a work-out enthusiast, animal lover and kind person. The George Washington High School graduate also spent some time at Archbishop Ryan High School. He later graduated from La Salle University and pursued work in accounting, his family said, while battling addictions.
Moreno’s family was in attendance too, including his children, who wept after hearing their father's sentence.
His friend Xander Rodriguez pleaded for leniency, telling the judge: “He didn’t like doing what he did. He did it for his kids. He didn’t know that was in there. He didn’t pack it himself. He never forced nobody to buy that drug or to take it.”
Moreno's sentence includesa re-sentenceon twoprevious cases for which he had received probation. That includes a 2010 case in which he was arrested after a shoot-out in front of his house in Kensington. He was convicted of possession with intent to distribute after police found 246 bags of crack cocaine and 46 jars of PCP inside his home, along with a bulletproof vest and multiple rounds of ammunition.
Sternberg's death was one of the more than 900 deaths by overdosereported in Philadelphia in 2016,almost triple the number of homicides that year.
Matthews said she felt her son gotjustice after the sentencing.
"The judge gave him the most he could," she said. "Hopefully [Moreno]comes out a better man, rehabilitated, who won't hurt anybody anymore."