For seven months, a black polyester scarf wrapped around the door handle of a Las Vegas home offered a stark notice for outsiders to stay away, because “there is pain in that house.”
“When somebody like family, brother, sister, mother, child dies, and you see the scarf, you are not allowed to knock on that door,” said Mihaela Steyer, explaining a grieving tradition in her native Romania. “You’re not invited.”
The cause of her anguish is the loss of her 16-year-old son, Louis, whom she found dead from fentanyl intoxication on July 4 on the family’s L-shaped couch of their far north valley home.
Steyer says the death of their son has left her with nothing to look forward to. Often, she contemplates her own death.
“I cannot be strong anymore,” she said, adding that her only other child, Maria, was born dead 15 years ago.
The pain is so unbearable that she no longer smiles.
“I don’t know how to smile, all I know is to cry,” she said in a series of interviews with the Las Vegas Review-Journal over the past several months, stifling tears and apologizing profusely for crying.
“Before I had a reason to live,” she said. “Now, I don’t have a reason to live.”
Louis’ parents say the criminal justice system is compounding their sorrow. They say they want justice, but also feel hopeless.
Suspect released from jail
On July 7, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested a 20-year-old man who allegedly sold their son and a friend fentanyl-laced pills.
Police arrested Angelo Loza in their neighborhood after they found four fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills in his gold Audi, police said. Loza told officers that he had been dealing drugs for a couple of weeks, and that he had sold the teens pills earlier that week.
Loza was taken to the Clark County Detention Center on a drug possession charge, but he was released on his own recognizance, and he left without stepping foot in a jail cell, without any restrictions imposed on him, records show.
After Clark County prosecutors dropped the drug charge in October and tacked on counts of murder and second-degree murder, both in connection with Louis’ death, he was summoned to court, but not jailed, records show.
Louis’ parents attended a Dec. 2 hearing, expecting to face their son’s alleged killer, but only Loza’s attorney showed up, they said. Mihaela Steyer said the proceeding lasted about 10 seconds.
The Steyers insist that police, prosecutors and the court system have failed them, and turned their back on their pain. They said they have not received concrete answers on why the suspect is free at least until his March 29 preliminary hearing.
“They lie,” Mihaela Steyer said. “They lie to you, they lie to me, they lie to everybody to save their a—.”
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson told the Review-Journal that “this matter is still under investigation, and I have no further comment.”
Attorney Nicholas Wooldridge, who is representing Loza, declined to comment.
The case cycled through five judges, and is now in the hands of Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Suzan Baucum.
Her executive assistant, Ryan Creel, said that Baucum had reviewed questions related to the Steyers’ concerns, which she planned to address at the preliminary hearing.
In late June 2020, Loza was arrested on a felony count of assault with a deadly weapon after allegedly yelling at this mother that he was going to shoot her during a heated quarrel. He was later arrested on a Las Vegas overpass after police found him holding a rifle, according to a Metro arrest report. He was released with no bail, but his bail was revoked for unclear reasons three months later.
He was in custody until he pleaded no contest to a lesser charge on Dec. 10, 2020, for which he was given a suspended jail sentence and forced to forfeit his rifle and stay out of trouble.
Prosecutors allege that his pills killed Louis nearly seven months later.
The Steyers met with Wolfson and other prosecutors on Friday to discuss the case. They said Wolfson told them that he had recently become aware of the case.
In addressing their no-bail release concern, Wolfson laid the blame on a “quirk” in the system, mentioning that the July arrest report, though it mentioned Louis, did not say the teenager had died, the Steyers said he told them.
“I want to see him spend some serious time in jail, so he’s not out there doing this stuff to anyone else,” Tom Steyer said in an angry tone.
“I’m not doing very well because that was my only child,” Mihaela Steyer said, sobbing. “And I see the guy who killed my son, he spent Christmas, Thanksgiving, all the holidays free, and my son is two meters down the ground.”
A scream and a 911 call
The Steyers had planned to surprise their son with a steak dinner after they returned home from a trip celebrating their 17th anniversary. While Tom Steyer headed straight to the backyard to turn on the hot tub so the three could soak and watch Fourth of July fireworks, Mihaela walked upstairs to the living room, where she found her son.
A scream, a 911 call and attempts of CPR followed. But Tom Steyer, a former sheriff in Ohio, knew immediately they were hours too late.
He watched his wife struggle with paramedics as she was “begging” for them to do more.
“Give some electricity,” Mihaela Steyer recalled screaming, “Maybe something, a miracle happens.”
Mihaela Steyer, who described herself as overprotective of her son, also faults herself for his passing.
“I always blame myself. I killed my son,” she said. “If I hadn’t left my son, he would still be alive.”
Soon after the death, a welfare check requested by Tom Steyer, who was out of town for work, led police and an ambulance to their home. Mihaela was hauled off to a hospital in handcuffs because they were worried she would hurt herself, they said.
Louis parents met in Romania, where Mihaela was a prison captain with a law degree and Tom had gone to teach. Their son was born in Tiffin, Ohio, and his parents’ careers led them to live in Africa and India, where he learned multiple languages.
He was quite the storyteller, who always spoke about wanting to be a professional writer, they said. Neighborhood children followed him around.
The Steyers moved to Las Vegas six years ago. Louis attended Shadow Ridge High School, and had just been accepted into Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.
Visits to Barnes & Noble and reading were his favorite. He always kept a book on each side of his bed. He had written 10 booklets.
He and his mother were very close, and spoke often, even discussing topics about which they disagreed.
That he would consume drugs never entered his parents’ minds. His mother said she was too involved in his life to allow it. They did not even know what fentanyl was before he died.
The synthetic opioid, described as being many times stronger than morphine, is killing an increasing number of young Nevadans.
In 2021, 10 out of the 227 fentanyl-related deaths in Clark County were of children under 18, according to Metro stats. The total death rate exploded from 16 fentanyl-related fatal overdoses in 2015 to 219 in 2020. Methamphetamine is the only drug killing more locals.
“I’m a firm believer in deterrence,” Tom Steyer said. “If they start trying these people, I think people might realize, ‘hey, if we’re getting caught doing this here, I’m going to prison for 20, 25 years.’”
“I want other kids to learn: Don’t take any pills; that doesn’t make you happy,” she said. “Drugs destroy your life, your parents’ lives. Look at me, I’m destroyed for life. I will never have a life. I will never smile again.”
She said the Clark County coroner’s office recently contacted her to ask permission to share her son’s story.
‘I sleep here’
Romanian lore calls for the black cloth to remain at the family’s front door for a year, but the Steyers wanted nothing to do with the house, which they had planned on gifting to their son when he was grown.
Instead, they sold the house and donated most of their belongings by February.
A few possessions meant too much for the grieving mother to let them go.
The couch she found her son on, a pair of her son’s torn denim shorts, and a Chick-fil-A name tag bring both pain and comfort.
For months, when she was not working part time as a cocktail waitress, the mother would spend most of her hours on the tan-colored piece of furniture.
“On this couch, my son died,” she said, her voice quivering. “And because here he died, and he was here, I sleep here. That’s the reason I sleep on this couch, because here, he had his last breath.”
Although she is battling breast cancer, she deliberately lost weight to fit into her son’s shorts and the T-shirt he had worn the day before he died.
Tom Steyer pointed at the floor where he would sleep next to his wife.
Luggage and boxes held her son’s books. His bedroom was filled with “Bratz” dolls he would sell online for a profit. She received notifications of sale after he died. A portrait painted of a younger Louis in Pakistan was propped up among scattered boxes.
Mihaela Steyer said she will be moving back to Romania, only returning to Las Vegas for court hearings. Meanwhile, she was staying at an extended-stay hotel awaiting the preliminary hearing.
In February, the couple was off to Ohio, where Louis is buried in a family plot, to take the couch and the few possessions they kept. Mihaela Steyer said she donated all of her son’s books to a school there.
While there, they buried baby Maria’s remains next to Louis.
The mother laid a blanket on the tombstone and went to sleep.
It was then that she found a fleeting sense of peace.
“I was happy,” she said. “I wanted to feel at least the ground, to feel him besides me. To feel.”