Robbery suspect's sister says addiction drove crime spree
The nausea hits Janet Chotia without warning. So do the headaches, the clammy skin, the pain, the overwhelming grief.
But these feelings are not her own.
Across town, inside the Salt Lake County jail, Chotia's identical twin sister is suffering.
She knows this, Chotia said, because she can feel it. She has always felt her twin's pain.
In the weeks since Sandra Chotia-Thompson's arrest, Janet Chotia said her identical twin has endured withdrawal from heroin and methamphetamine, and despair over the death of her girlfriend and purported partner in crime Kelly Fay Simons.
Simons, 38, was shot and killed by officers in a Jan. 9 confrontation with the Joint Criminal Apprehension Team (JCAT).
Chotia-Thompson, 40, turned herself in after Simons was killed. She was charged with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison. The pair is suspected in as many as nine robberies going back to mid-December.
But Janet Chotia said the woman who is accused of brandishing a handgun just hours before turning herself into police is a shadow of the person she calls "sister."
Chotia-Thompson was arraigned Wednesday in 3rd District Court. She stood in shackles before Judge Robin Reese clenching her left forearm with her right hand. Her hair was unkempt. Deep circles darkened her brown eyes.
"We want her to get the help she needs," Janet Chotia said. "Maybe this is the only way. Maybe jail is more fortunate than an overdose."
For a long time, the sister said, it seemed an overdose was the only possible end to Chotia-Thompson's tale.
The divorced mother of two had struggled with mental illness and physical pain for years. She ruptured a disk in her back when she was in her 20s. After the birth of her daughter, now 11, Chotia-Thompson suffered postpartum and manic depression.
She was medicated. Heavily.
After the divorce, Chotia-Thompson had no health insurance, her sister said. She couldn't afford her prescriptions. So, she began using street drugs to self-medicate.
"When she turned to drugs, it seemed to me that she was committing a passive suicide," Janet Chotia said. "She knew very well that she might never get out of what she was getting herself into. It was a cry for help."
At first, family members tried to intervene. They pleaded with Chotia-Thompson to undergo treatment, offered to take her to counseling.
What do you do, Janet Chotia asked, when someone you love refuses to accept help?
"You get to a point where you have to cut them off and let them hit rock bottom," she said. "The scary thing is you don't know how low bottom is going to be."
On Jan. 9, she learned.
That Wednesday evening, Chotia-Thompson walked into The Grocery Store at 400 E. 1224 South, pulled a handgun from under her hooded coat and demanded all of the money in the cash register, according to court documents. As an employee opened the register, the document states, Chotia-Thompson grabbed the cash, shoved it into her coat pocket and ran.
Just hours earlier, police had gunned down Simons, Chotia-Thompson's alleged partner in crime and romance.
Chotia said her sister and Simons had known each other for decades and fell in love sometime after Chotia-Thompson's divorce 2005.
Officials said Simons had exchanged gunfire with a Murray officer in an armed robbery the week before. On Jan. 9, Simons allegedly attempted to run down a JCAT officer with her pickup truck, prompting officers to shoot her dead.
When Chotia-Thompson was arrested, authorities described her as "distraught." She was carrying an Airsoft pistol with a painted-black tip, court documents state.
"Her depression was driving her addiction, which I'm sure was driving this criminal behavior," Janet Chotia said. "She was too far gone."
It's no excuse for what she did, the sister is quick to point out, but the family wishes they could have intervened sooner.
Janet Chotia points to the nearly $30,000 cost of rehabilitation clinics, calling them "cost prohibitive."
"The frustrations and the obstacles you come up against as a family is indescribable," she said. "You have to accept that she's gone. She's never going to be the person she was again."
It's a hard thing to accept when a sister is also a twin, the person with whom Janet Chotia has shared everything since before she was born.
"I've been in this suspended state of grief and mourning," Janet Chotia said. "I know there's nothing I can do to stop this. I just have to accept that Sandra's going to suffer, that Sandra might die."
And that she'll feel it. Every step of the way.