Joan Demeo had seen substance abuse before, witnessing her own son battle addiction for years before he turned his life around and dedicated himself to helping other addicts.
She became part of the support system for other families whose loved ones struggled with addiction. Yet it was a man who abused alcohol — her live-in boyfriend — who killed her, detectives say.
On April 13, Demeo, 60, didn't return to her job as a receptionist at Freedom Village, a Bradenton retirement and assisted living community, after going home for a lunch break. Her longtime friend Kathy Coraccio became worried and went to Demeo's mobile home in Royal Garden Estates, 6904 Cortez Road, to check on her.
Coraccio never expected to find the body of her friend, a victim of a violent attack. It was a shocking sight that Coraccio told the Bradenton Herald will live with her forever.
Less than an hour after the body was discovered, Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputies found Demeo's boyfriend, Barak Pozas, at a nearby bar, Tommy Knockers Saloon at 7004 Cortez Rd., and arrested him. Pozas, who was uncooperative, was drunk and appeared to have blood on his hands and clothes when they found him, according to court documents.
Pozas is being held without bond at the Manatee County jail.
About two months earlier, deputies had found Pozas passed out drunk next to a trash bin behind the same strip mall where Tommy Knockers Saloon is located. Unable or unwilling to answer questions and after saying he wanted to sleep where he was until the next day, Pozas was taken into custody and involuntarily hospitalized to be evaluated and treated, if needed, for substance abuse under Florida's Marchman Act.
Substance abuse was something Joan Demeo knew all too well, her son says.
"My mother had the ability to love me up when I couldn’t love myself," Robert Demeo, now 30, said in an interview with the Herald. "My mother had the ability to look at other people’s demons in the eye and love them when there wasn’t much to love. "
Throughout his years of addiction, he said, she never abandoned him. Instead, she was his biggest cheerleader.
"Three years ago, I turned my life around. I turned my will and my life to a power greater than me," Demeo said. "I decided that I was done using and getting high, and using drugs. That was the biggest gift I could give my mother."
Now Demeo is a case manager at the very detox center where he received treatment, The Dimock Center in Boston.
"I became a voice for other addicts who want to find another way of life, for addicts who are battered, beaten and broken," Demeo said. "She became the voice for other addicts' moms who didn't know how to deal with their children's disease of addiction."
He would give those mothers his own mother's phone number. His mother would share her inspiration, experience and hope along with the tools she had developed along the way, he said.
Since his mother's slaying, many of the families his mother helped have reached out to him, sharing some of the impactful conversations they shared.
"She taught so many people to smile through the storms of life, just like she did," Robert Demeo said.
Robert Demeo has taken his advocacy against addiction a step further, helping to create a local movement in Massachusetts.
"People were staying silent and dying. Addicts were too afraid to ask for help," he said. "My mother was my biggest supporter. "
Living her dream
Joan Demeo moved to Florida about five years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
"She used to say, 'I live in paradise,'" Coraccio said. "The beach was her favorite place."
The move came at a time when her son was still struggling with addiction.
"This was her dream. All of this. From the flowers, to the gravel, to the grill, to the fish in the carport. This was my mother's dream. This is where she ultimately wanted to live," Robert Demeo said.
His addiction had caused her too many sleepless nights, worry and anxiety. But his mother stopped enabling his addiction, which he said contributed to him finally getting clean after many failed attempts.
And it wasn't just that she moved away.
Demeo recalled her saying, "'Rob, this is it. I am going to Florida and following my dream' and that she hopes that I followed mine."
His mother had stood up for herself against his addiction, he said.
"She said enough is enough with the chaos and confusion I was causing," Demeo said. "She just wanted to go be happy. She came out here to this little trailer park. My mother enjoyed the best years of her life here."
Coraccio soon followed Joan Demeo.
"I moved here because of her," she said.
Robert Demeo shared a bit of the life his mother enjoyed. Last summer he vacationed for nine days in Bradenton with his mom, leaving just before Hurricane Irma threatened the area.
It would be the last time mother and son would see each other.
'Weapon of God'
While Joan Demeo's only child may be grieving the loss of his mother, he doesn't want her remembered as a victim, but as a "weapon of God."
"My mom still had a lot of people left to help," Demeo said. "She had this ability to be able to, that when she didn't know what to do, calmly do nothing."
What he will miss about his mother, whom he calls his best friend, will be her infectious laugh and sincerity, he said. Loving and helping others had also always been a big part of who his mother was, and the big heart she had.
Growing up, all the neighborhood children were welcomed into their Boston home, he remembers with adoration. She would offer them a warm meal, and wouldn't hesitate to take other children shopping if they needed clothes.
Robert Demeo plans to honor his mother's memory by helping raise awareness for those who suffer at the hands of domestic abuse. In his quest for justice, he also plans to continue raising awareness about the stigma addicts and their families face.
"She smiled through every storm life threw at her, and she did it with a positive attitude and integrity," Demeo said. "She did it with a smile on her face, and food on the counter. That’s who my mother was."