Lover recounts sextortion figure’s final hours

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Westland — Jessica Tackett's onetime lover believes the Romulus stripper was high on prescription pills and booze before she died last week, finally buckling under the weight of a federal indictment, family betrayal and years of fast living.

Interviews with police, emergency medical responders and the last man to see her alive — 30-year-old Johnny Qash of Westland — paint a partial portrait of the final hours of Jessica Tackett and indicate the central figure in a nearly $3 million alleged extortion scheme was not a victim of foul play.

Tackett, a former prostitute with a Xanax addiction and a toddler son, was slurring, stumbling and tripping up the stairs of Qash’s home hours before she died Sept. 28, according to interviews. She was 25.

“The cops told me they were surprised she made it to that age,” Qash told The Detroit News in an exclusive interview.

Tackett and her parents allegedly were involved in a scheme to extort almost $3 million from a retired software mogul by threatening to tell police about a threesome involving her, a teenage cousin and the mogul, Paul Vagnozzi of Orchard Lake, prosecutors said.

The trial, set for Jan. 11, was delayed from July so prosecutors and defense lawyers could negotiate plea deals with Tackett, her father Terry Tackett and mother Kimberly Tackett.

The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted an autopsy but is awaiting additional tests to determine the cause and manner of Jessica Tackett’s death. Meanwhile, Westland police continue to investigate the possible drug overdose.

It is uncertain what impact Tackett’s death will have on a criminal case that emerged in federal court seven months ago.

Without Jessica Tackett, prosecutors still have the software mogul, witnesses that include Terry Tackett’s ex-girlfriends, bank records and evidence the unemployed father allegedly bought muscle cars, Harley Davidson motorcycles and other big-ticket items.

Jessica Tackett was unaware of the alleged extortion, her lawyer said.

Jessica Tackett appeared intoxicated when she arrived at Qash’s Westland home, where he lives with his mother, around 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 27, he said.

“I know she had Xanax and was drinking,” said Qash, a landscaper.

The case is one of the more unusual and salacious in federal court. But if eyewitness reports about Tackett’s final hours are accurate, her death was common.

Prescription anti-anxiety medication like Xanax are most commonly involved in drug-related deaths over the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Excessive alcohol use combined with drugs like Xanax increases central nervous system depression and risk of overdose.

Tackett arrived after leaving BT’s Executive Club, a strip bar in Dearborn, Qash said.

“She came to my house so ------ up,” he said. “She was beyond, beyond ------ up.”

Tackett stripped at BT’s periodically the last four or five years, manager Ryan Swidan told The News. Her stage name was “Gracie.”

Her stripping career continued after a judge unsealed a 119-count indictment in March. She faced up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice.

“She would drink, obviously — most dancers do,” Swidan said. “If she was taking pills here, I can’t say. Is it possible? Absolutely. A lot of the girls do things they really shouldn’t.”

After leaving the strip club, Qash said some of Tackett’s friends dropped her at his house.

“They couldn’t deal with her, she was so messed up,” Qash said.

“I know she was dealing with a lot with the federal case,” he added. “She said her mom and dad put her through it. It’s messed up any parent would do that to a kid. She was pretty much fed up with everybody thinking she had something to do with that.”

Her drug use increased when her father was flush with cash, Qash said.

Prosecutors say Terry Tackett threatened to beat up the software mogul and order his pals in the "mafia" and Jokers Motorcycle Club to hurt him if Vagnozzi didn't pay millions to keep secret a threesome with Jessica Tackett and another teen.

The alleged threats worked. From 2008-12, prosecutors say Vagnozzi gave Terry Tackett more than $2.6 million in cash and checks, according to the indictment.

The money allegedly bankrolled the father's lavish lifestyle, including a home, six Harley-Davidson motorcycles, muscle cars, Jet Skis and expensive gifts for his stripper girlfriends.

“When her dad had all that money, she used to blow money like it was nothing,” Qash said. “She would buy drugs and alcohol. She was so messed up all the time.”

The tension was palpable when Tackett stumbled into Qash’s house Sept. 27. Qash, who was sentenced to probation in 2008 following a drug conviction, has a young daughter and didn’t want her exposed to Tackett’s drug use.

“I had to beg my mom to let her in,” Qash said. “She wasn’t too thrilled with Jessica being messed up and at our house.”

His mother Maha Qash confronted Tackett.

“She looked a little out of it. She was really slurry. I said ‘your eyes look glassy. Are you all right?’” Maha Qash, 53, said.

“She said ‘I’m fine.’”

Maha Qash relented and served the young couple maqluba, a traditional Middle Eastern dish.

After, Tackett went upstairs to watch TV in Johnny Qash’s bedroom, Maha Qash said.

“She was tripping up the stairs,” she said.

Maha Qash and her son say they fell asleep on couches downstairs. The mother’s alarm woke them up at 4 a.m., she said.

Johnny Qash says he went upstairs to check on Tackett.

“He came back down not a minute later screaming hysterically,” Maha Qash said.

Upstairs, Jessica Tackett was unconscious on a bed covered in vomit, Johnny Qash said. He said he performed mouth-to-mouth rescusitation and chest compressions.

“I tried to move her, to wake her up, but she didn’t respond,” he said. “I don’t think she was breathing. It was so scary. I just freaked out.”

Jessica Tackett was in cardiac arrest when emergency responders arrived.

“The initial investigation leads us to believe it is a possible drug overdose,” Westland Police Chief Jeff Jedrusik told The News. “There were no signs of foul play.”

Jessica Tackett’s lawyer, Doraid Elder, said: “If these individuals were aware of her condition … they would have done what any caring human being would have done: take her to the ER, if indeed their stories are true.”

After Tackett died, Maha Qash drove to the police department to drop off the woman’s knapsack, which she said contained two prescription bottles and a bottle of Pinnacle vodka.

“It’s an overdose. That’s it,” she said. “Plain and simple.”

Johnny Qash worries people blame him for Tackett’s death given his own drug history.

That’s why he skipped her funeral.

“I didn’t think me showing up at her funeral, after she passed away at my house, was a good look,” he said. “They probably would have killed me at her funeral.”

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