Death by Fentanyl: Young Lives Lost in Our Communities
Updated: Apr 4
The title of this blog is so depressing, we can't blame you for not wanting to read on. Or you may think you don't need to. You've already seen the awful headlines. Or maybe you've read or heard the heartbreaking stories about kids in our community who have died. "By the grace of God ...", we may think. And we worry; parents always worry. But most us go on to the next thing, assuring ourselves, it won't be us ... "Thank goodness my child isn't an addict" ... "It's not like my child is shooting up or buying street drugs in the Tenderloin" ... "My kids are too busy between school, homework, sports, music, theatre, after-school jobs,
etc. to do drugs like that" ... "We have regular family dinners and talk to our children about drugs and we've told them about fentanyl" ... "My child has heard the stories about those kids; they would never do something that reckless" ... "My kids are have promised me they aren't doing those drugs" ... "My kids know better" ... We all have some of these thoughts going through our minds whenever we hear of another fentanyl poisoning. As did the parents in our communities and all over the country who are forever grieving. They didn't think it could happen to their children either - their kids "knew
The parents of Eli Weinstock, forever age 20, pictured here, certainly didn't. Eli was "on his way to a bright future", says his mom, Beth Weinstock, who is a physician. Eli was a sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C. "He made one mistake, one bad decision" and died in his off-campus apartment in September 2021. She laments, "so many associate fentanyl with addiction. I see it in people’s eyes - hear it in their voices - when I tell them Eli died from fentanyl ingestion. A slight shift happens, and I sense their internal dialogue, questioning if Eli had an addiction struggle. He didn’t, to answer their question", she makes clear. Beth's message to everyone is death by fentanyl "doesn't just happen to addicts." #FentanylChangesEverything is the hashtag some of the brave ones write in their social
media posts as they share their very personal stories about their childrens' deaths by fentanyl to spread awareness of drug use these days. #OnePillCanKill #NoRandomPills, they warn. And it's #FentanylPoisoning, not an overdose, they point out. Their kids didn't know the pill they were taking that looked like the real thing wasn't. In his new book, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, former LA Times reporter Sam Quinones writes, "the days of recreational drug use are over. Every drug you try is a game of Russian roulette."
Fentanyl deaths don't just happen to addicts or kids with serious substance use issues. They are happening to kids who get straight As, play sports, play the piano. Maybe
those who are casually using on weekends. Or the ones who are experimenting at a party for the first time after a friend hands them a pill. Or who are just bored and scrolling through their social media feeds in their bedrooms and see an offer on SnapChat. The allure of social media. One and done.
And fentanyl deaths most definitely are not limited to San Francisco's Tenderloin and similar neighborhoods. They occur in communities like ours, or where our kids attend college or move to start their careers. Fentanyl is flooding markets everywhere. It does not discriminate among geographical areas or socioeconomic status. So this blog is for every parent out there. BTI has been sounding the alarm over fentanyl for the last several years in our newsletters, blogs and on our Facebook page. Many of you have read the heartbreaking stories by Marin mothers Michelle Leopold,
Marion Kregeloh and Tori Kropp, whose sons Trevor Leopold, Alexander Movahedi and Xander Kropp, are forever 18, 25 and 19 years old from deaths by fentanyl, months apart in 2019 and 2020. Our friends and neighbors. There are no words; no one can truly know their pain. Pictured here at a Mill Valley CA, parent education event last fall, these three forever grieving mothers hold each other up and work tirelessly and ferociously to spread awareness and advocate for change. We don't know how they do it, but we are fortunate to have them in our community, no longer fighting for their own children, but for ours.
But they are the tip of the iceberg. For every parent who shares their most personal story of how their child has died or came close, reliving the pain each time, there are ten more out there who understandably don't. Too many other parents are out there whose lives are forever affected by fentanyl - including those who had much younger children. Please read on to honor these mothers' efforts and their sons' memories - and share their stories with your own children. This blog was supposed to be much shorter, but the stories kept coming. We couldn't leave them untold. And the topic is too important to skimp on details. It is dedicated to our three brave Marin County moms who are putting themselves
out there - and to all the other parents who loved and tried their very best to save their children and couldn't. Yet they continue to advocate for ours so that we won't go through the hell they have. Here, you will find information on:
What are the numbers in our communities?
Whose young lives are being taken?
How are our kids getting these drugs?
Please also see our accompanying blog to learn about what fentanyl and fentapills are, what other drugs fentanyl showing up in and what we can do about it: "What is Fentanyl and What Can Be Done as Parents, Students and Community Members"?
THE NUMBERS IN OUR COMMUNITY. AND EVERYWHERE
The numbers are staggering, they are accelerating and fentanyl is unlikely to be going
away any time soon. It is now the No. 1 cause of death for those between 18 to 45 years old. And according to the CDC, drug deaths among youth ages 10 to 14 years tripled between 2019 and 2021.
Last September 2021, the DEA reported that they had already seized some 9.5 million fentapills to date that year, an historic amount that was more than the last two years combined - nearly a 430% increase from 2019 and 2020. DEA lab testing revealed that over 40% of the seized fentapills had deadly quantities of the drug - two out of fivepills with lethal doses. The amount was enough to kill 700,00 Americans.
In California, according to state data as of June 2021, a young person under 24 had been dying every 12 hours. This is a 1,000% increase over 2018.
Orange County experienced 19 juvenile fentanyl-related deaths in 2021, making fentanyl the leading cause of death for kids 17 years old and under.
Marin County. According to RxSafe Marin, the fentanyl wave began hitting Marin County
hard in 2019 and the number of deaths by fentanyl have tripled since.
In 2019, Marin families experienced 11 fentanyl related deaths and 17 non-fentanyl opioid related deaths, out of 65 substance related deaths in all age groups.
In 2020, 23 fentanyl related deaths occurred and another 10 were non-fentanyl opioid related deaths, out of 73 substance related deaths in all age groups.
The 2021 numbers are not finalized yet, but so far it appears there are at least 31 and possibly as many as 35 known fentanyl related deaths.
In total, there have been at least 18 deaths by fentanyl of young people under 30 years old that occurred in Marin County in the past three years. Note that these numbers do not include those Marin young adults who have moved outside of the area.
Other Bay Area communities. In contrast to Marin, San Francisco's, fentanyl deaths have been well publicized. The past four years have seen an increase of 450% - from 69 deaths in 2018 to 380 in 2020 to 474 deaths in 2021. In Alameda County, the increase was 735% - from 14 to 117 deaths between 2018 to 2021.
U.S. numbers. The spike occurred all over the country. According to the CDC, between May 2020 to April 2021, over 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US, which was the highest death toll in a 12-month span and a 30% increase from the prior year. Of those deaths, two-thirds were from fentanyl. To put it in perspective, that's more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War or from AIDS in 1995, the peak year of that epidemic.
BEHIND THE NUMBERS - YOUNG LIVES CUT SHORT
Marin County's Beautiful Boys
Trevor Leopold, forever 18
One Pill Can Kill. This is the message that Michelle Leopold wants you to know. Her son, Trevor, grew up in Greenbrae, attended Redwood HS, and was part of a warm, intact family,
with engaged and loving parents. They ate dinners together each night with their two sons. And two dogs. Like so many boys, Trevor was attracted to cannabis. He began to struggle but his parents were on top of it and did everything they could. But there were some hard years and Michelle felt very much alone in her community.
With a lot of love, intervention and treatment, Trevor graduated from Tam HS and headed to college. But in November 2019, at age 18, he died in his dorm room at Sonoma State from a fentanyl laced "Blue 30 Oxy" pill. Since then, Michelle has worked non-stop, advocating for policy and legal changes. Over and over again, she shares the painful details of Trevor's story in every forum she possibly can. Her website, We Are Not Alone Community, provides resources and the connection with other parents that she didn't have while her son was struggling.
Michelle details what she has learned from Trevor's journey in her Marin Residents for Public Health Cannabis Policies website blog. The data shows that Cannabis is the No. 1 predictor of opioid use for youth. She describes how Trevor's stubborn attraction to marijuana beginning his high school freshman year led him to search for bigger highs. And how even after wilderness trips and rehab stints, on Trevor's 18th birthday, Michelle found a medical marijuana card for him in the mail. Along with the dangers of fentapills, Michelle works to spread the word how today's cannabis has THC levels unimagined just a few years ago and that yes, it's most definitely a gateway drug to other drugs.
Xander Kropp, forever 19
CPMC Nurse and Marin mother Tori Kropp will tell you the same thing about marijuana and Xander. At age 17, he told her "Mom - the first time I smoked weed I didn't hurt inside. I just
wanted to be a normal teenager." It made, in his words, "feeling lost better." He went on to opioids. Going to rehab made him ashamed - he didn't want to be "that kid". Tori's blog on the same Marin Residents for Public Health Cannabis Policies website as Michelle's blog asks our community Where is the Outrage? Her heartbreak and anger is laid bare as she describes her son's death by fentanyl - a mere 18 months after trying cannabis.
As she tells Xander's story to students in the Archie Williams HS Pitch newspaper article, Every Parent's Worst Nightmare: Fentanyl Epidemic Overtakes Teens, Xander had just turned 19 and was headed for college in Santa Barbara. Tori found him dead in his bedroom - with a lighter and a straw by his side. She will never unsee that image. Tori asks the important questions: "Why is this community failing our children? Why are they seeking out drugs, from cannabis to OxyContin and Xanax, in the first place?"
Alex Movahedi, forever 25
Marin mother Marion Kregeloh is now dedicating her life to answering Tori's questions and what parents can do to help their kids who are struggling. On Christmas Day of 2019, Alex told her he finally wanted to quit his Xanax addiction. In the past, Alex had admitted to using cannabis "on occasion" with edibles or a hit or two to sleep. He always assured her with a "Mom, don't worry - it's safe and healthy".
Alex's anxiety became so intense that stronger strains of cannabis only worsened it. He
began to take Xanax, which initially helped him feel more relaxed, confident, and to sleep better. Eventually, the paradoxical effect of his substance use continued to worsen his anxiety and cause a downward spiral of heavy cannabis use and Xanax. He tried rehab.
Alex was determined to stop this time and in the new year, he enrolled in a medically supervised detox program, tapering down on Xanax, one of the hardest drugs to detox from. Then the Covid pandemic hit and Alex was only able to meet with a doctor over the phone every two weeks. It was not enough. In April 2020, at the age of 25, Alex died of fentanyl poisoning. His toxicology results showed the presence of his medications prescribed to taper off Xanax - as well as THC (cannabis), cocaine, fentanyl and carfentanyl (a sedative for elephants). It was assumed the fentanyl and carfentanyl had been mixed into the cocaine he had done.
Marion tells of cleaning out Alex's car after his death. She found things she didn't know existed - empty wrappers of THC laced cookies and other edibles, empty THC soda bottles,
and a glass rig for "dabbing" high THC concentrates. She had known about the dangers of Xanax but made it her mission to learn all she could about the forms of cannabis Alex was abusing until the end. Like her two Angel Mom friends, Michelle and Tori, she has shared her story with everyone she can, including her blog in the Marin Residents for Public Health Cannabis Policies website, The Cannabis Hype and How its Damaging our Youth and our Communities and with Redwood HS students through an article in the Bark, the student newspaper, One Pill Can Kill: Addiction, Loss and Fentanyl.
Alex4Hope is Marion's new website. In it, she culls through research and posts interviews she has conducted with experts on topics such as some of the root causes of youth substance abuse, e.g., toxic stress, "adverse childhood
childhood experiences", trauma - and conditions particular to affluent communities like Marin County. Her mission is to end the stigma of mental illness and give parents strategies to support a child who is struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. Marion's background as a physical therapist and chronic pain clinical specialist with a holistic over pharmaceutical approach gives her a special perspective.
The Younger Ones
Fentanyl poisonings are happening to kids at younger and younger ages. Those who still have orthodontic braces. In a Redwood Bark Soundcloud recording, "Countless Stories: Fentanyl and Youth", Michelle Leopold tells the stories she has heard from other mothers throughout California, who she's come to know:
Luca Manual, forever 13 from Redding, CA. Luca went on SnapChat to buy marijuana from a dealer. The dealer offered him what turned out to be a fake Percoset, laced with fentanyl and he died in August 2020 in his bedroom. The 20-year old drug dealer who sold Luca the deadly pill was tracked down after a year long investigation. Police found 900 pills which tested positive for fentanyl, cocaine, codeine syrup and cash in his Shasta apartment.
Alexander Neville, forever 14 from Laguna Niguel, CA. Alex died in June 2020 from one fake OxyContin pill laced with fentanyl. His story and his parents education and advocacy efforts are detailed below, along with stories of other kids who purchased fentapills off SnapChat.
Valentina Langhammer, forever 14 from Concord, CA. Valentina was found in her bed on August 21, 2021, poisoned by a fake OxyContin pill laced with fentanyl. She was a freshman at Concord HS.
Zoey Horton, forever 14 from Lodi, CA died in February 2022. Her 18-year old SnapChat dealer was arrested in Sacramento a week later. Police also recently arrested a 16-year old Snap Chat drug dealer who sold a fake Oxy to a 12-year old girl from San Jose, CA, who sent friends a video of her crushing and snorting the fentanyl-laced pill.
Zach Didier, forever 17 from Rocklin, CA. Zach died from one pill thought to be Percoset he bought on SnapChat. Zach was one of the Valedictorians of his class; he had been accepted at UCLA and several other UC's, and was just about to submit his final application to Stanford. All while training his dog to sing while accompanying him on the piano.
Tragedies like these are happening across the country to young teens in middle and high school. In January 2021, after a 13-year old boy in Hartford, Connecticut died and two other 7th grade boys were hospitalized, 40 bags of fentanyl were found at their middle school and 100 bags were found in the boy's bedroom.
HOW ARE KIDS GETTING THESE DRUGS?
There is no longer the need to buy from a drug dealer in a dark alley or on a street corner. No need to go to the dark web. These drugs are just a click away ... on SnapChat,
Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Discord, YouTube, Twitter, Craig's List - or whatever new social media app that's popular these days or coming. Drug dealers have moved from the dark web to open sales on these platforms which have become drug pipelines for kids. Fifteen minutes later, drugs can be delivered to your back door.
Drug dealers approach social media users with attractive deals or if a kid puts out a string of emojis to indicate that they're looking for a drug. If one follows a drug site, more come up in his or her feed, flooding them with opportunities to purchase drugs. It's called "algorithm amplification". The drug dealer in your pocket.
Daniel Figueroa, forever 20
"Hit my line doing hella deals the rest of this week free delivery of Oxy" was retrieved from Daniel's SnapChat account after he died by fentanyl poisoning in September 2021. Daniel had been staying at his grandmother's house in Orange County, while waiting fo community college classes to start up again. He was having trouble sleeping and purchased what turned out to be counterfeit Xanax laced with fentanyl. Daniel's mother, Perla Mendoza believes the dealer behind this account sold the bottle of poisoned pills that killed him.
Sammy Chapman, forever 16
Sammy was the son of well-known relationship therapist Dr. Laura Berman, who appears on television programs such The Today Show. Sammy lived with his parents and siblings in Santa Monica. He got straight As in school but became lonely during the pandemic, sheltering at home. Upon discovering their son was experimenting with marijuana, Sammy began seeing a therapist once a week and his parents drug tested him regularly.
In February 2021, Sammy was approached by a dealer on SnapChat with a brightly colored menu of drugs for sale. He wanted to experiment and bought what he thought was Xanax but turned out to be Percoset laced with fentanyl. It was delivered to his home. Laura had gone to his bedroom to discuss a potential internship and found him in lying on the ground on his back in what is called a "classic fentanyl death pose", vomit coming out of his mouth. This is what often happens: the user's respiration slows down so much, they pass out, vomit and then choke.
Daniel Puerta-Johnson died at age 16 in April 2020 in Santa Clarita, CA. "Bored" during the pandemic, he bought Oxy and died after taking half a pill laced with fentanyl. Jaime
Puerta believed he bought it off SnapChat but neither he nor Daniel's mother, Denise Johnson, had Daniel's passcode. When law enforcement subpoenaed SnapChat for the records, Jaime and Denise said it took forever before SnapChat finally released them.
Parents like Sammy's and Daniel's have circulated petitions and marched on SnapChat and other social media headquarters. They lobby company executives and legislators to do more to protect youth from online drug dealers. They and law enforcement complain the companies don't refer cases to the police or easily give up dealers' identifying information, citing privacy and free speech protections. Often they simply take a profile down, and then the dealer pops up with a different profile name seconds later.
Social media companies say they are doing everything they can, constantly improving their technological capabilities to detect drug-related activity so they can intervene. They admit dealers are staying ahead of them. But say they're working hard on it. It takes time.
Laura Berman advocates for apps like Bark, which if SnapChat and the sites allow their software access, can detect potential risks on kids' activity and alert parents. She urges parents to know your child's passcode.
Alexander Neville, forever 14
Alexander died from one pill thought to be OxyContin in June 2020. Alex began
experimenting with marijuana during the pandemic lockdown and developed mood swings. Within a year, he was experimenting with mushrooms and acid and entered a month long residential treatment. He came home happier and more engaged. But within months of coming home, while "bored", he bought fentapills from a dealer he met on SnapChat.
The day before he died, Alex went to his mom, Amy, for help, admitting he couldn't stop taking the pills and wanted to. She made him an appointment the next morning with a rehab facility. He died that night, poisoned by a fake OxyContin pill. She has written SnapChat's CEO, calling him an accomplice to murder and demanding that SnapChat refer cases to law enforcement, not just delete their accounts. The Alexander Neville Foundation has been established to educate and advocate in his memory.
Alexandra Capelouto, forever 20
While the majority of youth and young adults who have died from fentanyl are male, it happens to girls and young women too. Alexandra grew up in the suburban community
of Temecula, CA, with two parents who instilled religion and faith in their children. She was a sociology major at Arizona State on a full academic scholarship. She came home from college for Christmas in 2019 and excitedly went Christmas shopping with her mom.
Alex was found dead in her room after taking an fake Oxy pill with five times the lethal dose of fentanyl. Her parents checked her phone and discovered it had been purchased through a dealer she met on SnapChat. As her father, Matt said,
it "was as easy as ordering a pizza to be delivered to our house".
Kierston Torros-Young, forever 19
Kierston met a guy on SnapChat, bought Percoset from him and got together with him and watched Netflix. She died in February 2022.
Charlie Ternan, forever 22
Charlie was raised in Pasadena, CA and was three weeks shy of his graduation from Santa Clara University in May 2020. He was an Econ major, in love, and his fraternity brothers and many friends called him "the glue". Charlie had been prescribed Percocet in 2018 after back surgery. His back was hurting again and a friend who bought what he thought was Percocet shared it with him. Within 30 minutes, Charlie was dead in his room.
Through their organization, Song for Charlie, named after music written in his memory,
Charlie's parents, Ed and Mary Ternan, spread awareness among parents and particularly among kids and young adults. They have a SnapChat campaign which targets the most vulnerable age group of 13-24 year olds.
The Ternans want to spend the message that casual use of prescription pills is not smart, sharing random pills is uncool and buying them online is extremely risky. They want to change the "quick fix" mindset of managing stress and anxiety so that pharmaceuticals aren't the "go-to" solution. Like so many kids his age, Charlie took Xanax on occasion when he had time to chill and play video games. His parents and friends say he wasn't addicted - that it was just a normal and accepted thing kids did at college. Ed and Mary want to change that and spread the word there can't be casual use anymore when it comes to drugs.
WHY IN THE WORLD DO DRUG DEALERS RISK KILLING THEIR CUSTOMERS?
In short, it makes good business sense to sell fentanyl or lace it into other drugs, even if a customer or two is killed. Fentanyl is cheap to make, easy to smuggle and the profits are
enormous. Because of this, the supply is huge. As reporter and author Sam Quinones explains, given the competition among dealers created by all this supply, once one dealer adds fentanyl to whatever he’s selling, his competitors must follow suit or they will lose customers.
And the demand is there. Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, opioids and pills from Xanax to Adderall have become "go to's" in our American society with adults and their children, whether it's dealing with stress and anxiety or partying it up or studying to get those straight As.
Quinones explains that fentanyl turns "an occasional buyer" (i.e. occasional/party drug user) "into an opioid-addicted daily customer". Dealers understand the drug-addicted brain that convinces addicts they can only function with the drug, even if it kills. And tragically, addicted fentanyl users need the drug to prevent sickness from withdrawal. Many addicts won't buy any drugs that don't include fentanyl.
We can't let the fentanyl traffickers and dealers continue to kill our children. Please read our accompanying blog to learn more about fentanyl, fentapills and the other drugs fentanyl is being laced into, and why fentanyl likely will be around for the foreseeable future. Most importantly, please read what we can do to help prevent more deaths: "What is Fentanyl and What Can Be Done as Parents, Students and Community Members"? There is much work to be done. And it takes a village.