Deaths caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100-times stronger than morphine, were higher than ever in Central Texas last year. The escalation in deaths has been driven, at least in part, by the spread of counterfeit pills laced with the potent drug. And while more and more unsuspecting users die of overdoses, authorities are cracking down on dealers.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Becky Stewart was looking forward to a Saturday with her son Cameron in mid-March. The two planned to drive down from Williamson County, stroll around Zilker Park in Austin, maybe visit a food truck.
Cameron, at 19, was Becky’s youngest son. He was bright, charismatic, entrepreneurial. He had decided to take a pause before college to explore starting a business.
He had struggled with addiction as well, but Becky and Cameron’s father Dwayne believed he was trying to right his life — visiting them often and attending church on Sundays.
Becky was hoping to get a text from her son about their activities for the next day. Sometimes she would wake up to a middle-of-the-night message from Cameron confirming their plans, but on the morning of March 20, she still hadn’t heard back from him. Becky called, but Cameron didn’t answer.
She sensed a problem.
“Talk me off the ledge. Something’s not right,” Becky said to her boyfriend that morning. She drove to Cameron’s apartment in Leander. His car was there, but the door was locked. She called Cameron’s father, and he came over, too. They knocked. No answer. They called the police. With a roommate’s spare key, the police went inside, and Becky’s worst fears were realized.
Becky’s goofy son who would grow his hair long and “floppy” and then decide to cut it all off on a whim; her “joyful” boy who could light up a room with his smile; her “incredible athlete” who had track medals dangling from every side of his bedroom ceiling; her quirky kid who ate cereal with a fork — had gone to bed and never woken up.
Toxicology results showed Cameron died of a fentanyl overdose. He had taken a laced Valium pill.
Cameron “probably paid $10 for his death. That pill probably cost him $10,” Becky said in an interview with KXAN. “He had no idea what he was taking.”
“It was just one pill,” said Cameron’s dad, Dwayne. “That’s all it takes.”
The Stewart family recently began speaking with nonprofit organizations about providing education about fake pills. They say it needs to be part of the curriculum, and they’re hoping to work with all school districts in Texas to get it implemented.
“Don’t think your kids are too young to start talking to them about it,” Becky said. “Sadly, it takes away some of their innocence, but you could be saving their life.”
The Stewarts’ tragedy is not isolated — pain like theirs is being felt more than ever. Fentanyl deaths are becoming more common each year in the Austin area, across Texas and throughout the country. If the trend holds, come December, fentanyl will have killed more people in 2021 than any year before, according to trends in local and national data.
‘No Perceptible Difference’
Counterfeit pills, like the one Cameron took, are particularly deadly. Drug dealers are pressing fentanyl into the shape of common prescription pills, like Xanax and Valium and oxycodone. Users don’t know what’s in them or that it’s fentanyl.
“It’s Russian roulette — you have absolutely no idea where that thing came from,” Dwayne said. “And yeah, it could be your best friend who means you absolutely no harm, and they got it from a friend and
they have no idea where it came from.”
Justin Miller, a sergeant in the organized crime unit of the Cedar Park Police Department, said he’s been policing narcotics for eight years and the past 18 months have been the busiest he’s ever seen. Counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl are a major driver of that uptick in narcotics crime, he said.
Some batches of pills are so strong “even a portion of one of these pills can cause a fatal overdose,” Miller said.
Miller said he and his team have caught about 30 suppliers.
What is fentanyl
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is used to treat severe pain, often caused by advanced cancers. Fentanyl is addictive and can cause overdoses and death. Illegal fentanyl is increasingly being pressed into counterfeit pills.
When fentanyl is added to a pill, it makes no perceptible difference in color, taste or smell. Only a lab test can tell you if a pill is laced, Miller said.
“These pills are made in someone’s garage; they’re made in someone’s house, and it’s made by someone mixing up the components of it,” he said. “You don’t know if that one pill has a small amount of fentanyl or a huge dose of fentanyl that is likely to kill you.”
One case — that of Manuel Ramon Martinez — illustrates the issue.
17 deaths in the Austin area
Cedar Park Police surveilled 31-year-old Martinez in December and January. On at least three occasions, detectives said they used an undercover source to buy drugs from Martinez. Each time, the source bought oxycodone pills, passed them to police and lab tests confirmed they were laced with fentanyl, according to the complaint.
Similar pills to the ones police say Martinez sold could be linked to the same drugs that have caused a “wave of overdose investigations.” In just 11 months, from March 2020 through January 2021, those types of fentanyl-laced pills have been involved in 17 deaths in Austin and surrounding cities, according to the criminal complaint.
“The illegal prescription pills that are being diverted and sold illegally, along with counterfeit oxycodone pills, are an extreme danger to the public,” according to the federal complaint. “Cartels and domestic clandestine pill press operations are manufacturing counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is lethal in minute doses.”
On Jan. 25, police executed a search warrant on Martinez’s apartment on Slaughter Lane in south Austin. They found approximately 1,120 tablets laced with fentanyl, more than 1,200 Xanax pills, nearly 8 pounds of marijuana, two AR-15 rifles, two 9mm handguns and over $19,000 in cash, according to a criminal complaint filed in February.
In addition to the undercover purchases, police said they found Martinez used the app Snapchat to communicate with customers, according to the federal complaint.
In a statement to KXAN, Snapchat said it strictly prohibits drug-related activity, enforces violations, supports law enforcement in their investigations and works proactively to try to detect and prevent abuse. The company also said it blocks drug-related terms, including fentanyl, from being searchable and is using new tools to detect images of drugs and pill bottles, according to a spokesperson.
Martinez was later arrested on a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Martinez has not been convicted, and his case remains pending in federal court. He declined a request for an interview and to provide a statement. Martinez’s attorney, George Lobb, said “Our justice system rewards those who created the opioid addiction epidemic and punishes the rest of us in a manner that neither prevents nor mitigates our struggle with addiction.”
Of the 17 deaths in Central Texas noted in federal court documents, Miller said six died in Cedar Park alone. While the 17 deaths due to fentanyl are noted in Martinez’s court documents, the case records do not link him directly to any of those incidents.
“This isn’t marijuana. This isn’t methamphetamine. This isn’t even heroin. This drug, this fentanyl, is more deadly than heroin that we’ve seen in several cases,” Miller said.
Exactly how many people have died in Central Texas from fentanyl-laced pills isn’t clear. But, data from various levels of local, state and federal governments show a similar trend: fentanyl deaths are on the rise.
Travis County is on pace for a 25% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to data from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office.
That year-over-year escalation in Travis County corresponds with state-level data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of synthetic opioid deaths increased by 38% in the year ending May 2020, compared to the 12 months before, according to the most recent CDC data available.
And, Texas isn’t alone. Opioid deaths have ramped up nationally since January 2020, driven largely by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the CDC reports.
In the 12 months ending November 2019, there were 35,677 synthetic opioid deaths. In the twelve months preceding July 2021, there were 56,688 deaths caused by synthetic opioids, according to the latest available data from the CDC, which exclude methadone, an opioid widely used to treat addiction.
21 Million Lethal Doses
Now, state leaders are responding.
In late May, Gov. Greg Abbott folded the issue of fentanyl proliferation and deaths into an address about border security and a “border crisis.”
Seizures of fentanyl are up, Abbott said. In all of 2020, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers seized 11 pounds of fentanyl. In the first four months of 2021, DPS intercepted 95 pounds of the drug — enough to make 21 million lethal doses.
“This is an almost 800% increase over last year in just the first four months of this year,” Abbott said. “And that does not even include the amounts that went undetected or that were seized by other law enforcement agencies.”
Abbott said part of a $1 billion appropriation for border security will go to DPS to “crackdown” on fentanyl. He also touted a bill he signed into law this year that increases penalties for possessing fentanyl.
That bill, SB 768, by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, stiffens prison sentences specifically for possessing or distributing fentanyl. A person can now receive a maximum penalty of a life sentence for knowingly manufacturing, delivering or possessing with intent to deliver four grams or more of the drug, including “adulterants or dilutants,” the bill states.
Huffman’s office said she was prompted to file the legislation after hearing doctors in her district talk of a drastic increase in fentanyl overdoses. Her office said a “close constituent” died after overdosing on the drug as well.
Both Abbott and Huffman declined requests for an on-camera interview for this report.
Huffman said the stronger sentences prescribed by her bill are “appropriately weighted for the drug’s lethalness” and will help deter people from making and selling it, according to a statement of intent attached to a bill analysis.
But, some social justice groups and criminal defense advocates disagree with her approach. They say harsher sentences will not scare people away from fentanyl.
Cynthia Simons, a Women’s Fellow with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, registered against the bill when it was being considered by both the House and Senate jurisprudence committees.
Simons said longer sentences for drug offenses have been central to the failed “war on drugs,” which has led to mass incarceration and has not decreased drug use. Harsher sentences disproportionately affect people of color and don’t make communities safer, she said. Also, women are prescribed opioids at higher dosages and rates compared to men. That “catapults” women into substance abuse disorders and longer sentences will impact women more than men, Simons added.
A better solution, Simons said, would be reallocating funds from punitive measures to community services, making treatment more accessible and providing more long-term affordable housing and recovery homes.
Gilberto Pérez, co-executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, echoed Simons. SB 768 will drive mass incarceration and “disproportionately affects BIPOC communities. The war on drugs is a war on people, people of color,” Perez said in a statement.
He said state leaders should invest in community-based and grassroots programs that centered on harm reduction and client services and also expand Medicaid. Perez also advocated for increased drug testing programs, decriminalization of possession of drugs and equipment, and strengthening the use of Naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversing drug also called Narcan.
Families who have lost loved ones to fentanyl overdoses also told KXAN an important tool for combating the problem is to equip first responders with Narcan.
‘Shattered in the blink of an eye’
On June 4, about two dozen people — many of them impacted by fentanyl and opioids — gathered at a downtown Austin park to attend a rally convened by Association for People Against Lethal Drugs. The goal: raise awareness of fentanyl and tout the importance of Narcan.
Virginia State Sen. John Bell, a Democrat whose district is west of Washington, D.C., attended the rally. Bell’s son, 33-year-old Joshua, lived in Austin and died of a fentanyl overdose two and a half years ago.
“My son died when he took Xanax, and it was laced with fentanyl. He didn’t know it,” Bell said.
Bell wants all law enforcement officers to carry Narcan. Virginia has used state funds to ensure all first responders and police officers are trained to use and equipped with Narcan, he said.
Bell said over the past decade Virginia invested over $20 million for Narcan training and making it widely available. He says lives are being saved.
Data from the Virginia Department of Health shows opioid overdose deaths stayed fairly steady in recent years – suggesting the program may be working since numbers weren’t escalating much.
However, last year during the pandemic, there was a sharp increase in those deaths in Virginia and nationwide, according to state and federal data.
Texas hasn’t equipped all first responders and police with Narcan, but a bill passed in 2019, also authored by Huffman, created a grant program for the life-saving drug. The program is administered through the Criminal Justice Division in the Office of the Governor and provides grants to law enforcement agencies to purchase Narcan. Departments are required to create a policy for using Narcan and keep track of opioid overdoses they encounter.
Still, not all departments carry it. As of late June, Austin police officers did not carry Narcan. A department spokesperson said APD is in the process of finalizing Narcan training so officers can carry and use it.
Organizers at the APALD rally demonstrated how to use Narcan. Surrounded by family and friends of people who have died of overdoses, two attendees taught the crowd how to nasally administer the drug and provide breathing assistance to an overdose victim.
Leslie Inman spoke at the demonstration. Inman’s daughter Marissa, a 25-year-old Austinite with two children, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016.
“There is nothing sadder than burying your child and waking up each day realizing all the hopes and dreams you had for them were shattered in the blink of an eye,” Inman said at the rally.
When her daughter died in 2016, Inman said she was shocked to learn the cause was a fentanyl overdose. She’d never heard of the drug.
But, in the years since, cases have snowballed. Every year there are more and more mothers, like Becky Stewart and Leslie Inman, and more and more fathers, like Dwayne Stewart and John Bell, who will bury children who died of fentanyl overdoses.
There’s no common mold, no typical victim of fentanyl overdoses anymore, Inman said.
“My daughter could be any one of you. She could be your sister, your daughter, your friend, your mother. She could be your neighbor or the person standing next to you. This epidemic can touch anyone,” Inman said. “There is no box that can be checked showing who is at risk for becoming a victim.”
Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.