AUSTIN (Nexstar) – 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.

Fentanyl pressed into pills ‘made to look harmless’ worries Texas law enforcement 

“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.

Cameron Stewart hugging his stuffed animal puppy as a young child
Cameron Stewart hugs his stuffed animal (Courtesy Stewart family)Read More »

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.”

Becky and Dwayne Stewart stand in their kitchen holding a picture of their son, Cameron, who took a pill laced with fentanyl and died in March 2021. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)
Becky and Dwayne Stewart stand in their kitchen holding a picture of their son, Cameron, who took a pill laced with fentanyl and died in March 2021. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

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.

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.

READ more about the dangers of fentanyl 

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.

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.

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.

KXAN previously reported on fentanyl deaths going untracked in Central Texas 

“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.”

Manuel Ramon Martinez — captured on body-camera video — is detained at his South Austin apartment, while police execute a search warrant on Jan. 25, 2021. (Cedar Park Police Department Photo)
Manuel Ramon Martinez — captured on body-camera video — is detained at his South Austin apartment, while police execute a search warrant on Jan. 25, 2021. (Cedar Park Police Department Photo)

On Jan. 25, police executed a search warrant on Martinez’s apartment on Slaughter Lane in south Austin. They say 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.

A graphic with a statement from Manuel Martinez' attorney, George Lobb, which reads 'Our justice system rewards those who created the opioid addictio epidemic and punishes the rest of us in a manner that neither prevents nor mitigates our struggle with addiction'

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.

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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.

A new law and a life-saving drug aim to stop fentanyl deaths

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.”

MAP: See CDC opioid overdose data 

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.

Counterfeit oxycodone pills confiscated by the Cedar Park Police Department. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)
Counterfeit oxycodone pills confiscated by the Cedar Park Police Department. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

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.

WATCH: Gov. Abbott signs bill enhancing criminal penalties for making, distributing fentanyl in Texas 

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.

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.

John Bell, a Virginia State senator, shared a photo from when his son volunteered with him while serving in the Virginia House of Delegates. In June, Bell attended an APALD rally in downtown Austin. Bell's son, Joshua, took a pill laced with fentanyl, overdosed and died in 2019. (Courtesy John Bell & KXAN Photo/David Barer)
John Bell, a Virginia State senator, shared a photo from when his son volunteered with him while serving in the Virginia House of Delegates. In June, Bell attended an APALD rally in downtown Austin. Bell’s son, Joshua, took a pill laced with fentanyl, overdosed and died in 2019. (Courtesy John Bell & KXAN Photo/David Barer)

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.

Leslie Inman–at an APALD rally in downtown Austin–wears a T-shirt picturing her daughter, Marissa, and granddaughter. Marissa died of an unintentional fentanyl overdose in 2016. (KXAN Photo/David Barer)
Leslie Inman–at an APALD rally in downtown Austin–wears a T-shirt picturing her daughter, Marissa, and granddaughter. Marissa died of an unintentional fentanyl overdose in 2016. (KXAN Photo/David Barer)

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.”

Locked in Limbo – Moving Forward

 It took Adan Castaneda four years, pinballing back and forth from a solitary jail cell to state mental hospitals — bouncing between mental stability and severe mental illness – before finally getting a shot at justice.

Castaneda, a veteran Marine scout sniper, mentally spiraled out of control after returning from the Iraq War. His downward slide culminated on May 27, 2011. Standing in the dark, alone at 4 a.m. in front of his mother and stepfather’s home, he lifted his .45 caliber Glock pistol and fired 23 times at the house.

Nobody was hurt, but he was charged with multiple felonies, including attempted murder. Castaneda, now 35, faced up to life in prison but was found incompetent to stand trial. That meant his case couldn’t proceed until his mental illness was under control. Most often, people in jail are sent to state hospitals to regain their competency.

Adan was finally sent to a state hospital to stabilize, but when he improved and returned to Comal County jail, he deteriorated again. From 2011 to 2015, he cycled through the state hospital twice.

“You’re basically locked in limbo. It’s like purgatory. This is a loophole,” Castaneda said. “Eventually they just said I was insane — not guilty by reason of insanity — and just send me back to the psych ward.” KXAN reported extensively on Adan’s case, and Texas’ flawed and backlogged state hospital system in Locked in Limbo 

Castaneda spoke with KXAN in June from San Antonio State Hospital. He was freed, following the not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. As part of that verdict, Adan was placed under court supervision until 2031. He was later recommitted in 2019 after missing a dose of medication, he said.

While at the state hospital, Castaneda said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, schizoaffective disorder and Cluster-B personality traits, which are marked by impulsive, attention seeking and aggressive behaviors.

As Adan awaits his chance to leave the state hospital and rebuild his life on the outside, there are over 1,400 people languishing in county jails waiting a year or more for a state hospital bed, according to the state’s most recent records from April.

The number of people waiting for a state hospital bed has steadily risen for more than two years and reached a record level in December, cresting above 1,500. SOURCE: Texas Health and Human Services Commission

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission oversees Texas’ state hospitals. In April, at a meeting of HHSC’s Joint Committee on Access & Forensic Services, which monitors the waitlist, officials expressed concern about the overall waitlist and the impact of coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re really still suffering from the effects of COVID-19 on our capacity and on the waitlist,” said Stephen Glazier, chairman of the committee and COO at UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center.

Wait times for state hospital beds have trended up for years and spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospital officials expect those durations to decline after beds taken offline during the pandemic are returned to use. SOURCE: Texas Health and Human Services Commission

State hospitals have a total of 2,263 funded forensic beds — those used for people in the criminal justice system. But, 309 were offline in April, including 18 maximum security beds and 291 non-maximum-security beds, according to Glazier and HHSC data.

HHSC officials discussed focusing on two groups that are spending long periods in state hospitals with no other place to go. People found not guilty by reason of insanity – like Castaneda – and people found incompetent to stand trial, but who will likely never be restored to competence, can occupy beds for years.

“We literally have people in the hospital on an [incompetent to stand trial] for 10 years,” said Mike Maples, a recently retired deputy executive commissioner at HHSC.

Adan Castaneda, a Marine scout sniper and veteran of the Iraq War, training during his military service. (Courtesy Maria Anna Esparza)
Adan Castaneda, a Marine scout sniper and veteran of the Iraq War, training during his military service. (Courtesy Maria Anna Esparza)

“What’s the long-term plan for this group that after 18 months we’ve determined aren’t going to restore, and certainly the ones that are with us five and 10 years, that we just keep getting a recommitment for attempting to restore?” Maples said. “We’ve got to continue to kind of turn our focus to that, as we get over this immediate kind of issue of getting our beds back up to full capacity.”

Glazier said the committee overseeing the waitlist should coordinate with the Texas Judicial Commission to discuss what is driving that problem and ways to improve it.

If a person isn’t going to be restored to competence, “to just keep them in the state hospital for months and years just doesn’t really make any sense at all,” Glazier said at the meeting.

Maples alluded to cases lasting a decade, but KXAN has found one that’s lasted far longer.

In 1999, James McMeans was charged in Travis County with murder for the stabbing death of Clara Oda Torriente-Capote. He was found incompetent to stand trial shortly thereafter. He has remained in the state hospital for over two decades, recommitted year after year.

READ our investigation of the James McMeans case here 

McMeans’ state hospital bed is one less spot available to any of the hundreds of people with mental illness who are struggling in jails across the state.

Many of those people waiting have little financial means or nobody advocating for them. The job of assisting them falls to organizations like the nonprofit Texas Jail Project.

Texas Jail Project provides resources and helps incarcerated people and their families. Diana Claitor, a co-founder and spokesperson for the nonprofit, said since the pandemic began, the entire criminal justice system experienced a slowdown that worsened local incarceration and mental health.

Claitor provided an example of how bleak life can be for a person on the waitlist.

She said Texas Jail Project found a woman with mental illness in the Smith County jail. The woman had been stuck there for nine months. She had no idea there was a pandemic.

“All she even understood was that family no longer visited, that she was alone in the world, and she really was in complete distress,” Claitor said. “We saw this young woman alone and languishing and completely disoriented and disconnected from reality.”

An advocate with Texas Jail Project helped get the woman moved to a mental health facility, but “there are countless people like that across Texas in county jails,” she said.

So, what’s being done? Not enough, Claitor said.

Many in the Texas Legislature believe the problem is being solved with additional funding for state hospital improvement, Claitor said. But, they are only adding about 350 more beds in new state hospital buildings. That won’t solve the problem, she added.

One effort that gained little traction in the last legislative session would have created an Office of Forensic Services in HHSC.  

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, filed that bill to help speed up the system and coordinate a more “holistic” approach to mental health care for people in jail.

It would “make sure individuals get speedy attention, so they’re not languishing in jail, sometimes for nearly a year, awaiting these sorts of services,” Eckhardt said. The legislation would “start to move that mental health care into a holistic model, rather than a, you know, one shot just to get them healthy enough to be able to meaningfully talk to their defense attorney.”

Rather than a churning system that often loops people like Castaneda back and forth, the forensic office would help ensure a continuum of mental health treatment.

The bill never got a hearing. Eckhardt said it is still critical, and she will continue to pursue it.

“I have had calls from family members as well as defendants after they’ve been in jail, talking about their experiences in a psychotic break in jail, in a rubber room, having been stripped of their clothing because of fear that they would hang themselves. Being cold and naked in a jail cell while awaiting appropriate mental health care,” Eckhardt said.

Maria Anna Esparza holds a framed picture of her son, Adan Castaneda, taken during his service in the Marines. Esparza has advocated for her son during his battles with mental illness and helped him navigate the state's criminal and mental health systems.
Maria Anna Esparza holds a framed picture of her son, Adan Castaneda, taken during his service in the Marines. Esparza has advocated for her son during his battles with mental illness and helped him navigate the state’s criminal and mental health systems. (KXAN photo/Josh Hinkle)

Any improvements to the system, either through building more beds or through a new office in HHSC, would be a welcome change for Castaneda and others in similar situations.

When KXAN interviewed Castaneda, his mother, Maria Anna Esparza, participated on the video call. Esparza fought to get her son through his legal debacle. She stayed in close contact with him while he’s been in San Antonio State Hospital. She continually offered support, using her skills as a former schoolteacher to help proofread books he has written during stay. One of those books, “Chess Perception,” details Castaneda’s time in the military and struggles after returning from war.

She hopes her son will be released soon. Until then, their conversations — and goodbyes — will be mostly over the phone.

Esparza said when their conversations end, “We say ‘I love you. Be good.’ You know, be well and just keep moving forward. Try to keep perspective. Be hopeful, you know, the change is right around the corner.”

Trump-backed candidate loses runoff for Texas Congressional seat

There’s a new opening in the Texas House, after a State Representative won a special election for a seat in Congress.

Republican Jake Ellzey won Tuesday’s runoff for the District 6 seat. The north Texas district covers parts of Tarrant County as well as all of Ellis and Navarro Counties.

The seat came open in January after the death of incumbent Congressman Ron Wright. The Arlington Republican died after contracting COVID-19.

Wright’s wife Susan ran to finish her husband’s term. She earned Donald Trump’s endorsement, then surged to the top of a crowded field in the May 1 special election. With Trump’s support, Wright was favored to win the runoff against fellow Republican Ellzey.

Ellzey is a Navy veteran from Ellis County. He was elected to represent District 10 in the Texas House in the November 2020 election.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw backed Ellzey’s campaign for Congress. Their support helped Ellzey pull off the upset, winning the runoff by a six-point margin.