EL PASO COUNTY — It's a trend leading to tragedy.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid meant to treat severe pain. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated it is 100 times more potent than morphine.
However, illicit fentanyl is typically manufactured in foreign labs and smuggled into the United States, and the DEA reports it is often mixed with other illegal drugs.
On Monday, September 27, the DEA issued a Public Safety Alert warning Americans of an increase in the prevalence of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl or methamphetamine. DEA lab testing reports two out of every five counterfeit pills with fentanyl contain a "potentially lethal dose."
This is the first Public Safety Alert issued by the DEA in around six years, said a spokesperson with the Denver Field Division of the DEA.
So far in 2021, more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills have been seized by the DEA. That's more than the past two years combined according to the Public Safety Alert, and accounts for a 430% in the number of counterfeit pills seized by the DEA since 2019.
CLICK HERE for a counterfeit pills fact sheet compiled by the DEA.
Counterfeit pills are illegally manufactured and designed to look like real medications, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, alprazolam, or amphetamines. "The vast majority of counterfeit pills brought into the United States are produced in Mexico, and China is supplying chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl in Mexico," the Public Safety Alert states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 93,000 Americans died from an overdose in 2020. The DEA claims fentanyl is the "primary driver of this alarming increase in overdose deaths."
The Public Safety Alert is attached to a nationwide campaign from the DEA called "One Pill Can Kill." The campaign has photographs distinguishing between authentic and counterfeit prescription pills, in addition to parental and online resources and recovery options for people living with addiction.
According to the El Paso County Coroner, Dr. Leon Kelly, illicit fentanyl has been creeping through the country, starting in the east and making it's way west. The DEA has now identified counterfeit pills in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The powerful synthetic opioid is in Southern Colorado. Prior to 2015, Dr. Kelly's office rarely saw any fentanyl related deaths. The few that did pass through his office were almost exclusively suicides.
Steadily, the number of fentanyl related drug overdose deaths has grown over the years. Starting in 2019, the total number of fentanyl related deaths in El Paso County began doubling every year, which the coroner called a "terrible trajectory."
Dr. Kelly believes it is likely the county will see over 100 fentanyl related deaths in 2021.
Three families living in Colorado Springs say there is a story behind every number recorded as a fentanyl related death. They shared those stories with Colette Bordelon to raise awareness and advocate for more education about the dangers of fentanyl.
"Every number is a kid, is a person, is a life, is a loved one."
Andrew & Stephen Riviere
Andrew Riviere was a goof. His younger brother Stephen was witty. Both boys were lost too soon, according to their father, Matt Riviere.
A little more than eight weeks ago, Matt said his sons were living together in a Colorado Springs apartment. In the two months since July 25, everything has changed. "One of my boys got his hands on what he thought was oxycodone. He brought it back to his apartment, and him and his brother decided to take it and they didn't know it was laced with fentanyl. And they did it, and ended up dying, side-by-side, in their bed together," said Matt.
Andrew was 21 years old and Stephen was 19 years old. They were Matt's only two children. "I'm still a dad. They're still my sons. And I'm just grateful that I had time with them, although it was much shorter than I wanted it to be," said Matt.
Matt first shared his story with News5 in August. Since then, he has connected with several other parents who can relate to his loss on a personal level. "It's just comforting to know what they've gone through, and that we can hopefully lean on each other in the coming months and years together," said Matt.
Matt knows nothing will bring his boys back, but he's speaking out hoping to save lives and spare parents an unimaginable grief. "Getting in front of kids in high school would be huge. I think to see parents that have suffered the loss directly and hear it directly from them, that it's moving," said Matt.
"He was so smart it was terrifying," Leeann Blaskowsky recalled as she laughed.
"Definitely jump first, ask later. That totally was his personality type."
She's been in her stepson Andrew's life since he was around two years old. "Andrew was a dabbler. He was not addicted. He didn't need drugs to survive or get through the day, but he would experiment for sure," said Leeann.
Leeann said Andrew was living in Rifle, Colorado when he was 24 years old. He had been preparing for a job interview in the days leading up to February 19, 2020. Leeann said he took a pill that day, and a roommate found him deceased on the couch the next morning. "He thought he had a Xanax, and when they found him, he actually still had half a pill in his pocket. It was only a half a pill," said Leeann.
She remembered thinking it had to be a mistake when she heard what had happened to Andrew. To this day, she said grief can consume her in moments. "Grief is a beast. It lurks behind you every minute of every day, and every once in a while, it just comes up and smacks you in the back of the head," said Leeann.
At Andrew's funeral, Leeann spoke to the attendees and shared those words with News5. The most difficult decision while writing what she would say "was not which memories to share, hearing his voice in my head and my heart, or all the goofy antics that make Andrew, Andrew. By far, the most difficult choice: the tense of the verb," said Leeann.
Leeann spoke in present tense that day.
"This should be on the front page of everything. This is as big as it gets. We're losing our youth."
Born on St. Patrick's Day, Tevin Diedrich always wanted to teach his little sister new tricks on a skateboard or mountain bike. The two were ten years apart and Tevin's sister adored him, according to their father Joe.
Earlier this year, Joe said Tevin was living on his own in Colorado Springs and working as an electrical apprentice. The two worked at the same company, but in mid-April, Tevin did not show up one day.
His father was the one who found him. "I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that, you know, something wasn't good on the other side of that window. So I went in, and then that's when I found him, just laying in bed, like he was asleep... First, I just started yelling at him, then I was screaming at him, and then it just kept escalating from there because I'm starting to realize what I'm actually seeing... and then the second that I touched him, I knew," remembered Joe.
"It was cocaine cut with fentanyl."
Joe said he and Tevin discussed substance use in the past, and even had a conversation about fentanyl the week before he died. "It's just not fair. These kids aren't getting second chances. There's people that are addicts all over the world that get second, third chances, and our kids didn't get a second chance," said Joe.
Joe said he tries not to live in the past, and wants to honor Tevin's memory with his actions. "The standard question's always going to be: 'Why?' But at this point, the 'why' doesn't matter. It can't bring him back. I just want him to know that I love him, and that he was always loved, and that I would have done anything for him... I just wish he was still here," said Joe.
Joe called illicit fentanyl a never-ending trail of destruction. Since his son's death, he said he's realized how pervasive the problem is. "We need to really start paying attention to this, and start making a change, because we're losing our children," said Joe.
All three parents agree one of the first steps is educating teenagers about the dangerous nature of fentanyl.
This article will be updated during the day
Fentanyl through a father's eyes: "My boys' story is sadly common"
El Paso County: Fentanyl related deaths more than double in 2020 when compared to 2019
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