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Fentanyl, Cops And Courts: How We’re Addressing The Growing Overdose Crisis

Jonathan Ellington wears a black cap in one close-up and, in another picture, is holding a snowboard and skis.
Courtesy of Dave and Cheryl Ellington
Jonathan Ellington was athletic and loved to ski. He died at the age of 30 after taking a pill that looked like oxycodone, but was actually fentanyl.

Second of three parts

Jonathan Ellington grew up in Covington, Kentucky. His dad, Dave Ellington, said his son never met a stranger, was a good student and loved playing sports like soccer.

When Jonathan was a junior in high school, though, he had a knee injury, his dad recalled.

“Long story short...through the medications that were prescribed, oxycodone, he became addicted to painkillers,” Dave Ellington said.

But the father said Jonathan worked hard and got clean before heading out West to Colorado. He loved skiing. He ended up working at the historic Jerome Hotel in Aspen — built in 1889, and visited by the rich and famous, like writer Hunter S. Thompson.

Dave Ellington remembers someone at an airport thinking Jonathan was a star, too.

“We were going through, and he had some designer sunglasses on and the right kind of tight-fitting shirt, you know,” he said, laughing. “And one of the TSA guys said, ‘Excuse me, are you somebody who's famous?’”

But when Jonathan broke his hand, he went back on painkillers. And then he bought some from the wrong person.

“It was in a bottle that was a medication bottle, as if it came from a pharmacy. It had a person's name on it, the person that actually sold him that,” Dave Ellington said.

They weren’t painkillers, but fentanyl pressed into pills that looked like oxycodone. It was 2017. Jonathan died at the age of 30.

“Basically, it took very, very little and he died very, very quickly,” the father said.

A series exploring how fentanyl got here, what's being done and possible solutions.

Fentanyl, which is helping to drive an increase in drug deaths across the Mountain West, can be 100 times as potent as morphine.

Police found the man behind the pills: Bruce Holder. His case highlights a new way prosecutors are going after fentanyl crimes.

They found Holder trafficked thousands of pills from Mexico, and had his wife and kids deal them – even though he knew they were fentanyl and were killing people.

Holder was found guilty of the federal crime of distributing fentanyl (a controlled substance) resulting in death, among other things. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, and could be locked up for life. His sentencing is scheduled for October.

Matt Kirsch, the acting U.S. attorney for the district of Colorado, says these kinds of convictions spring from a federal law that prosecutors started using a decade ago.

“The first couple that we did were actually against health care professionals and more recently we have been using the tool against street dealers,” he said.

But Kirsch says prosecutors really want information on who’s supplying the dealers. If they get it, dealers could receive a shorter sentence.

The front of the Grand Junction Police Department building
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
The Grand Junction Police Department has been trying to combat the rise in fentanyl deaths for the last few years.

Jason Sawyer is a sergeant with the drug task force at the Grand Junction Police Department. Sitting in a conference room behind a maze of hallways and locked doors, he said his department is one of many looking more closely at fentanyl overdoses.

“We've started in the last year, maybe two,” he said. “Started investigating them as homicides or manslaughter-type investigations.”

Sawyer says homicide investigations take more resources: instead of one or two hours, it can take six to eight hours to process a crime scene. But he hopes if dealers face stiff consequences for fentanyl deaths, they’ll be more careful about what they sell.

“The people that are dealing it are the ones that make the impact in several people's lives,” he said.

However, some question whether law enforcement or courts should be involved at all.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for an end to the drug war. Emily Kaltenbach is the senior director of their office in New Mexico – the state that has had the largest problem with opioids in the Mountain West.

She says police shouldn’t be charging drug dealers like they’d charge murderers.

“Who is that going to impact?” she said. “It's going to impact communities that have been the focus of the drug war for decades.”

That is, low-income communities and communities of color.

And Kaltenbach argues that arresting people doesn’t stop the flow of fentanyl.

“All it does is it cuts off that one piece of supply and another one pops up. Supply and demand does not change with increased sentencing,” she said.

Of course, this is part of the larger discussion nationally about law enforcement’s role when it comes to mental health and substance abuse.

But one thing is certain: fentanyl is a problem that’s only getting worse.

The Nez Perce Tribe is now calling fentanyl-laced pills a “public health crisis.”

“The Nez Perce Tribal Police Department has seen a dramatic increase of fentanyl overdoses,” Lt. Daniel Taylor stated. “Increasingly, Nez Perce Tribe Police Officers are required to administer multiple doses of Narcan to revive individuals that have overdosed on these pills.”

And next door in Wyoming, officials recently seized 24 pounds – about $150 million worth – of fentanyl being driven through that state in a single shipment.

This is the second installment of a three-part series.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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