Fighting back: Fentanyl related deaths spike in Colorado Springs, El Paso County

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COLORADO SPRINGS — The phone rang twice on Saturday of Father’s Day Weekend, before Brad Eastin picked up, to speak with me about his son.

“Can I ask you a question,” Eastin said, in a halting voice. “Do you have children?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised at how the word caught in my throat.

“Two boys.”

He sighed deeply.

Brad Eastin and Brian Eastin pose together for a photo in 2019 / Courtesy: Brad Eastin

Brad’s son, Brian, died unexpectedly in May.

According to the El Paso County Coroner’s Office, the 36-year-old had ingested a fatal amount of fentanyl, a powerful opioid used most often to treat chronic pain and terminal cancer patients.

Brian had a lot going right at the time, his father said. A career with Progressive Insurance, where hard work had earned him a few promotions; plus, he was the lead singer and guitarist for Had I Known, a popular Colorado Springs-based band, described on its website as “Baroque-Pop meets Post-Rock.”

But Brian had also been dealing with near constant pain since an incident in 2013.

“He was living in Denver, and he was physically attacked at a club and incurred a bad shoulder injury. It separated the tendons and ligaments in his shoulder,” Brad Eastin said. Worse, the attacker was a childhood friend.

Brad Eastin and Brian Eastin in 1997 / Courtesy: Brad Eastin

“The medical opinion was that surgery wouldn’t work, and it would have to heal over time. They put him on opioids to help him with the pain,” he said. “You know how that is.”

And, Brad said, Brian was heartbroken over the blow-up of a lifelong friendship.

“I think that moment was when Brian slowly began to die,” his father said.

Brad described Brian’s emotional pain, his physical pain, and then the loneliness he encountered during isolation, as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic crept across the U.S. in March, and settled into Colorado.

“I think his death was a COVID death,” Brad said.

Brian Eastin and Brad Eastin pose with friends / Courtesy: Brad Eastin

Brian Tryon, a close friend of the Eastins, agrees.

He thinks Brian Eastin’s death was likely a silent side effect of the pandemic, which has kept many people home from work and school, and away from family and friends.

“People are lonely and sad and depressed, and, you know, a lot of people escape to drugs and alcohol to kind of feel better,” Tryon told FOX21 Digital NOW.

Colorado Springs native, Brian Tryon, is hoping to shed light on deadly, counterfeit pain pills.

As he struggled with Brian’s death, Tryon turned some heads with an outspoken post on a social media page, regarding the emergence of “M30s”, counterfeit pain pills, in Colorado Springs.

Police recovered similar pills in the room where Brian Eastin was found, according to the coroner’s report.

In fact, the El Paso County Coroner’s office has confirmed 10 additional fentanyl-related deaths so far in 2020 and said another six are classified, for now, as “probable” fentanyl-related deaths.

According to Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly, those numbers put the county on track to see around 30 such deaths for the year.

The specific numbers are not incredibly high, especially when compared to the number of overall accidental deaths caused by drugs (133 in 2018, 130 in 2019). Still, Kelly noted a “significant” increase in fentanyl-related deaths from 2018 to 2019.

In fact, he said there’s been a “massive jump” in those numbers in recent years and, in a presentation before the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, referred to the situation as a “fentanyl crisis.”

“Fentanyl causes death like all other opioids by suppressing your central nervous system resulting in sedation, unconsciousness, and suppression of respiratory drive,” Dr. Kelly told FOX21 Digital NOW. “It essentially causes you to fall asleep and stops your breathing.”

Thirteen years into his own recovery, Tryon says he’s learned all about the dangers of pills and the destructive cycle of addiction.

“I can definitely empathize with addiction and what that process looks like,” he said. “You just wrap yourself up in drugs and alcohol to escape.”

And he’s finding ways to give back.

When school is in session, he works as a Certified Addictions Counselor at Community Prep School in Colorado Springs. The school’s website describes itself as “a credit recovery charter school”.

The Community Prep School had to close its doors for the end of the 2019/2020 school year, due to the coronavirus pandemic / Courtesy: Brian Tryon

Tryon estimates up to 95% of students who attend Community Prep struggle with addiction issues.

That entire group, now unmoored.

The pandemic forced the school to temporarily close its doors, taking with it a stable, supportive environment for a particularly vulnerable student population. Tryon says he’s still working, though, checking in with as many people as possible by phone or video, even visiting in-person at times, from a safe distance.

Counterfeit Pills

Unfortunately, Tryon said, the trickle-down effect during the fight against the coronavirus is happening at the street level.

He says “legitimate” drugs have become harder to find, meaning pills aren’t pharmacy grade, and drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, are being cut with other substances.

“I’ve talked to a couple other people that struggle,” Tryon said. “They told me it’s pretty odd that they can’t find ‘legitimate’ drugs and pills. It’s been harder, so they’re settling for these fake pills – or not knowing they’re settling.”

In many cases, the counterfeit pills are made to look just like actual, pharmacy grade pills.

Brad Eastin said Brian had begged doctors to prescribe him medication that would help mitigate his pain.

“I think he had been getting opioids illegally for years,” Eastin said of his late son. “Not for the high, but simply for pain relief. Maybe eventually, it was for the high. There are things parents just never know. I’ll never know.”

Colorado Springs Police Lieutenant John Koch works in the Metropolitan Vice, Narcotics, & Intelligence Division. He’s been with the department for 17 years, in roles ranging from patrol officer to the crimes against children unit. He landed in VNI about a year ago.

Lt. John Koch has been with the Colorado Springs Police Department for 17 years.

And, he says, this problem isn’t exactly new.

“We’re aware of [fentanyl] in this city. We deal with drug issues all over Colorado Springs and, what people don’t realize, is that we still tend to think of this as a small town, and it’s not.”

Still, he says, the danger is real.

The Drug Enforcement Agency identified fentanyl as a threat to public health and safety in 2015, and issued a nationwide alert, following spikes in usage of the drug on both coasts.

According to the CDC, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Depending on the user and that person’s tolerance level, consuming even a very small amount of fentanyl can be deadly in an instant.

Lt. Shane Mitchell has worked with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office for more than 21 years. His career has moved from the detention center to patrol to the Crime Reduction Unit and beyond. He was assigned to the CSPD MVNI Division in 2017.

“When I say, ‘a very small amount,'” Mitchell clarified, “literally the amount that it would take to OD is equivalent to six to eight grains of table salt.”

Then, he said, put that threat in the hands of the members of a cartel.

“These aren’t chemists or doctors that are making these determinations on how much cut should be put in the drug or the narcotic. They’re just guessing.”

The inevitable result: sellers who don’t know what they’re selling and buyers who don’t know what they’re ingesting.

And, every year since fentanyl’s emergence in Colorado Springs, the number of people impacted by the drug locally, has jumped.

Drug Seizures

That’s why the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Metro VNI has been hard at work.

“We’ve had significant pill seizures over the last few months,” said Lt. Koch.

The department declined to share exact numbers from recent busts, but used its 2019 annual report, to describe one example, “Operation Snow Patrol,” which focused on drugs being distributed in bars and nightclubs in Colorado Springs and El Paso County.

“Snow Patrol,” a single operation, as documented in the report, involved a 13-month-long investigation, and included the execution of more than 30 arrests and search warrants.

The department released details of one similar operation in 2020, which yielded an arrest and the recovery of:

  • 34.87 pounds of methamphetamine
  • 9.66 pounds of heroin
  • 0.53 pounds of cocaine
  • 1.5 pounds of pressed pills of suspected fentanyl (fentanyl has to be tested in a lab)
  • Four guns (two were stolen)
  • $36,992
  • Two vehicles
An image following a CSPD drug seizure in 2020. K9 Sugar has served as a narcotics detection canine since 2018 / Courtesy: Colorado Springs Police Department

The COVID-19 Effect

Koch says there may have been a shift in the process of manufacturing and distributing illicit drugs, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s questions about whether or not a decrease in shipping from China, where a lot of precursors for methamphetamine and things like that come from, has led to an increase in pills,” he said.

But, at less than four months past the pandemic’s arrival in Colorado, it may be too early to know.

“There is preliminary, anecdotal information that some of the increase in pills that we’ve seen could be due to the lack of what is needed to produce meth, heroin – some of those drugs – and bring them into the United States as a result of what’s happened due to COVID-19,” said Koch.

Precursors are different types of chemical materials. They can be used to make illicit drugs, but they are also used for a number of legitimate purposes.

For example, safrole, once used to flavor food until the FDA banned it in 1960, is now used as a precursor for insecticide, as well as for the recreational drug MDMA, or “ecstasy,” according to the National Library of Medicine.

Mitchell said cutting drugs with fentanyl is an easy way for dealers to boost the potency of their products while also lining their own pockets.

“Fentanyl literally costs pennies on the dollar versus the heroin or the meth or even the cocaine, which is substantially more expensive,” he said. “So, if they can sell you an ounce of cocaine that’s cut with however many milligrams of fentanyl, their profits are just astronomical – going through the roof.

When his friend died in May, Brian Tryon said he suspected “M30s,” or “Mexican 30s,” were to blame. Those pills are made to look like the opioid painkiller Percocet but actually contain crushed fentanyl.

“Drugs are crap anyway,” Tryon said, “but they’re pushing these dangerous, crappier drugs, you know, to make the money and to get people high.”

Lt. Mitchell said detectives found those telltale, light blue colored pills, at the scenes of four overdose deaths in El Paso County, just from May to mid-June.

And for anyone who is selling those pills, Mitchell says, his team is looking for you.

The difference in measurement displayed in the graphs above is due to differences in drug format (i.e. pill, powder, etc.), per CSPD.

“I will tell you that one of the top priorities for the Metro VNI Division is we’re looking to prosecute anybody that we can develop the evidence on, that has sold this kind of drug to somebody that’s resulted in their death,” he said. “Every day, that is our goal, to hold these people accountable and put them in jail.”

“The message from [CSPD] is an obvious one,” Koch added, “it’s ‘don’t buy illicit pills on the street’.”

But the viewpoint from an addict, isn’t quite so black and white.

“Obviously, your mental health is the key to your addiction,” Tryon said. “The addiction part is just the symptom of what’s going on with you.”

And, he said, resources in the Colorado Springs area can be difficult to access.

FOX21 Digital NOW reached out to Cedar Springs Hospital and Peak Vista Behavioral Health to learn more about that specific issue, but neither business returned our phone calls or emails.

Road to Recovery

While outside help, such as therapy, can provide support, coping strategies, and even medication to help combat addiction, recovery may be most successful in people who are ready and want to change.

“I can tell them, and you can tell them, ‘this is bad.’ But they have to do it themselves. That’s really the key element of it,” Tryon said.

Cate Montville is living proof of that.

At 13 years old, while attending Manitou Springs Middle School in her hometown, Montville was already doing a lot of “sketchy things,” like “snorting pills and smoking weed.”

Cate Montville started using meth at the age of 13. She attended Community Prep in Colorado Springs and has been in recovery for eight years. / Courtesy: Cate Montville

She tried meth, for the first time, before her fourteenth birthday. A 16-year-old boy, who she described as her best friend, scored the drug from his mother, an addict of about 20 years.

“And because I trusted them so much – they offered it to me – and it was my best friend and his mom. If they’re offering it to me,” she remembers reasoning, “it must be safe; it must be okay.”

She quickly learned how dangerous the drug really was.

On one occasion, Montville says she was in the car with that friend, his younger sister, and his mom – who overdosed.

“[He] couldn’t drive because he was taking care of his mom, and his mom couldn’t drive because she was overdosing,” she recalled. “So that was actually the first time I ever got behind the wheel. I was 14 years old, high as hell on meth, and I had to drive to the hospital with [his] mother.”

Montville said the incident was traumatic and eye-opening.

“We had to do the whole – drop her off in front and drive away – which is really scary,” she said.

“I just kept thinking this thought, like, ‘that could have been me. That could have been me dropped off at the hospital, and everyone would have just driven away'”.

Montville left her group of friends at Manitou Springs High School behind and, at 15 years old, quit meth, cold turkey. She said she moved in with her dad and remembers crashing on the couch, sick for weeks as she suffered through withdrawal.

She said she wasn’t particularly interested in finishing high school, but after a bit of research, she found her way to Community Prep all the same. “The resources there that were available to me changed my life – by a lot,” she said.

At school, Montville says she found solace in slam poetry and support in weekly group meetings. She graduated in 2016.

Cate Montville, in her eigth year of recovery, hopes to one day provide guidance for youths struggling with addiction. / Courtesy: Cate Montville

She hopes to return to her alma mater one day, to provide direction and counsel to students who are struggling now, as she did, years ago.

Montville says her family didn’t know about her drug problem until after she was already in recovery.

“I’m a parent. It’s hard to keep track 24/7 of your kid,” Tryon added. “But just be aware of that kind of stuff. Be aware of their attitude and how they’re acting.”

And Brad Eastin, who is freshly grieving the devastating loss of his son, Brian, wants to stop this from happening to someone else.

“If I can keep one parent from feeling this, from going through this,” his voice broke, “I’ll do it.”

Good Samaritan Law

If you are with someone who overdoses, even if you are the person who sold or gave them the drug that caused the overdose, a law in Colorado protects you if you call for help.

“There are also laws on the books, in the state of Colorado that, if you are with somebody at the time that they ingest the drug and overdose, as long as you call and you wait for first responders to arrive on scene, you cannot be held accountable or charged for that individual’s death,” offered Lt. Mitchell.

The 911 Good Samaritan Law was passed as part of Colorado’s Harm Reduction Legislation. It also grants immunity for the person who is overdosing.

“I don’t have an issue with that,” Mitchell said. “The bottom-line is a human life is what we’re trying to save. I’m not going to put somebody’s life over the fact that you’re afraid to call for help because you think you’re going to be arrested. I’d rather you call and get that individual help ASAP.”

Law enforcement officers are also equipped with Naxolone and Narcan, which are used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, and are also available to the general public.

Third-Party Naxolone, also part of the state’s Harm Reduction Legislation, protects from prosecution anyone who administers Naxolone in “good faith”.

“Hold your children tight,” Brad Eastin cried as we said goodbye, “you don’t know when it’s going to be the last time.”

Get Help

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