The number of people overdosing is staggering: fentanyl. Illustration: Justin Metz for the Observer
The police did not have to look far for the source of the drug that killed Jerome. He and his girlfriend were staying at the house of her aunt, Mildred Dossman, while they waited for their own place to live. Jerome was smoking cannabis and drinking beer with Dossmans son, William. Shortly before 1am, William went to his mothers bedroom and came back with the fake Norco pill. Jerome took it and said he was going to bed.
Jeromes girlfriend was in jail after being arrested for an unpaid traffic fine and so he was alone with their 18 month-old daughter, Success, lying next to him.
The doctors explained to me that within a matter of minutes he went into cardiac arrest, said his mother. Then as he lay there thats when time progressed for the organs to be poisoned by fentanyl. He was dying with his daughter next to him. Natasha said other people in the house heard her son in distress, complaining his heart was hurting. But they did nothing because they were afraid that calling an ambulance would also bring the police.
It was not until 10 hours later that the Dossmans finally sought help from a neighbour who knew Jerome. He tried CPR and then called the medics. The police came, too, and in time Mildred Dossman, 50, was charged with distributing fentanyl and black market opioid painkillers. She was the local dealer.
The DEA is tightlipped about the investigation into the Sacramento deaths as its agents work on persuading Dossman to lead them to her suppliers. But it is likely she was getting the pills from Mexican cartels using ingredients from labs in China where production of fentanyls ingredients is legal.
Carreno said some Mexican cartels have long relationships with legitimate Chinese firms which for years supplied precursor chemicals to make meth amphetamine.
Packages of fentanyl are often moved between multiple freight handlers so their origins are hard to trace. Larger shipments are smuggled in shipping containers. Last year, six Chinese customs officials fell ill, one of them into a coma, after seizing 72kg of various types of fentanyl from a container destined for Mexico.
American police officers have faced similar dangers. In June, the DEA put out a
video warning law enforcement officers across the US that fentanyl was different to anything they have previously encountered and they should refrain from carting seizures back to the office.
A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through the skin, can kill you, it said.
A New Jersey detective appears in the video after accidentally inhaling just a little bit of fentanyl puffed into the air during an arrest: It felt like my body was shutting down I thought that was it. I thought I was dying.
Along with the Mexican connection, a home-grown manufacturing industry has sprung up in the US. Weeks after Jerome died, agents arrested a married couple pressing fentanyl tablets in their San Francisco flat.
Candelaria Vazquez and Kia Zolfaghari made the drug to look like oxycodone pills. They sold them across the country via the darknet using Bitcoin for payment on one occasion Zolfaghari cashed in $230,000. The couple shipped the drugs through the local post office. Customers traced by the DEA thought they were buying real painkiller pills.
The couple ran the pill press in their kitchen. According to a DEA warrant, a dealer said Zolfaghari made large numbers of tablets: He could press 100 out fast as fuck.
The pair made so much money that agents searching their flat found luxury watches worth $70,000, more than $44,000 in cash and hundreds of customer order slips which included names, amounts and tracking numbers. The flat was stuffed with designer goods. The seizure warrant described Vazquezs shoe collection as stacked virtually from floor to ceiling. Some still had the $1,000 price tags on them. Zolfaghari was arrested carrying a 9mm semi-automatic gun and about 500 pills he was preparing to post.
Even as Americans are getting their heads around fentanyl, it is being eclipsed. In September, the DEA issued a warning about the rise of a fentanyl variant that is 100 times more powerful carfentanil, a drug used to tranquilise elephants.
Carfentanil is surfacing in more and more communities, said the DEAs acting administrator, Chuck Rosenberg. We see it on the streets, often disguised as heroin. It is crazy dangerous.
The drug has already been linked to 19 deaths in Michigan. Investigators say that with its use spreading, it is almost certainly claiming other lives. Dealers are also getting it from China, where carfentanil is not a controlled drug and can be sold to anyone.
Natasha Butler is still trying to understand the drug that killed her son. She wants to know why it is that it took Jeromes death for her to even hear of it. She accuses the authorities of failing to warn people of the danger, and politicians of shirking their responsibilities.
bill working its way through Californias legislature stiffening sentences for fentanyl dealing died in the face of opposition from the states governor, Jerry Brown, because it would put pressure on the already badly crowded prisons.
Im so dumbfounded. How does that happen? says Natasha. Her tears come frequently as she sits at a tiny black table barely big enough to seat three people. She talks about Jerome and the tragedy for his three children, including Success, who she is now raising.
But some of the tears are to mourn the devastating impact on her own life. Look where Im at. I was in Louisiana. I had a house. I had a job. I had a car. I had a life. I worked every day. I was a manager for a major company. I came here, I became homeless. I had to move into this apartment to help out my granddaughter, she said. You see me. This is what my kitchen table is. My son is dead. He had three kids and those two mothers of those kids are depending on me to be strong. I want answers and help. I say, you got the little fish. Where did they get it from? How did they get it here? You are my government. You are supposed to protect us.