It can be called a silent killer, and to say it’s scary understates what is happening in neighborhoods across the Valley.
One Phoenix family knows all too well the power of this. He was a firefighter, a war hero and a father who was taken down by something so small but so deadly.
It only takes something as small as two grains of sand to take a life and most people have no idea what they’re taking.
“This was a guy who protected me. I didn’t know how to feel safe in the world,” says Nicole Elinski, as she tearfully remembers her brother, Juston Doherty.
He was a highly decorated Army Ranger and military veteran. He continued to serve his country as a training instructor for the Army National Guard and as a Phoenix Fire captain.
“He dedicated his life to saving people,” said Elinski.
At 45 years old, Doherty was at the peak of his life, when it suddenly came to an end.
“I fell to the ground and I was like there’s just no way,” said Elinski.
Last July, while on duty at the National Guard base in Phoenix, Doherty was found dead.
“When the (Medical Examiner’s) report came out, we were completely blindsided,” said Elinski.
That report stated Doherty died of an accidental mixed drug overdose.
“On the day that he passed, he was at drill working with a broken hand, awaiting surgery. He was under a doctor’s care,” said Elinski.
Doherty’s sister says the “substances” in his system were prescribed medications taken as directed, except for one, fentanyl.
“He knew more than the average person what that drug could do so there’s just no way that my brother would willingly take something knowing that it had fentanyl in it,” said Elinski.
She says authorities told them the fentanyl in his system came from a pressed pill.
“What they’re doing is they’re putting together pills that look, this was confirmed by an undercover cop, that they look identical to regular Percocet,” said Elinski.
“Four years ago, we seized zero fentanyl in Arizona. Last year, we seized enough Fentanyl to kill 75 to 80 million people” said Arizona Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Doug Coleman.
He says this is the worst and most potent drug crisis he’s ever seen.
“So the cartels realized that they could manufacture these pressed pills that look like oxycodone pills here in the United States. They’re fentanyl-laced pills,” said Coleman.
He says Arizona is being hit especially hard because it’s a main smuggling hub.
“We still see some smaller quantities coming in from China but the major production, the mass quantities, those are coming in along southern borders specifically mainly through Arizona,” Coleman said.
And he says it only takes the smallest amount to be lethal.
“Two milligrams is like, it’s literally like a grain of sand,” said Coleman.
Elinski believes her brother was in so much pain and trying to work through it that he took what he thought was just a pain pill.
“I think somebody said, ‘I see you struggling,’ and I don’t believe they even knew that there was fentanyl or that there was the amount of fentanyl in the pill. I don’t think anybody did something to him on purpose. I believe that they gave it to him thinking they were helping him,” Elinski said.
It turned out to be one laced pill that ended it all.
”I miss my brother every day and if it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone,” said Elinski.
One law enforcement official said that pretty much any pain pill bought off the street or purchased without a prescription will likely have fentanyl. These pills are coming from Mexico, and the reason for the fentanyl comes down to money.
“One hundred ninety people are dying every day,” Coleman said.
The body count behind the fentanyl crisis is devastating.
“We’re losing entire pieces of a generation of young America to this epidemic,” says Coleman.
A death sweep is continuing to spread across the U.S.
“We’re seizing heroin or fentanyl powder or fentanyl pills just about every single day,” said Coleman.
So, what brought on this drug’s infectious killing spree? Demand and greed, according to Coleman.
“Initially, it came in from foreign sources, mainly the Chinese. The Mexican cartel realized that someone was cutting in on their business and so they started ordering the precursor chemicals, the chemicals you need to actually make fentanyl and they started manufacturing it themselves,” said Coleman.
He says it comes down to basic economics.
“If you make a kilogram of fentanyl well, that’s a million milligrams. So if you split that all the way up to 2 milligrams per pill, you’ve just made 500,000 pills from that 1 kilogram of pure fentanyl,” said Coleman.
And he says the return on investment is huge.
“Well, you can spend $2,500 and because you can sell it in such small quantities, you can make millions of dollars off of that $2,500 investment,” said Coleman.
It’s a money machine that’s turned into a death trap.
“This is not [done] in a chemical laboratory. This is in somebody’s garage, so when they mix everything up to start your pill press, you don’t know if that pill has 2 milligrams of fentanyl, which you might be able to survive, or 8 milligrams of fentanyl and that’s the end of their life,” said Coleman.
The average pill in the Valley costs about $10 to $15 per pill. But to manufacture that one pill in Mexico, it costs mere pennies.