The pill was light blue and stamped with “30” and “M,” just like a real 30mg oxycodone. Except it was a counterfeit, cooked up in an illegal Mexican lab rather than precisely measured in a pharmaceutical factory.
The fentanyl it contained was potent enough to kill Jonathan Ellington in a matter of seconds. He died alone in his room in Carbondale, in a house he rented with two friends.
Ellington, 30, had moved to Colorado for a fresh start, to spend more time skiing and hiking in the mountains. He worked in Aspen as a bellman at the historic Hotel Jerome, where he was known for impeccable “yes, sir” and “thank you, ma’am” manners. Hundreds of friends and former hotel guests gathered there for his 2018 memorial service, including an elderly woman who recalled how Ellington clasped her hand as if she were his grandmother and helped her cross the street.
More than 660 Coloradans have died in the last two years because of fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s now surpassed heroin as the cause of overdose deaths in this state. But Ellington is the first victim of the Mexico-to-Colorado fentanyl pipeline whose death is legally accounted for. His 2017 death was at the heart of a federal criminal trial that ended last week with the first conviction in Colorado of a drug supplier causing a death with a counterfeit opioid pill.
Bruce Holder, 55, of Grand Junction, was convicted in U.S. District Court in Denver of distribution of fentanyl resulting in death, among other drug charges, after an 11-day jury trial. He and his wife, children and other relatives distributed pills that looked like oxycodone “but in fact were counterfeit and spiked with fentanyl,” according to the Denver field office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Holder imported “tens of thousands” of the pills to western Colorado from Mexico, where suppliers use chemicals from China to mix batches of the drugs and stamp them using the same kind of pill presses used by pharmaceutical companies, the DEA said. The amount of fentanyl that could instantly kill a person is measured in micrograms — just a few flecks of powder — so illegal producers in garages and warehouses can easily calculate wrong.
Ellington’s death was key to the landmark case because federal prosecutors could prove the line of distribution of the little blue pills, and because a coroner’s report made clear that fentanyl is what made Ellington stop breathing.
But he wasn’t the only one to die.
“A drug of mass destruction”
Ashley Romero was in the midst of whipping up a late-night breakfast, something she was known to do. The potatoes were still in the pan. The eggs were in a bowl beside the stove, ready to scramble, when her mother, Andrea Thomas, came to her Grand Junction home the next day.
Romero, 32, was at her house with her boyfriend when he gave her part of a blue pill. The couple left the half-cooked food in the kitchen and got in the car, presumably to get help. Acquaintances who stopped by the house just after midnight found them in the car and called 911. Romero was dead. Her boyfriend was saved with a dose of the opioid antidote naloxone.
The day after Romero died, her boyfriend killed himself.
After Romero’s memorial service, her friends, family and 8-year-old son gathered at Thomas’ home, where a friend showed Thomas a Facebook post. It was a warning from a Grand Junction police officer about the blue pills circulating in the area. “I knew then there was more to do,” Thomas said in an interview.
She quietly did her own research and learned of other deaths in the area. One was that of a friend’s son, who crushed up fentanyl and smoked it inside a cigarette. “He died instantly, just like my daughter did,” Thomas said.
State health department statistics for Mesa County count seven fentanyl overdose deaths in 2017, seven in 2018, and three in 2019. The county saw 54 emergency room visits in 2019 for opioid overdoses, according to the local public health department.
Romero, an outgoing and “vibrant” woman who could talk to anyone, had struggled with alcohol addiction and had been in pain for years with recurring bouts of pancreatitis, her mother said. As a girl, she went on fire department ride-alongs with her firefighter stepdad, and she dreamed of becoming a forensic pathologist.
“She didn’t hold judgment against anyone,” Thomas said. “She was extremely trustworthy and loyal. Why would she even think that her boyfriend would give her something that could kill her?”
Romero’s death wasn’t part of last week’s trial, but it was connected to the case through an indictment of one of Holder’s alleged co-conspirators. Still, Thomas said, the verdict against Holder was “huge.”
“I’m so happy for the other families involved, some of which don’t even know they were involved,” she said. “For so many parents, it’s just an overdose, closed book, end of story. My daughter didn’t die in vain.”
The night Romero died, it was almost as if Thomas sensed it. She couldn’t sleep. Her ex-husband called her at 7:20 a.m., seven hours after Romero passed, and broke the news. “I thought it was ridiculous,” she said. “I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about.”
She called her husband and her two sons, leaving her youngest daughter, who was then 16, out of the chaos for the moment. Thomas headed down the mountain from her home and into Grand Junction, where her sons and husband were waiting for her at a grocery store on the edge of town.
“When I got to where everyone was and could see everyone’s faces, I knew it was true,” she said.
Next they had to tell Romero’s son, who had spent the night with his dad. The little boy took in the news and said, “Jesus took my mom today. He has her now, Grandma.”
Thomas’ 16-year-old daughter was at her grandparents house. When the family pulled up in multiple cars, along with Romero’s son’s father, but not Romero, Thomas’ mother and 16-year-old daughter began to wail. “My daughter just started screaming, ‘Where is my sister?’ At that point my mother went down and my daughter went down,” Thomas said. “Those are things that never leave you.”
Thomas, who has since started a nonprofit called Voices for Awareness to warn others about fentanyl and other illicit drugs, doesn’t use the term “overdose” to describe her daughter’s death.
“She was poisoned,” she said. “Fentanyl is a drug of mass destruction. There are no second chances.”
“Losing what could have been”
Ellington’s parents have their own story of agony.
Authorities plucked a business card from Ellington’s belongings after he was found dead in Carbondale and called the phone number, reaching a friend of his parents. The friend tracked down the Ellingtons in Florida, but couldn’t bear to break the news. “It’s bad,” he told Ellington’s father and passed along the number for law officers in Colorado.
Until the afternoon of that nightmare news, which came three days after Christmas 2017, Dave and Cheryl Ellington had no idea that their son had slipped. His struggle with addiction began at 16, after a high school soccer injury led to a knee surgery and a prescription for painkillers. They helped him through rehab. They had visited Aspen a few weeks before his death, staying at the Hotel Jerome and going on snowy hikes outside of town. They thought he was thriving.
They’re talking now about his death to warn other families. “Our real desire is that parents wouldn’t experience the sheer grief that we have,” Dave Ellington said. “It’s not just losing him. It’s losing what could have been.”
So much has happened in the three years since Ellington died. His grandmother died last year of COVID-19. The family is rehabbing a house on the ocean, talking about future diving trips and days at Disney World. “All of these things, we think, ‘Where would Jon have been in that story,’” Dave Ellington said in an interview from his home in Kentucky. “Most of those activities, though we still might do them, have a hollowness to them.”
Fentanyl seizures, deaths have doubled
As fentanyl-related deaths have climbed in Colorado the last few years, doubling from 2019 to 2020, convictions of suppliers for causing those deaths have been elusive — but not for lack of trying, said Steve Kotecki, public affairs specialist with the Denver field office of the DEA.
“It’s extremely hard, to make the accusation and to have it stick,” he said. Prosecutors need evidence proving that the exact pill came from a specific dealer, as well as proof that the drug — not a multitude of drugs in a victim’s system — caused the death.
The DEA declined to talk in detail about the Holder case, since Holder is still awaiting sentencing on four counts related to Ellington’s death and other drug charges. But Kotecki said drug seizures involving fentanyl have quadrupled in the recent years in the four-state region of Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming, despite that the number of DEA agents has not changed that much.
Busts of 10,000 or 20,000 fentanyl pills used to happen infrequently, he said. “Now that’s every Tuesday,” he said. “We’re seeing these numbers go up and up. We are trying to warn the public that these pills are out there and they do kill people and this case is an example of that.”
Fentanyl pills are not just ingested. They can be crushed up and smoked or snorted, or cooked with liquid and injected. One pill — which provides a more intense high than heroin — costs $15 to $30.
The agency has helped win convictions for drug distribution resulting in death for other drugs, including methamphetamine. But this is the first case in Colorado connected to fake opioid pills, Kotecki said.
A man who authorities say gave a fentanyl pill disguised as an oxycodone to a 16-year-old girl at a party in Aurora last year was charged with her death. But the case against Jorge Alexander Che-Quiab, who authorities said was living in the country illegally, is not settled and involves immigration proceedings.
In Utah last year, a jury convicted Aaron Michael Shamo of multiple drug-trafficking counts after he was prosecuted as the head of a nationwide “darknet” organization that distributed more than a half-million counterfeit pills, according to federal court records. But jurors — after 47 witnesses testified in the trial — deadlocked on a count of distribution of fentanyl resulting in death. Shamo sold thousands of pills in Utah but even more through an online marketplace called AlphaBay and through the mail, prosecutors said.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
In the Grand Junction case, Holder’s attorneys declined to comment for this story, but said their client plans to appeal.
Ellington’s father called Holder a “sociopath” and a “narcissist,” and believes that his arrest in 2018 saved an unknown number of lives. “There was really only one person that was dealing this particular shape of pill, color of pill,” said Dave Ellington, who sat through every day of the trial. “They had the evidence.”
Still, he knows one conviction didn’t end the counterfeit opioid epidemic.
“I’m not stupid,” he said. “I’m sure there is a line of people behind him ready to deal this poison.”
Just three weeks ago, the Grand Junction Police Department issued another warning about counterfeit opioid pills.
“Once again, we’re seeing these dangerous pills in our community,” says the Facebook post. It shows a photograph of blue pills stamped with “30” and “M,” and includes a video of a police officer who begins, “There is a pill circulating in Mesa County that can kill you.”