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Sun Investigation

How counterfeit drugs made to look like real pills have ravaged one Colorado county

A Boulder 18-year-old’s overdose began a string of 2021 deaths tied to fentanyl. Since then, 13 more fentanyl overdoses have been confirmed and the causes of six other deaths are pending the results of toxicology tests.

Carrie and Ryan Panning on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, in Parker. The couple’s oldest son, Ross, a student at CU Boulder, was working toward a degree in computer science when he died in June. “We didn’t even know about fentanyl until this happened to us,” Ryan Panning said. “I bet there are 1,000 people who are in the same boat as us.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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Jack Swanson, 18, died in February while listening to music in his bed. Next to him were little blue pills and rectangular-shaped white ones, the kind sold in his hometown of Boulder and throughout Colorado as “mexis” and “xanny bars.” 

Two in five of the counterfeit pills circulating the country, drugs made in Mexico to look like oxycodone and Xanax tablets, contain enough fentanyl to kill a person instantly. 

In his obituary, Swanson’s parents wrote that he “was abusing drugs and fell asleep only to never wake up again.” There was no running from it, no keeping their teenager’s cause of death a secret as some had suggested to his mother, Patricia Swanson, warning her that his drug overdose could taint the reputation of her Boulder bilingual daycare center.

“Why should I hide something? I never hide my struggles or my weaknesses,” she told The Colorado Sun. “That day, many people said, ‘Don’t say he died this way because you have a business.’ I think that’s ignorant. So for me, I will not put it in a bottle. I will say what it is. If I can help his friends or any kids in Boulder or around the world, I will do it.”

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Jack’s death, which shocked Boulder teenagers and sent parents into a panic, marked the beginning of a string of fentanyl overdoses in the county that have yet to relent. Two 18-year-olds died less than three days apart. Two young men, including a University of Colorado student, died separately on the same day in June. A second CU student died in August three days before the start of his senior year. 

Jack Swanson, middle, with his mom and sister during a vacation to Costa Rica. Jack died in February at the age of 18. (Provided by Patricia Swanson)

All of them — a dozen people ranging in age from 18 to 68, according to records released so far to The Colorado Sun — were killed by fentanyl, either on its own or in combination with other drugs. The Sun spent more than $400 on multiple public records requests to the Boulder County Coroner’s Office in order to learn the scope of the damage caused in one Colorado county by fentanyl, which overtook heroin and methamphetamine in the last few years as the drug causing the most overdose deaths in Colorado. 

The autopsy records — and the struggle to obtain them — revealed not only a pervasive and seemingly inexorable fentanyl problem in Boulder County but delays in releasing public information so lengthy that the community has struggled to sound the alarm that its young people are dying. 

Less than 60 hours after Jack was found dead, another 18-year-old Boulder County man died of an overdose while sitting on the couch. Near his body, investigators found a baggie of the now familiar, white, bar-shaped pills. 

>> DAY 1: The Colorado Sun spent months and more than $400 gathering autopsy reports in order to learn the scope of the damage caused by fentanyl in Boulder County. The records — and the struggle to obtain them — revealed not only a pervasive fentanyl problem but bureaucratic delays in releasing public information that have left the community struggling to sound the alarm that its young people are dying. >> STORY

>> DAY 2: The lack of an official coordinated effort to warn the community that people were dying from fentanyl has frustrated parents and community activists, who have taken on the task themselves.  >> STORY

>> DAY 3: Parents whose children have died from fentanyl poisoning say they feel like their kids were murdered. Why is it so hard for law officers to trace back to the source of fentanyl and make a homicide case after someone dies from it? >> STORY

Parents and community leaders who knew the boys tried to send up a flare then. In the absence of an official community meeting, a Boulder woman who works in addiction called her own. A mom started handing out fentanyl test strips to high school kids. The Boulder County Health Department warned that deadly counterfeit fentanyl pills made to look like real prescription pills — complete with a stamp of M30 for 30 milligrams, just like on real oxycodone — were circulating around town. But health officials did not say publicly that two teenagers were dead because of them.

That’s because the Boulder County Coroner’s Office could not confirm in real time that deaths from fentanyl had occurred, citing a two-month turnaround in getting toxicology reports from an out-of-state lab. In response to a Feb. 11 public records request from The Sun, the coroner’s office said it does not track fentanyl deaths except for an annual report and that it was not required under the state Open Records Act to give a count of how many had recently died. 

So as rumors circulated that the teens had died from fentanyl, and some in the community feared that a particularly bad batch of the counterfeit drugs were being sold around town, there was no official word. And the overdoses continued through spring and summer.

In August, fentanyl killed a 21-year-old college student. His body was discovered by his roommate just three days before the start of his senior year. The Sun again asked the coroner’s office about fentanyl deaths, and after three additional requests filed under the Colorado Open Records Act, received confirmation this fall that fentanyl has caused 12 deaths — from Jack Swanson’s in February to the CU student’s death in August. 

“A clear plastic bag containing 29 green ‘M30’ pills was discovered at the scene,” the report of the August death says. 

The lag in information is maddening to Boulder City Councilwoman Rachel Friend, who has a high schooler. She heard about the deaths in February and urged the council to make a statement about fentanyl at a public meeting, then received pushback from city officials who considered it the job of the county health department — not the city — to dispense public health notices. 

“It’s not super helpful if the pills are going around in February and we’re not able to sound the alarm until August and more people have died,” Friend said. “That’s an extremely frustrating lag. These are my community’s children who are dying and being harmed.”

But the coroner’s office said “real-time data” is impossible. 

“As far as rushing toxicology, that’s almost nonexistent,” said Jeff Martin, Boulder County’s chief deputy coroner. “People get this ‘CSI effect’ where they watch an hour television show where a person dies and they get everything back by the end of the show. That’s just not realistic and that’s not how it works.”

Jack Swanson, 18, died in Boulder in February from an overdose of fentanyl. Authorities found counterfeit opioid pills near his body. (Provided by Patricia Swanson)

The delay isn’t just happening in Boulder, it’s nationwide, said Martin, who recently was a coroner in Florida. The Boulder office has to wait for toxicology results from a national lab in Pennsylvania, and it can take several weeks to hear back on what substances are discovered. 

And while the coroner’s office regularly talks to law enforcement, officials will not assume a death is caused by fentanyl until it’s officially confirmed by toxicology reports and an autopsy. “We don’t know until we know,” Martin said. “There are cases where you find a M30 blue pill and think it’s fentanyl and it comes back ‘no fentanyl’ and it was something else.”

Fentanyl overdoses now occur so frequently in Colorado — more than one per day, on average — that it’s not realistic to rush every toxicology report. But it’s possible in certain circumstances that local coroners’ offices could get faster toxicology results from the state lab at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. 

In some instances, the state’s drug chemists have provided “rush analysis” of pills collected from overdose scenes, said Susan Medina, the bureau’s chief of staff for administration. “If there was a public safety concern related to a string of overdoses due to fentanyl, or any other drug resulting in death,” she said, “the CBI could provide testing on a case-by-case basis.”

Public alerts have not mentioned deaths, neither has CU

The Boulder County Health Department issued a second alert following the August death of the CU student, again warning of counterfeit pills circulating the county. Once again, it didn’t mention any deaths since there was no confirmation from the coroner.

The university also made no announcement about the two CU students who died over the summer from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used in hospitals for pain but now pervasive on the streets. Instead, in emails and an interview with The Sun, university officials said the school educates students throughout the school year on substance abuse through programs and amplifies local public health warnings. Officials pointed toward a CU website that warns of counterfeit prescription drugs. 

The university told The Sun that it is not required to keep track of the reason for student deaths, unless there are criminal charges, and would not say whether students have died of fentanyl poisoning in recent months. Families, however, confirmed that their sons were CU students, and in one case, that they received condolence calls from CU. 

The week after two 18-year-olds died of a fentanyl overdose, the university’s police department warned students that the public health department had found counterfeit Xanax and oxycodone, laced with fentanyl, according to a Feb. 11 Facebook post. 

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The Boulder County Coroner’s Office will typically notify the school when they have confirmed that a CU student has died in the county, but it is rare for the university to know the cause of death, said Devin Cramer, assistant vice chancellor of the university’s Division of Student Affairs. Cramer, who declined to discuss the suspected fentanyl deaths, said he is among the staff at the university who reach out to the families of students who have died, as well as to staff and students on campus, to offer support services.

“We are notifying them, to be clear, that the death occurred and our priority is what the family’s wishes are in that process. We encourage anyone, when impacted, to utilize campus resources,” Cramer said. 

It may take weeks or even months for forensic pathologists to determine a cause of death and toxicology results aren’t relayed back to the school, he said. “We don’t want to make assumptions on what that is. It is pretty common that I have no idea what that cause of death is,” Cramer said. 

Meanwhile, the deaths were well known among local law enforcement officials, addiction recovery experts and community activists attending Boulder County’s Substance Use Advisory Group. Attendees were told recently that fentanyl has caused or contributed to 14 overdoses in recent months and that six additional toxicology reports are pending. 

Fentanyl is suspected, too, in an overdose about three weeks ago, said Trina Faatz, a peer recovery coach and the Boulder County Public Health facilitator of the advisory group meetings. Faatz, who wrote the February and August public health alerts warning people not to take pills that they didn’t buy from a pharmacy, said the alerts can’t mention recent deaths when there is no official confirmation. 

“The really hard part is when you learn about one overdose death and you learn there was a second one soon after,” she said. “You feel really frustrated.” 

After the August death of a CU student, the 21-year-old’s friends asked Faatz if she could announce on social media that fentanyl had killed a local student. Instead, she was able to get a brief published on the inside pages of the local newspaper, warning of counterfeit pills. 

“My understanding is we had another death within the week,” she said. (The coroner’s office has not provided records to The Sun on any fentanyl deaths since the student’s on Aug. 18 but the deputy coroner confirmed that two more fentanyl deaths have occurred since then and six autopsies in which fentanyl was suspected are pending.)

Faatz said she understands the need for official confirmation on cause of death, but she wishes that what’s known behind the scenes about fentanyl would reach the public at large. Faatz, who also teaches a class for parents whose children are dealing with drug addiction and gives presentations about drugs to high school students, hears about overdoses and near-overdoses on a weekly basis. 

“This comes from boots in the trenches,” she said. “It’s that sense of being underground and being connected with folks.” 

A photo distributed by the Grand Junction Police Department shows counterfeit fentanyl pills that look like 30mg oxycodone.

Fentanyl-laced pills have been circulating in Boulder County — and the rest of the state — for the past couple of years, but community alarm is rising after overdoses of young people who are not long-time drug users who die or nearly die after popping a pill at a party, Faatz said. “It’s just becoming more visible.” 

Cmdr. Nico Goldberger, with Boulder County’s Drug Task Force, said it has been hard getting messages related to fentanyl and other drugs across to everyone. “How can we get it out to the masses, efficiently and quickly, when the masses have different ways of communicating and different styles?”

He said the county’s drug task force is working with the university and CU Boulder police to better use tools like social media to get warnings to students about drugs, something more effective than forwarding on press releases from the county health department or sheriff’s office. 

“There’s a system set up already, but we want to make it better,” he said. “Because we are dealing with people’s lives and this is just tragic.”

“If we send out a press release for Boulder County, probably the older folks, there’s probably a higher probability that they will see something like that compared to students or younger kids who couldn’t care less about those press releases and are more on Snapchat,” he said. “We want to find better bridges to reach those folks.”

Parents learned about fentanyl dangers in a FB post, after their son had died

On one Monday in the middle of June, two young men died just hours apart. One was found lying in bed in a Boulder County home with drug paraphernalia nearby. An autopsy report found he died from the toxic effects of fentanyl. 

The other was Ross Panning, whose parents had never heard of the dangers of counterfeit opioids.

Carrie and Ryan Panning will never know whether their oldest son, a soon-to-be senior at CU Boulder, knew the risk he was taking when he took drugs while living off campus and taking summer classes toward his computer science degree. 

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Ross Panning, 20, had a 3.8 cumulative GPA and was looking forward to his senior year capstone project. After graduating, he had dreams of coding for a small tech company on the West Coast. And when he wasn’t studying, he enjoyed scouring the racks of resale shops looking for vintage clothing or Nintendo DS video games to add to the collection in his bedroom in his family’s home.

But on June 14, likely within seconds of taking the drugs, Ross Panning died in his bed. Investigators found small baggies with a white powdery substance inside. An autopsy report said he died from a mix of drugs, including fentanyl. 

Ross Panning had many interests, including thrifting, gaming and playing guitar. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Carrie and Ryan Panning warned Ross, along with his younger brother, Max about drugs, but never about fentanyl — a powerful drug they knew nothing about until it took their son’s life on that sweltering summer day.

“We weren’t so naive with our kids to think that they couldn’t try something. We didn’t support it, obviously. But we talked about things that occur on college campuses and wanted to make them aware of their choices,” Carrie Panning said from the couple’s home in Parker. “And that’s why we really feel like we want to talk about it and be forthcoming because we couldn’t save Ross. He is gone. But maybe, by sharing our story, maybe another parent won’t go through the same.”

Carrie and Ryan talked to Ross every few days on the phone and drove up to Boulder to see him often. The last time they saw Ross before he died was at their house in May for his brother’s high school graduation party, Carrie Panning said. Three days before he died, Ross called them from Boulder’s Kathmandu, an all-you-can-eat Indian food restaurant, one of his favorites, and talked about their upcoming family vacation to Long Island.

At their son’s funeral service, they said Ross had died from drugs, though they weren’t sure of exactly what kind. It wasn’t until September that they received his autopsy report and found out he died of fentanyl poisoning.

Police collected Ross’ laptop, phone and desktop computer after he died, hoping to track where he got the drugs, Ryan Panning said.

“We have been pretty open about it just because there is a stereotype of who this happens to and the stereotype has changed. These are college kids who are just experimenting with their life and they are gone,” Carrie Panning said. “They don’t get to make the second choice to get to decide if they want to do that again. The choice has been made for them. It can happen to smart kids. It can happen to kids who had their futures planned out and were excited about their life.” 

As salutatorian of Ponderosa High School’s Class of 2018, Ross spoke to a football stadium filled with hundreds of his fellow students and their families: “Everything that we do must be important because our lives are finite and don’t extend a death date.” 

He spoke of having fun and being dedicated to one’s passions — which Carrie Panning said he exemplified in his own life by building computers and teaching himself, via YouTube, to play guitar, including her favorite song, Foo Fighters’ Everlong. For four years, he was a varsity swimmer for his high school, where he and his younger brother, Max, competed on the same relay team. The two brothers, three years apart in age, were looking forward to going to the same school together again — Max began classes at CU this year.

“If this can happen in our family, it can happen in any family,” said Carrie Panning, who wears a necklace with an R. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“We’re just never going to know what he was going to become,” Carrie Panning said with tears forming in her eyes. A tiny block letter R hung around her neck on a thin gold chain. “We feel like — he passed away in June — time is kind of taking him away, with the change of the season from summer to fall. He’s not in the current time and we can’t bring him back. We miss him.”

A week after his son’s death, Ryan Panning researched deadly drugs on the internet and learned about fentanyl. About two months later, the couple learned more about the dangers of fentanyl from a university press release that was posted in a Facebook group. 

“We didn’t even know about fentanyl until this happened to us,” Ryan Panning said. “I bet there are 1,000 people who are in the same boat as us.”

One of them is Carole Andrews, mother of the CU student who died two months after Ross Panning. She recalled hearing about a big counterfeit pill bust a couple of weeks after her son died. She  wonders now if she could have prevented her son’s death had she known about the deadly drug sooner. “How did I not hear of fentanyl two weeks earlier?” she asked, through tears. “How did I not know?”

“How many times do young kids do stupid things — drive without a seatbelt, drink too much? At that age you just take these risks and you don’t really think. He made a really poor choice to take this pill but never could he ever imagine that by doing it that he was ending his life.” 

“As quickly as you can take a Skittle or an M&M”

The fentanyl epidemic is certainly not unique to Boulder, though the college town is on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s radar because of the high number of Snapchat and TikTok sales of xanny bars, “mexis, “roxys” and “blues” — all names for counterfeit prescription pills. 

Fentanyl has reached every corner of the state, according to the DEA. Statewide, overdoses involving fentanyl more than doubled, reaching 540 deaths last year. That was up from 222 in 2019, according to the latest count from the state health department. Already in 2021, fentanyl is blamed for 525 overdose deaths statewide. 

On any given week, the DEA field office based in Denver seizes 5,000 to 100,000 counterfeit fentanyl pills. While a Sun reporter was interviewing David Olesky, the DEA’s acting special agent in charge for Denver, an agent interrupted to get the go-ahead on an undercover buy of 1,000 counterfeit pills in Denver. 

“He’s going out to buy counterfeit fentanyl pills right here on the streets of Denver,” Olesky said. “When I first got here 18 months ago, that was not a regular occurrence. Now, more often than not when our folks are doing undercover buys or informant buys, it’s for counterfeit pills.” 

And many of those buys are arranged over social media. Out of curiosity, Olesky recently asked his 14-year-old son how to use the Snapchat app on his cell phone, and within seconds, the special agent found people chatting about buying counterfeit fentanyl. It was proof that fighting the war on drugs is a moving target — from heroin in dark alleys, to doctors overprescribing opioids and now to counterfeit opioids readily available in any town in America.

As quickly as you can take a Skittle or an M&M, it could be the last thing you do.”

David Olesky, DEA acting special agent in charge

“There are no stigmas anymore. There is no injection needle, there’s no tinfoil and lighting up with a match,” Olesky said. “It’s as easy as we said — two clicks away, a pill shows up, and as quickly as you can take a Skittle or an M&M, it could be the last thing you do.” 

The jump in overdose deaths nationwide prompted the DEA to issue a national alert in September about the pills made to look like Oxycontin and Xanax. The pills — which contain no oxycodone, just fentanyl as the active ingredient — are growing more potent. Two in five pills seized in the United States last year contained a lethal dose of the synthetic drug, up from one in four pills the year before. 

And there is no quality control — the amount of fentanyl in seized pills ranges from 0.2 milligrams to 5.1 milligrams. A lethal dose is 2 milligrams. The chemicals used to make fentanyl are shipped from China to Mexico, where they are mixed — imprecisely — by drug trafficking organizations, according to the DEA. Agents compare the process to improperly mixing a batch of cookies — some bites end up with too much salt, some have none. 

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The pills are available online, through friends and even via mail, everywhere. Steve Kotecki, public information officer for the DEA’s Denver field office, recalled conference calls with law enforcement a year ago in which some officers said they had not yet seen fentanyl. “You would have people all the way down in southeast Colorado and they would say, ‘Well, we don’t have fentanyl in our community. And maybe a year ago, that might have been true,” he said. 

But not now. 

“We’re telling you it’s in your community,” Kotecki said. “If you’re in southeast Colorado, or on a reservation in Montana, fentanyl is in your community.”

“It’s like a murder to me”

Patricia Swanson didn’t know anything about fentanyl before her son died, but she wonders if Jack did. He was 18, had fallen into the wrong group of friends, and, she figures, probably wasn’t worried about dying. “He loved other people,” she said. “He didn’t love himself.” 

After his February death, a police investigator took Jack’s phone, looking for evidence of who sold Jack the deadly drug. “They called me later and said the case was closed. They couldn’t find anything,” Patricia said. “These people need to pay for what they did. It’s like a murder to me.”

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All she can do now is warn others, tell them how her sweet boy who loved to travel, sold candy to his fourth-grade classmates and taught her how to save money at the grocery store, would still be here if it weren’t for fentanyl. On El Día de los Muertos, when people in her home country of Nicaragua honor the dead, Patricia told stories about Jack. She remembered that when he was 12, they traveled to Morocco, Spain and France, and Patricia started to panic after realizing she lost her credit card. 

“He was like, ‘Don’t worry, Mama, I will take care of you. I’m here,’” she said, tears flowing. 

Patricia said she’s gotten by the past nine months with support from her friends and Jack’s friends, talking about her son and working to break the stigma of drug use. She and Jack’s little sister, who is 14, gather up whatever emotions they’re feeling to face each day. And on a lot of days, it’s anger.

“There is not a day that I don’t go without thinking about my sweet boy,” she said. “I didn’t know you could die like that. They should tell the kids, ‘You may die today because this may be fentanyl.’”


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