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This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Phoenix Division shows a closeup of fentanyl-laced sky blue pills. (Drug Enforcement Administration via AP, File)

Five people, including a 21-year-old woman and a 24-year-old owner of an Erie construction company, died from fentanyl poisoning in the span of two months in Boulder County, according to recently completed autopsy reports that bring the total number of fatal overdoses from the synthetic opioid to 19 since February.

The five deaths occurred from mid-July to mid-September and include two overdoses 31 hours apart. The autopsy reports were released by the Boulder County coroner after a public records request from The Colorado Sun, which has been investigating a string of deaths in the county that began with two teenagers who died three days apart in February.

The latest confirmed fentanyl death, on Sept. 14, was that of a 29-year-old woman who died in bed next to the telltale blue “M30” pills, according to her autopsy report. The pills match the description of counterfeit drugs manufactured in Mexican warehouses and stamped with a pill press to look like a 30-milligram dose of oxycodone.

The pills, called “mexis” and “blues,” contain fentanyl as their active ingredient. About two in five sold on the streets and online contain a lethal dose of the synthetic opioid, which is used in hospitals for severe pain. 

Confirmation that fentanyl was involved in the overdoses takes about two months because of a backlog in toxicology reports. The Boulder County Coroner’s Office, like many others across Colorado, uses an out-of-state lab for toxicology testing. 

A Sun investigation published in November found that fentanyl poisoning killed two 18-year-olds three days apart in February in Boulder County, as well as two University of Colorado students. Although there were public health warnings not to take pills that weren’t purchased in a pharmacy, authorities raised no alarm about the deaths because of the lag in toxicology reports. 

The 19 deaths occurred in a nine-month period, and the victims ranged in age from 18 to 68.

Victim’s parents seek answers

Alex Young, a 24-year-old owner of an Erie construction business, died of fentanyl poisoning on Sept. 6, according to an autopsy report from the Boulder County Coroner’s Office. (Photo provided by Bridget Young)

News that the Erie Police Department had closed its investigation into 24-year-old Alex Young’s death — with no arrests or leads as to where he got the fentanyl-laced drugs — had Bridget and Andy Young grasping for answers. 

It was Labor Day when they found their eldest son, Alex, in his bed with his laptop perched on his chest, open to Home Depot’s website, presumably shopping for materials for a construction job. In his bedroom, police found unlabeled medicine bottles, some filled with unidentified circular pills, others containing baggies with a white, powdery substance. 

An autopsy revealed a lethal amount of fentanyl in his system. 

After calling 911, Bridget and Andy watched detectives collect their son’s belongings, including drug paraphernalia and bottles of prescription medicine that were prescribed to Alex. They didn’t take his laptop and only took Alex’s phone after his dad offered it, Andy recalled. 

“Through this process, there’s really been no questions about: Where did this stuff come from? Who did he buy it from? I guarantee you this was all taking place digitally, so there’s got to be a digital paper trail on Venmo, on Snapchat,” Andy Young said. 

According to a Sept. 7 police report, an officer looked at the most recent text messages on Alex’s phone, but “did not find any communication relevant to drug use.” No further details regarding his phone were included in the 16-page report. 

Police told Bridget and Andy Young that the case was closed on Nov. 19, about 2½ months after their son’s death. 

Alex, a graduate of Colorado State University, was outgoing and easy to get along with, his parents said. Friends and family raised nearly $16,000 to support five organizations in his honor and more than 200 people attended his funeral service. 

He was “an adventure seeker” with a passion for skydiving and camping, especially in Moab, Utah, his parents said. 

When he died, he was living at home as he got his construction business off the ground. “He had more construction work than he literally knew what to do with,” Andy Young said. 

Before his death, Bridget and Andy Young said they knew “practically nothing” about fentanyl. They wish police used more resources to uncover more answers about how their son died.

“We just think that there’s more to the story that might be helpful to somebody,” Andy Young said. 

For the past two months, the couple have been trying to get access to their son’s Venmo records, after noticing he made a $2,000 payment shortly before he died. A Venmo representative told them that they were never contacted by police for the account information.

“Two-thousand dollars seems material to me in terms of something nefarious occurring,” Andy Young said. “Does anybody care? I guess that’s the thing that is just a little heartbreaking to us.”

So far, Bridget and Andy Young have been unsuccessful in trying to trace the source of the drugs Alex took. 

Officers have circled back with them consistently regarding the investigation, even since closing it, Bridget Young said, adding that she understands the complicated task police have of tracing back the source of the drugs.

Police will try to trace the source of drugs, but it is often “difficult or impossible to do so” in the case of overdoses, Deputy Chief Lee Mathis said in an email. In order for police to request bank records or information from Venmo, they would need to secure a warrant, he said. 

“With the circumstance surrounding the case we did not have enough information to establish probable cause to believe there was evidence of a crime,” Mathis said.

Detectives didn’t speak with anyone that Alex was with in the days prior to his death, he said, adding that generally, people are unwilling to talk with police. 

Even as fatal overdoses from the powerful drug continue to skyrocket across the state, holding a drug dealer accountable for a person’s death is rare. There have been only two federal convictions and one case on the state level is pending. 

“We need to start beating the drum”

For Bridget and Andy Young, finding answers could mean helping save more families from going through this type of loss. “It might not help us, but if we can help someone else track this or define what this looks like, we just want to be helpful,” Bridget Young said. 

“We need to start beating the drum on this,” her husband added. “It feels like we need to get a little more attention and light on it, and awareness with kids.”

The Denver field office of the Drug Enforcement Administration said counterfeit pills containing potentially deadly fentanyl are circulating in every county in the state. The drug has overtaken heroin and methamphetamine as the leading cause of fatal overdose in Colorado, blamed for 624 deaths so far this year. And that count is through August, the latest tally available from the state health department, so the number is expected to climb even higher. It’s a massive increase from 2018, when there were 102 fentanyl deaths.  

The pills — made to look just like oxycodone or Xanax — are now the most worrisome part of the opioid crisis and have grown in volume as the DEA and states cracked down on overprescribing doctors and illegal sales of actual prescription drugs. Last week, prosecutors announced charges against 21 people accused of smuggling the pills from Mexico and selling them in Arapahoe, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties. Authorities seized 110,000 counterfeit pills, 11.5 kilograms of cocaine, 28 firearms, three hand grenades and body armor as part of the investigation.

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.