Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series documenting the prevalence of fentanyl in SLO County and the stories of local mothers whose sons died from accidental consumption.
Mothers Cammie Velci and Cindy Cruz-Sarantos sat side-by-side on a Dec. 11, 2020, Zoom call.
They've been at each other's side since May 2020. In separate instances, only months apart, their sons died by taking a drug neither boy knew contained fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.
Velci said her son, Emilio Velci, 19, was a hard worker who held two jobs and lived with his brothers and roommate. Emilio worked at Les Petites Canailles in Paso Robles five nights a week and was a youth sports referee on Saturdays who was starting to coach as well.
The weekend of March 6 had been a long one for Emilio as he juggled work and spending time with visiting family members and friends.
He was also dealing with wisdom teeth pain that his mother said had been hurting on and off for about four months. Emilio was still insured under his mother's health plan so he asked her about getting surgery to remove his wisdom teeth.
"Typical teenager, you know, trying to get him and coordinate to get an appointment was difficult," Velci said with a wave of her hand and a smile.
Acquiring an appointment had also been challenging because at the time Velci was changing her insurance provider.
On Friday, March 6, 2020, Velci saw her son and made plans to get together the following week to set up an appointment to get his wisdom teeth removed. Velci didn't know it would be the last time she saw her son. She was also unaware that an acquaintance of Emilio's was talking to him about Percocet pills he could sell him to ease the pain in his mouth.
Emilio decided to purchase three Percocet pills from the acquaintance two days later, on March 8, 2020, and took one the same day, placing the other two on the coffee table. Friends and family who were with Emilio that night told Velci that he seemed normal but appeared exhausted.
"He told them how tired he was and he lay down. He fell asleep, and passed away," she said.
Emilio was later found by his brothers and roommate. Velci describes the day as shocking and devastating, but above all else she was confused.
According to the toxicology report, the pill her son consumed wasn't a Percocet. Velci said it contained mostly fentanyl with traces of methamphetamine. She said she didn't understand how her son could have died from one pill.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl is used in the health care setting to provide pain management primarily to cancer patients. Illegally, it is added to heroin to increase its potency or is disguised as highly potent heroin.
- Photos Courtesy Of Cammie Velci And Cindy Cruz-sarantos
- IN MEMORY Emilio Velci, 19, (left) and Dylan Kai Cruz-Sarantos, 18, (right) were both victims of purchasing a drug that they didn't know contained fentanyl and died from consuming one pill.
Once family and friends started learning of Emilio's death, the text messages and calls of sympathy started to flood Velci's phone, but one text imparticular troubled her. A friend sent her a message saying they hadn't known that Emilio used drugs.
Velci immediately reached out to her sons and demanded to know why they hadn't told her Emilio had a drug problem.
"They all said, 'What are you talking about? He did not have a drug problem or we would have told you,'" she said.
Velci said that her son didn't die of an overdose. He was killed.
"So that's why we're trying to change the language. It's not an overdose, it is one pill that's pressed to look like a prescription drug, but it's not," Velci said.
In 2019, the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Health reported an increase in deaths from fentanyl overdose. From May to October 2019, 10 people in SLO County died from toxic levels of fentanyl compared to three or fewer deaths per year since 2015. Fentanyl is illegally sold as a powder or in other forms, including pills that look like prescription opioids, the report stated.
"It is sometimes mixed with other drugs—including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine—with or without the user's knowledge. Because fentanyl is so strong, a tiny amount can cause a person to stop breathing," the report read.
Toxicology reports the county had analyzed between May and October 2019 showed that fentanyl had been mixed with both opioids and stimulants such as methamphetamine.
The dramatic increase in deaths caused by fentanyl is happening all over the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12 month period.
The CDC found that synthetic opioids, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl, appeared to be the primary driver of the 38.4 percent increase in overdose deaths compared to the same 12-month period ending in May 2019.
Reports of the prevalence of fentanyl and fentanyl overdoses has increased over the last several years, but talking about a loved one who's died from it is still taboo.
Velci's friend Cruz-Sarantos said families on the Central Coast don't talk about how their loved ones die from a drug like fentanyl, which she believes is a huge problem.
"That's why [Velci] and I are doing this because we know who our boys were. Our boys were loving humans," Cruz-Sarantos said.
She left the Central Coast after 20 years because of the "small-town gossip" that was starting to spread about her son. Dylan Kai Sarantos, 18, struggled with substance use disorder, was diagnosed bipolar, and suffered from anxiety and depression.
"He was really fighting hard every day to live with his bipolar diagnosis and marking off the days of his sobriety on his calendar," she said.
The small family moved to Los Angeles County, where Dylan received treatment, therapy, and was under the watchful eye of his mother, a former nurse. Dylan purchased what he believed was ecstasy from a dealer on the social media app Snapchat, but the pills contained high levels of fentanyl, which he died from taking on May 8, 2020.
Cruz-Sarantos and Velci don't want their son's deaths labeled as overdoses because they believe their sons were murdered by the individuals mixing and selling these drugs to people who are unaware of the ingredients.
"I just think it's so sad that these good humans aren't here anymore," Velci said. "But the drug dealers get to live, and it's so frustrating and it angers me." Δ
Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.