An Epidemic Began with 14 Deaths in Sacramento
2016: In a brutal month spanning March 23 to April 23, fourteen people in the Sacramento area died of suspected drug overdoses, and 38 others were poisoned. At the beginning authorities had no idea why there was a sudden spike in overdose deaths and suspected “contaminated drugs.” They would not know until the month was out and the recovered pills had been analyzed that these deaths were caused by counterfeit pills made with deadly fentanyl.
The victims believed they were “consuming the prescription painkiller Norco, which contains hydrocodone and acetaminophen,” reported the Assistant U. S. Attorney Orlando Gutierrez in a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of California. On April 4, Sacramento County Division of Public Health alerted the public to the crisis stating, “Some of the pills that were retrieved have been tested and show that they did not contain Hydrocodone or Acetaminophen. The lab was able to identify the pills as containing Fentanyl instead. This indicates that they are really Fentanyl pills (street drugs—counterfeit) that have been made to look like Norco.”
Similar pills caused deaths in the San Francisco area. On April 26, 2016 the Los Angeles Times reported that, “Casey Rettig, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent based in San Francisco, said she could not discuss details of the DEA's ongoing investigation, but she noted that the Bay Area and Sacramento County illnesses occurred around the same time and that pills in the two areas had the same markings…Rettig said she was not aware of other cases in California or elsewhere in the country in which fentanyl was sold as Norco.”
Among those very first tragic deaths, Jerome Butler’s life was cut short. Just two days after the first reported deaths from “contaminated pills,” Sacramento resident William Dossman took three Norco pills from his mother’s purse. He gave one to Jerome Butler and took two himself. Shortly after that, Jerome said that his “heart was hurting” and went to lie down with his 18-month-old daughter. There were three other adults in the house, but no one checked on him. In the morning, someone discovered that Jerome was not breathing. A neighbor called 911 and performed CPR until the EMTs arrived. At the hospital, Jerome was put on life support. A family member started a still-open GoFundMe to help with his medical bills. When it was clear he would not recover, his family agreed to unplug the machines. Jerome Butler died on March 30.
Jerome’s family is heartbroken over losing him. 28-year-old Butler was a devoted father to his young daughter and his two sons, who were ten and four. “Jerome was such a dad,” his mother, Natasha Butler, remembers. “He got up and fixed them breakfast, he made sure they had a proper lunch and cut off the edges of the bread.” He played football with his 10-year-old, taught him to write and color, and, as he grew older, “everything a young man needs to know.” “Jerome, that was my love. That was my heart...he would come to me every morning at 8 am and play his music,” his grandmother, Sheila Sheppard, told us, going on to explain that he supported his family, and was a good neighbor. “He was a lovely person. If he saw you walking with groceries he’d say, ‘Oh, you need a ride? Come on, I’ll give you a ride. You don’t have to be walking with them groceries.’ Everybody knew him.”
The source of the medication that killed Jerome Butler and 13 others is still unknown, although in mid-April authorities mentioned similar counterfeits in a press release announcing the seizure of more than a thousand counterfeit oxycodone pills made with fentanyl which passed through the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in the possession of Sergio Bohon of Tijuana, Mexico. The U.S. Attorney’s Office reported that the February 10, 2016 seizure was “believed to be the first time that federal officials along the California-Mexico border have intercepted counterfeit oxycodone tablets containing fentanyl as they were being smuggled from Mexico into the United States.”
In July 2016, federal authorities arrested William Dossman’s mother Denise on three charges related to trafficking hydrocodone and fentanyl. The accompanying indictment alleged that she had been selling hydrocodone and fentanyl since June 2015. Denise Dossman pleaded not guilty and was released on bond.
As of August 2018, counterfeit pills made with fentanyl have been found in 44 states, with deaths reported in 26 states. Dossman’s trial is still pending. Her connection to Bohon is unknown and no larger conspiracy been brought to justice yet. However, prosecutors said that her case was part of a covert investigation.
Neither the prosecution of Dossman, nor the identification of the conspirators will bring back Natasha Butler’s beloved son. Had he only been warned, perhaps he would be alive today. She wants people to know: “There are evil people out here, and they don’t mind taking you out for a few dollars, and any [fake] pill you take could be your last.”
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If one pill killed Jerome Butler, how did William Dossman–who took two–survive?
When the University of California tested pills associated with the deaths in Sacramento, they found that they were badly manufactured. They differed in strength: "one sample of pills contained between 0.6 and 6.9 milligrams of fentanyl per pill." Some of the pills were potent enough to kill a non-opioid user three times over; others were weak enough that two were not fatal.