Shawn Patania had an unstoppable spirit and quick wit, always ready with a smile and a joke, remembers mom Shelly Mincy.
“Everyone talked about Shawn as being someone who smiled all the time, was very funny and charming, and he was all of those things,” she said.
But in the early morning hours of Sept. 27, 2015, Mincy woke up to a call from her eldest son, who said Shawn’s roommate found him unconscious. The Del Mar High School graduate died at 21 from a mixed-drug overdose, including a substance his parents had never heard of: fentanyl.
It’s the same drug that killed Prince, and fentanyl’s troubling rise in Northern California is linked to at least 130 deaths in the Bay Area since 2015, according to an NBC Bay Area investigation. Data from nine Bay Area counties revealed deaths from fentanyl from 2015 to 2016 rose 50 percent in San Francisco County, 66 percent in Contra Costa County and 600 percent in Alameda County.
“It’s become a priority for DEA,” says John Martin, special agent in charge for the drug agency’s San Francisco division. Martin said fentanyl mimics the effect of opioid painkillers, but it’s 50 times more powerful than heroin, and just 2 milligrams of fentanyl can kill an adult.
“What we've seen here in Northern California is the rise of the independent trafficker,” Martin said, adding these dealers have found a ready audience among Americans already hooked on opioids. “In 2015 there were 184 million prescriptions written for opioid analgesics. That's enough opioid painkillers for 100 tablets per medicine cabinet in the United States.”
Drug seizures for 2016 show just how serious this epidemic has become in the United States. Last year, drug agents seized 668 kilograms of fentanyl. That’s enough fentanyl to kill every American.
DARK WEB FUELS RISE IN FENTANYL SALES
Drug agents said the internet has given rise to a new generation of digital drug dealers who are able to buy and sell drugs anonymously on the dark web.
Irfan Saif, a cybersecurity expert, explains how they do it. He said, “The way that they work is they’re sending your information requests through multiple places; instead of going from point A to point B directly, you’re going from point A to point B via perhaps dozens of different destinations. And trying to lose any sense of a tracker or a trail along the way.”
Most of the drugs are then shipped via the US Postal Service. Postal workers can intercept only a small percentage of illegal shipments - and they need a warrant to search anything that’s shipped first class mail.
Fentanyl has had a devastating impact on the East Coast and Midwest and is now increasingly showing up as the cause of death in many overdoses on the West Coast. The chart below shows data gathered for recent years by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.
UNSUSPECTING USERS AT RISK FROM COUNTERFEIT PILLS
“You’re thinking you’re gonna get some hydrocodone or whatever, they’re cuttin’ it with fentanyl,” says a longtime drug user who asked that his name not be used.
“You can buy even Xanax pills, and it’ll have fentanyl in it,” he warned. Since dealers have been peddling fake pills laced with fentanyl, he said he’s seen more and more overdoses.
Recreational users, he said, are the most vulnerable. “You’re some kid from the suburbs; you’re used to taking one Roxy (oxycodone); you eat that, you’re dead.”
Shawn’s parents said their son experimented with drugs, but he didn’t show signs of addiction. That’s part of the reason they’re speaking about their tragedy, to warn other parents that it just takes one time with a drug like fentanyl.
“Many times he’d remind us, ‘We’re 21 years old. We like to have fun,’” stepdad Bob Mincy said. “Shawn really liked to have fun. But he was fun to be with without the drugs.”
Bob Mincy regrets not being able to do more to prevent Shawn’s overdose, “All of a sudden it just ends, and there’s no more pictures of him. There’s a hole at our table where he’s not sitting.”
Through tears, Shelly said she hopes sharing her son’s story saves a life. “Ever since he passed away, my whole goal was to take this bad thing and make something good from it.”