Fatal doses of fentanyl showing up in heroin, counterfeit prescription drugs
In a tidy brick ranch-style home in southwest Oklahoma City, three people went to bed and never woke up — part of a wave of overdoses from a powerful synthetic opioid that's continuing to kill unsuspecting Oklahomans.
Jim Hadley awoke to find his wife Susan Hadley not breathing and without a pulse.
In a frantic 911 call, Hadley said his wife, sister-in law Christie Schlund and stepson Jeffrey Vaughn were all still in their beds, unresponsive.
"I can't get my wife awake," Hadley told the 911 dispatcher. "I can't get her up ... what's happening?"
All three were described as blue, stiff and cold.
It wasn't until weeks after the March 26, 2016, tragedy that toxicology reports revealed Susan Hadley, 65, Schlund, 63, and Vaughn, 43, had all died from fatal doses of the drug fentanyl.
In 2016 alone, 48 Oklahomans died from fentanyl overdoses, according to the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Fentanyl deaths hit a five-year high of 50 in 2013, records show, but have started to increase again steadily over the past three years in Oklahoma.
Fentanyl and analogues of the drug can be anywhere from 100 times to 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. The drug is now popping up around Oklahoma in everything from counterfeit pain medication to heroin.
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The night before Susan Hadley, Schlund and Vaughn died was just another uneventful evening of family visiting.
“It was just an ordinary evening,” said Bobbie Hatcher, of Gainesville, Texas. Hadley was Hatcher's stepmother.
Schlund was visiting her sister, Susan Hadley, and brother-in-law Jim, at their home in Oklahoma City. Susan Hadley's adult son, Vaughn, also was living in the house.
The sisters had planned to drive to Lake Texoma the following day to finalize Schlund's purchase of a vacation home there. A former Realtor, Susan Hadley had promised to help her sister and brother-in-law with the paperwork.
All three family members had newly filled prescriptions for pain medication, which they took before going to bed.
Hatcher has a lot of unanswered questions about that night.
“My dad woke up the next morning and everyone was gone,” said Hatcher.
Susan Hadley, Vaughn and Schlund were all taking prescription pain medicine for various problems with chronic pain, but it's unknown how pills containing fentanyl came into the house — or how or why all three ingested them.
“I guess we assume they took their nightly meds and whatever they took had the fentanyl in it,” Hatcher said. “To this day, we still don't know where the pills they took came from.”
Hatcher's father, Jim Hadley, declined an interview request. It's difficult for him to talk about what happened, Hatcher said.
'One-pill death sentence'
Fentanyl imported from China is making its way into counterfeit prescription drugs, as well as illicit drugs like heroin.
Mexican drug cartels mix the Chinese fentanyl with heroin to make it a more potent, valuable product, said Richard Salter Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Oklahoma City.
The cartels don't really do much quality control and some batches of heroin can contain deadly doses of fentanyl, Salter said.
"Their quality control is to put that needle in their arm and bump it and feel it," he said.
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs is constantly monitoring overdose cases for new types of fentanyl analogues that primarily come from China, said agency spokesman Mark Woodward. Analogues often are manufactured to skirt laws regulating psychoactive drugs.
"As certain drugs are outlawed, they just change the chemical structure slightly, and some are stronger and more deadly than the one we outlawed," Woodward said.
In just the past few months, the state medical examiner has identified four new fentanyl analogues found in overdose cases, said Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer.
Traffickers also are stamping fentanyl analogues into pill form, using sugar and cornstarch as filler material.
Americans purchase the counterfeit pills from foreign online pharmacies, thinking they are getting a good deal on prescription drugs such as Xanax, said Shabbir Safdar, executive director of The Partnership for Safe Medicines, a national prescription drug policy group.
"It turns out to be a one-pill death sentence," Safdar said.
Safdar said consumers should only purchase prescription drugs from United States-licensed pharmacies.
"The world is full of really bad people who are happy to sell Americans counterfeit drugs because they are outside the U.S. and they know they will never be prosecuted," Safdar said.
'Know your doctor'
The pills Susan Hadley, Vaughn and Schlund took were found to be laced with fentanyl. Oklahoma City police investigated, but there was never enough evidence obtained to lead to a suspect being charged in the case, said Master Sgt. Gary Knight.
Along with unanswered questions, the death of Hatcher's family members leaves a void that can never be filled.
Vaughn was a U.S. Navy veteran and big University of Oklahoma football fan who left behind two young sons.
Schlund was visiting her sister from her home in Trego, Montana, at the time of her death. She had worked for the Federal Aviation Administration and loved the outdoors, fishing and going out to the casino.
Hatcher was close with Hadley, her stepmother of 10 years, whom she knew as "Mom."
Susan Hadley was generous, warm and loved to bake pies. More than anything, she loved to shop, Hatcher said.
"She was a very giving person. She took me in like I was her own daughter," Hatcher said. "She would say to my dad, 'Me and Bobby are going shopping, but we're not sure what you're going to do.' "
Hatcher said she doesn't think Susan Hadley would have taken a pill not knowing what it was.
She wants others to know about the dangers of taking prescription drugs without knowing their source.
"Don't take something that you're not prescribed by a doctor," Hatcher said. "Know your doctor. Do research — don't just take someone's word for it."
Contributing: Jaclyn Cosgrove, For The Oklahoman
Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›