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Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran speaks before the Mobile County Commission on December 13, 2021, in Mobile, Ala.  According to a report on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, Cochran said his office is “trying to pursue every lead we get on people selling” pills laced with fentanyl.

Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran speaks before the Mobile County Commission on December 13, 2021, in Mobile, Ala. According to a report on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, Cochran said his office is “trying to pursue every lead we get on people selling” pills laced with fentanyl. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said his agency is prioritizing investigations involving the drug fentanyl amid an increase in overdoses and following the death last week of a 15-year-old girl in Semmes, Alabama.

Cochran also said it is likely that Adrianna Taylor and her 17-year-old boyfriend were “unaware” they were ingesting fentanyl before she died.

“They crushed up what they thought were opioids and were snorting them,” Cochran said Thursday. “After the fact, we determined the pills were laced with fentanyl … that led to her overdose.”

The 17-year-old has since been arrested and charged with manslaughter and distribution of a controlled substance.

“We are trying to pursue every lead we get on people selling the pills with fentanyl,” said Cochran, speaking generally about a growing number of incidences in Mobile County. “Some are selling it and not realizing it has fentanyl in it. That’s why it’s related to overdose deaths.”

Authorities also made a fentanyl-related arrest on Wednesday in a case unrelated to Taylor’s death.

Two men, with active felony warrants, were arrested during a traffic stop in Prichard and booked into the Mobile County Jail on charges of trafficking fentanyl.

Tretin D. Ferguson, 33, was also booked on charges of trafficking ecstasy, possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was also arrested on a warrant for robbery.

Michael E. Carson, 38, was also booked on charges of possession of marijuana, possession/receiving a controlled substance, and for possession of a gun despite from prohibited from doing so.

Cochran said the trafficking offenses carry a minimum of three years in prison, and the potential for life.

“We’re handling (the investigations) the same as usual with the exception that we emphasize with our narcotics (investigators) that if you get a tip or a lead on fentanyl, to jump on it right away,” Cochran said. “We know it’s a dangerous threat. We are prioritizing the investigative efforts because everyone has limited resources. We are asking them to concentrate on fentanyl.”

Lethal drug

The synthetic opioid is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. A small dose, according to authorities, can lead to death.

Virginia Guy, executive director of the Drug Education Council in Mobile, said fentanyl-laced pills are becoming so prevalent that she’s warning it’s becoming too dangerous for anyone to take any pill offered to them on the street.

“Every pill, in my mind, on the street today is suspect,” said Guy. “It’s just hit a point now where fentanyl is in everything. It’s in some of the marijuana that’s being picked up. It’s getting worse.”

Guy said another alarming sign is that people, with no prior cases of drug addiction or who are first-time users, are dying.

“We are now seeing, for the first time and during the last year or two, people who don’t have addiction, who are dying from these drugs,” she said. “Before, you had people who would get addicted and they could not get drugs from legal ways … they would get something, overdose and die.”

Guy referenced an incident that happened in South Florida during spring break in which seven people, including five West Point military cadets, were hospitalized for a drug overdose. Four of the seven patients voluntarily ingested cocaine, which was laced with fentanyl, while three others encountered the drug as they performed CPR, according to news reports.

“They weren’t people who needed addiction treatment,” said Guy. “We’re seeing first-time users. With (Taylor, in Semmes) it’s apparent she was not a regular drug user with addition.”

Alarming statistics, trends

Statistics show a startling rise in overdose deaths in Alabama and nationwide.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show general drug overdose deaths in Alabama climbing by over 20% between March 2021 to March 2022, which is the agency’s most recent data.

Nearby states such as Georgia and Arkansas reported similar increases. The U.S. experienced a 9.7% rise in drug overdose death during the same time frame.

The CDC reports that 107,622 people died of drug overdoses in 2021 in the U.S., with 66.2% or 71,238 deaths tied to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

“So many times, we have an overdose death, we determine it’s an overdose (early in the investigation), but we don’t know what it actually is until you get a toxicology report,” said Cochran. He said a toxicology report could take months to a year to finish.

Nationwide, concerns are rising as fentanyl-related deaths explode, and teenagers — like Taylor — are dying from the drug.

In Texas, four students who attend a school district near Austin, died over the summer from suspected fentanyl overdoses.

Federal authorities are also concerned about a rise in rainbow-colored fentanyl-laced pills that are believed to be more alluring and less threatening to children. In August, federal agents seized brightly-colored fentanyl and fentanyl pills in 18 states.

Authorities elsewhere are also attempting to crack down to prevent the drug’s spread. In Maine, authorities seized 3.75 pounds of suspected fentanyl – with a value of around $255,000 — that was set to be distributed in four counties.

In Santa Barbara County in California, a 34-year-old man was charged with murder stemming from the fentanyl-related death of another man in April. It was the first-time authorities in that county had charged someone with murder related to fentanyl use, according to a local news media report.

In Colorado, authorities charged a 31-year-old woman with child abuse resulting in death after her 1-year-old daughter was found death. An autopsy showed that the baby died as a result of toxic effects of fentanyl, according to media reports.

In Alabama, federal authorities recently handed out a life sentence in August to Rolando Antuain Williamson, 37, of Bessemer for leading a multi-million-dollar drug trafficking operation that included fentanyl. Williamson was one of 18 defendants charged with drug trafficking crimes following a three-year federal drug task force investigation.

In Mobile County, 37-year-old Jessica Defloren Tubb was sentenced on May 12 to 15 years in prison for drug crimes, including actions that led to the 2018 overdose of Kelsey Johnston in Tillman’s Corner.

Authorities then sentenced William Grant Owens, 55, to a life sentence for his role in Johnston’s death and for his role in operating a “major drug conspiracy” that included the distribution of fentanyl.

Testimony, during a five-day bench trail in U.S. District Court, established that Owens, with the desire to have sex with Johnston, directed Tubb to obtain fentanyl and bring it to him on October 11, 2018, at the Rode Way Inn, in Tillman’s Corner.

Owens prepared the fentanyl on a spoon and had Tubb inject Ms. Johnston. Almost instantly, Ms. Johnston lost consciousness and was struggling to breathe. Neither Tubbs nor Owens sought medical help and fled the scene. Her body was found the next morning by hotel housekeeping.

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