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Fentanyl crisis hits home in Arkansas: The tragic toll of a teen's life lost to counterfeit pills

A drug taking the world by storm, now being called an epidemic, effecting those right here in the state of Arkansas. (Photo KATV)
A drug taking the world by storm, now being called an epidemic, effecting those right here in the state of Arkansas. (Photo KATV)
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A drug taking the world by storm is now being called an epidemic, affecting those right here in Arkansas.

The drug fentanyl is taking community members, friends, and loved ones too soon.

“If Ellison had gotten a Percocet, she would still be here," said Kari Clay, Ellison Byrde's mother. "She could have learned the lesson. She didn’t stand a chance.”

Little Rock seventeen-year-old Ellison Byrde was like any other high school senior, anxious and stressed with the workload ahead of her.

“Ellison was a force," said Clay. "She was stubborn, hard-headed, and impulsive. I always hoped she would grow up and those things would serve her well one day. Raising a child like that is a challenge but she was also good to the core and would champion anyone.”

But Ellison’s life was cut short.

“Someone contacted her on Snapchat and through Instagram instant messaging and said all of the right things to her," said Clay. "He told her she sang beautifully and knew what he was doing.

Clay received the call of her nightmares in 2021.

“He offered her a Percocet and told her it would help her sleep and so she said okay yeah that sounds good," said Clay. "He met her at the parking lot where she worked and gave her the pills. She went over to a friend's house to spend the night that night. She took them and she died.”

Authorities found the blue pills with an M on the front and a 30 on the back, leading them to believe it was fentanyl.

“They suspected it was an overdose of some sort but it actually was a poisoning because an overdose is when you take too much of something and the pill came back on the toxicology report as only fentanyl," said Clay.

An hour north in Greenbrier is more tragedy.

The fentanyl epidemic hit too close to home for Chief of Police Gene Earnhart.

“It shook the whole town up a couple of my officers, that is the first they have dealt with something like that on a young person,” said Earnhart.

Earnhart said in May, four teens overdosed on fentanyl.

He said they were able to revive 3 of the teens with Narcan but one didn't make it.

A small town lost a big part of their community.

“He had a bright future," said Earnhart. "He graduated. He was about to go into welding I believe. He was a bright young kid and he had a great future ahead of him. These young adults that get on that and pass away at 16, 17,18 years old. That is not the way it is supposed to be. They are supposed to grow up and live a life ahead of them, grow up and do things.”

Earnhart said they have leads on who sold the teenagers the laced drugs and that investigation continues.

He said until recently about 25% of the drugs sent to the crime lab come back positive for fentanyl.

“6 to 7 months ago, I didn’t even know what fentanyl was until it started coming this way," said Earnhart. "I get stuff on email giving us a heads up from different federal agencies. This has been discovered, this is where it is at, etc. And it seemed like overnight it got here.”

Cindy Moran with Arkansas Crime Lab said the majority of fentanyl deaths they see are accidents.

“Someone had an injury and ended up getting an ACL surgery and has Oxycontin for a week or so," said Moran. "They develop an addiction which is really true often. They think they are buying oxycontin tablets when in fact they are not and it is laced with fentanyl.”

Moran said between 2021 and 2022, the overdose increase was overwhelming, jumping from 3% of overall overdoses to 6% in a year.

“They are getting so good that even the drug chemists who have been working on these cases for a long time, sometimes they can’t even tell the difference between a prescription tablet and an elicit tablet,” said Moran.

Assistant Special Agent Jarad Harper with the Drug Enforcement Administration said in the last two years, the DEA has seized 350,000 of those same fake Oxycodone pills, all laced with fentanyl, all coming from across the border.

“The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel out of Mexico are pressing these fake Oxycodone pills," said Harper. "They are blue and they are marked with an M on one side and a 30 on the other.”

Harper said it is impossible to tell the difference.

“One pill can kill. It just takes a two-milligram dose of fentanyl to be lethal,” said Harper.

The lethal dose around the same size as a grain of sand.

Clay said she never thought this was something she should have talked about with her daughter.

“I have talked to her about drinking and driving," said Clay. "I had talked to her about not getting behind the wheel with someone who had been drinking. We had all of the teen conversations, safe sex, the whole thing, but I did not know that I should tell her not to take a pill from a friend. She knew not to try what we perceive as street drugs: cocaine, heroin, etc. She thought she had a safe pharmaceutical.”

And she said a bright young woman and her loved ones robbed of her future to attend college, eventually get married, and have a life of her own.

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