By Olivia Solon
Oct. 1, 2021
Matt Capelouto’s daughter, Alex, was home for winter break from Arizona State University in 2019 when she died after buying and taking the pill. She didn’t get a chance to open her Christmas presents.
One month into the pandemic in 2020, Bridgette Norring’s teenage son was found unconscious in his bed by his brother.
Luca Manuel was just 13 when he took the drug the afternoon before he was supposed to start back at school for the first day of in-person classes since lockdown. His mother, Amanda Faith Eubanks, held her son for the last time as he was being put into the coroner’s van inside of a body bag.
These are just a few cases over the last few years in a wave of deaths among teens and young adults who bought what they believed to be a prescription pill — like a Percocet, an OxyContin or a Xanax — that turned out to be a counterfeit pill containing a deadly dose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid a hundred times more potent than morphine.
Many of those pills are being traded openly via social media, particularly on Snapchat, the most popular app among U.S. teens. Snapchat has been linked to the sale of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills that have caused the deaths of teens and young adults in at least 15 states, according to The Partnership for Safe Medicines, a nonprofit public health group. NBC News independently confirmed deaths in 14 of the 15 states and identified five additional states not included in the research.
“It was as easy as ordering a pizza,” Capelouto said. “He delivered right to our house.”
Manufactured by Mexican drug trafficking organizations, these counterfeit pills look like legitimate prescription medicines. But 2 in 5 counterfeit pills seized and tested in the United States contain enough fentanyl to kill, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said that social media companies aren’t doing enough to crack down on counterfeit pills.
“Social media companies know that their platforms are being used for this. And they need to understand that Americans are dying at record rates and they need to be a partner in stopping it,” she said Monday in an interview with Kate Snow on NBC’s “TODAY” show.
Some of the parents of children killed by deadly counterfeit pills have come together to call on Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, to do more to educate users about this issue and identify, remove and report drug dealers misusing the platform.
On top of raising awareness of the dangers of counterfeit pills, the company has hired more people for its law enforcement response team, which has allowed it to become more proactive in referring drug activity to law enforcement, said Snap spokesperson Rachel Racusen. It has also strengthened automated tools that proactively scan for potential drug-related content, consulting with the DEA and other third-party experts to keep on top of the latest slang terms, and has deleted tens of thousands of accounts identified this way, Racusen said.
However, dealers kicked off the platform can create new accounts with relative ease by using a different phone number, making it challenging to keep them off.
In October, Snap is hosting a summit with hundreds of law enforcement officials from across the country to educate them about Snapchat, help them prepare data requests that allow Snap to respond quickly and improve lines of communication.
The company is also exploring new tools to help parents monitor their children’s activity on Snapchat and prompt conversations about how to stay safe.
NBC News talked to eight parents whose children’s deaths have been linked to the sale of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills. Here are their stories.
Age 14, Orange County, California
Amy Neville said her son Alexander Neville had always been a sensitive kid, “full of intense feelings.” But as he entered puberty, he developed mood swings that seemed to grow worse from using marijuana, which he tried for the first time when he was 13. Within a year, the teen from Orange County, California, was experimenting with acid and mushrooms.
After spending a month in a residential mood and anxiety treatment program, Alexander returned “more engaged with family,” his mom said, staying up with his dad to talk and watch movies. But within months, he told his parents that he’d taken some pills sold as OxyContin by a dealer on Snapchat. On June 22, 2020, he asked his mom to book him back into the treatment center.
The following morning, Amy opened the door to his bedroom to find him motionless on his beanbag chair, “looking like he had just gone to sleep.” He had been poisoned by a single counterfeit pill that, according to his toxicology report, contained enough fentanyl to kill four people. He was 14.
Since Alex died, Amy has campaigned to educate parents and children about the risks of counterfeit pills. She recently sent Snap’s CEO Evan Spiegel a letter co-signed by the parents of six other young people who died from taking counterfeit pills bought through Snapchat.
“Snapchat is an accomplice,” Amy said.
According to the company’s latest transparency report, it removed 5.5 million pieces of content violating its guidelines throughout 2020, of which 427,000 pieces of content fell under the “regulated goods” policies, which includes drugs and firearms. More than 5.5 billion Snaps are posted to Snapchat every day.
The letter called for the company to proactively refer reported drug dealers to law enforcement, rather than simply deleting their accounts. It also asked Snapchat to be more transparent about how it’s responding to the problem and to treat law enforcement requests for information with more urgency.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” Neville said. “I can’t save Alex, but I have to save these other kids.”
Age 16, Santa Clarita, California
Jaime Puerta found his 16-year-old son Daniel unconscious in bed in their home in Santa Clarita, California, in April 2020. Daniel, who Jaime described as “very charismatic” with lots of friends, had taken just half of what he thought was an OxyContin pill that Puerta believes his son bought through Snapchat.
“I called 911 and they were able to get his heartbeat back,” said Puerta, who thinks Daniel “got bored and wanted to self-medicate” during the pandemic.
Daniel was declared brain dead at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and days later, Puerta and Daniel’s mother, Denise Johnson, made the agonizing decision to have Daniel removed from life support.
“He passed away peacefully with his mother in his bed stroking his beautiful blond hair while I was holding his hand,” Puerta said.
When the L.A. county sheriff’s office started to investigate, Puerta said they asked for access to Daniel’s phone and wanted to look at his Snapchat account. Daniel’s parents didn’t have the code. So detectives subpoenaed Snap for Daniel’s account.
Puerta said he’s frustrated by how long Snap takes to respond to law enforcement requests for information, noting that suspected drug dealers evade detection by closing down and opening a succession of accounts.
Since Daniel’s death, Puerta has spoken to dozens of parents whose children died from fentanyl poisoning, and the vast majority say their children bought counterfeit pills through Snapchat. Puerta wants Snapchat to report suspected dealers to law enforcement proactively rather than just removing their accounts.
“None of that is going to work unless you can figure out a way to keep these dealers off the platform,” he said.
On milestone dates, like Daniel’s birthday and the first anniversary of his death, Puerta invites some of Daniel’s closest friends to his home to reminisce about funny or heartfelt moments.
“I miss him so much,” he said. “It was an honor and privilege to be his father.”
Age 20, Temecula, California
“For the most part my daughter didn’t fit the mold of a person you would think would die from drugs,” said Matt Capelouto, a small-business owner from Temecula, California, whose daughter Alexandra died in December 2019 after taking half a pill she thought was OxyCodone.
“We live in the suburbs. Our kids grew up in a two-parent household. We’re a faith-based family.”
Alex, 20, was home for Christmas break from Arizona State University, where she was majoring in sociology on a full academic scholarship, when she took the deadly counterfeit pill. Two days before Christmas, she’d spent the day shopping with her mom, Christine, and had excitedly shown her father all the presents she’d bought for family members.
“I got a call the next morning from my youngest daughter saying: ‘Dad, come home. Alex is dead.’” Capelouto said.
The family later checked Alex’s phone and saw that the transaction with the person who apparently sold her the pill had taken place on Snapchat. “It was as easy as ordering a pizza; he delivered right to our house,” Capelouto said.
“I don’t know how Evan Spiegel sleeps at night knowing this kind of activity takes place on his platform,” he added, referring to the CEO of Snapchat’s parent company, Snap.
Alex’s death was initially ruled an overdose. But that didn’t sit well with her father.
“She didn’t take too much of something,” he said. “She was sold something misrepresented to her. She was poisoned.”
After other similar deaths in Temecula, the sheriff’s department opened Alex’s case as a criminal investigation and was able to subpoena Snapchat for information about the alleged dealer, Capelouto said.
Earlier this year, Matt and Christine Capelouto traveled to Sacramento, the state capital, to propose Alexandra’s Law, which would make it easier to charge drug dealers with murder. The bill didn’t make it out of committee. But the couple continues their advocacy work.
Age 19, Hastings, Minnesota
Occasionally, Bridgette Norring sees the man who allegedly sold her son Devin, 19, the counterfeit pill that killed him last year.
“Knowing he literally lives a couple of blocks away from us and gets to walk free is a hard thing to deal with,” she said.
Devin, a shy and loyal kid who loved making rap music, had dabbled with marijuana. But during his last year of life, he went on a health kick, hitting the gym and pestering his parents to drink less Mountain Dew.
When the pandemic hit, Devin had appointments for dental work for cracked teeth and an MRI scan to investigate the cause of debilitating migraines, but they were all canceled.
On the afternoon of April 4, 2020, Devin’s younger brother, Caden, found Devin unconscious in his bed.
The family later learned, by Snapchat messages sent by Devin’s friends, that he had taken a pill he believed to be Percocet, a pain medication his dentist had previously prescribed him. He had bought the pill through Snapchat with a friend late the previous evening.
“We had no reason to believe any of our kids would be overdosing on anything,” Norring said.
Since Devin died, kids from their neighborhood in Hastings, Minnesota, have sent Norring’s family screenshots seemingly showing local drug dealers marketing their wares on Snapchat and Instagram, she said.
“I don’t think they are doing enough,” Norring said. ”We are still reporting Snaps from Devin’s dealer a year later to our local authorities.”
The Norring family installed a memorial bench by the river in the park Devin cycled to with his friends to camp and fish. They celebrated his birthday and “one-year angel-versary” there with some of his friends.
Norring has thrown herself into raising awareness about counterfeit pills and pushing for stronger penalties for dealers.
“I don’t want my son to become another faceless statistic,” she said.
A Facebook spokesperson said that selling counterfeit drugs on Instagram “breaks our rules” and that the company uses technology to detect and remove violating posts, hashtags and accounts “before anyone sees them.”
Age 23, Sauk Rapids, Minnesota
When Ryan McPherson, known to his family as “Puff,” was 15, he suffered a severe concussion during baseball practice, was airlifted to a hospital and prescribed Vicodin for his resulting migraines. He was on and off opiates through his teenage years until doctors stopped prescribing them.
After that, he turned to drug dealers to buy what he thought was Percocet and Xanax, according to his mom, Allison Beattie.
In the early hours of Nov. 15, 2020, when he was 23, Ryan and his brother, John, both took pills they thought were Percocet and collapsed at their dad’s house. Paramedics arrived too late to save Ryan. But they were able to bring John back using three shots of Narcan, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
“I don’t remember a whole lot of the month after,” said Beattie, who has been sober since March 2019 after battling opioid addiction for years.
Detectives on the scene immediately suspected fentanyl poisoning, Beattie said. They took Ryan’s phone, homed in on Snapchat and got a warrant to access messages sent to him by the childhood friend suspected of selling him pills. That friend was later charged with third-degree homicide and has been offered a plea deal of 74 months in prison, which he has yet to accept.
Snap has been sending out public service messages to its users via a partnership with the nonprofit Song for Charlie, warning about how just one counterfeit pill can kill. But Beattie said that turning people whom Snap finds marketing illicit drugs on its platform into law enforcement would be more effective.
With the first anniversary of Ryan’s death approaching, Beattie said she takes life one day at a time.
“I honor him by staying sober,” she said. “Even though the pain is the most horrific pain a mother could feel.”
Age 19, Vancouver, Washington
Kierston Torres-Young was 19 when she died, but was even younger at heart, said her mom, Stephani Martinez.
“She loved sloths and soft pillows with animals on them,” said Martinez, who works in a residential home for problem gamblers. “On Christmas and her birthday, she didn’t really ask for clothes or high heels or makeup or any of that. She just liked to be a kid.”
Kierston was vocally anti-drugs, having witnessed the harm caused by addiction up close. Both her parents had struggled with substance abuse, but are now in recovery, Martinez said.
On the evening of July 10, Martinez’s phone rang several times. “I instantly knew something was wrong,” she said.
Martinez called her dad back and he broke the news: Kierston was dead. She and a friend had taken what they thought was Percocet, delivered by a boy they met on Snapchat, as they hung out and watched Netflix, the friend later told Martinez. Shortly afterward, Kierston and her friend both passed out face down. Only her friend could be resuscitated.
“I felt like I lost everything,” Martinez said. “She was my baby.”
Kierston’s toxicology report hasn’t been completed, but the EMT who responded to the 911 call told her friend’s mom that it was fentanyl. Her death is being investigated by the local crime unit.
“Snapchat is a trap,” Martinez said. “The detective told me it’s a go-to for everything you need. You can buy whatever you want there.”
Martinez said the suspected dealer is still on Snapchat advertising “Percs for sale.”
Sept. 3 would have been Kierston’s 20th birthday. Martinez took a trip with her sisters and other family members to Kierston’s favorite beach in Seaside, Oregon. She put some sand into a tiny jar she now keeps on her keychain.
“I just sat on the beach and thought about my daughter, listening to the waves, like she did.”
Age 13, Shasta County, California
When Luca Manuel was 5, his mother, Amanda Faith Eubanks, said he would receive gift cards and cash for his birthday because the family was moving and could not bring many toys with them.
“He said, ‘Why don’t we get new toys for the kids who don’t have any?’” Eubanks recalled, noting that Luca donated his presents to homeless children at a local mission.
“My heart broke in a thousand good ways,” Eubanks said. “He really lived in service to others.”
When Luca was 12 or 13, he dabbled with marijuana, Eubanks said. His parents, recently divorced, were worried about him. He was being bullied at school and his grandfather, with whom he was close, had died.
About a week and a half before he died, 13-year-old Luca had a root canal. Afterward he complained about the pain, including to a 19-year-old on Snapchat, who had previously sold him marijuana. The 19-year-old allegedly offered to sell him a Percocet, Eubanks said.
“It was not a Percocet. It wasn’t even mixed with Percocet,” she said. “He only had fentanyl in his system.”
Luca took the pill the afternoon before he was supposed to start back at school for the first day of in-person classes since lockdown.
“The last time I held Luca, it was as he was being put into the coroner’s van inside of a body bag,” Eubanks said.
It took five months for Snap to respond to a subpoena for information about the suspected dealer, who continued to sell through Snapchat during that period, Eubanks said.
In July, Luca’s alleged dealer was arrested for homicide, criminal threats directed to law enforcement officials, and various drug-related violations. He’s in Shasta County Jail awaiting a hearing.
“When the dealer is convicted, and I pray he is, I’m going to petition the coroner’s office to have Luca’s ticket changed,” Eubanks said. “It will not say overdose. It will say homicide.”
Dylan Kai Sarantos
Age 18, Los Angeles, California
While Dylan Kai Sarantos was an easy, happy baby, he started to get into trouble during his teenage years and self-medicated with Xanax, according to his mom, Cindy Sarantos.
After time in rehab and intensive outpatient treatment and therapy, Dylan seemed to have turned a corner, his mother said. He was finishing high school, had a job at Chipotle and designed his own “emo” style clothes and music.
With the Covid lockdown, Dylan lost access to the professional mental health and recovery support he’d come to rely on. “It’s one of the worst things that can happen for somebody struggling,” Sarantos said.
On the afternoon of May 8, she found Dylan unresponsive in his bedroom. As an emergency room nurse, she knew he was already gone. He was 18.
She would later learn, by reading Dylan’s phone, that he’d bought what he thought was ecstasy through a Snapchat dealer. His autopsy report revealed that he’d ingested a deadly dose of fentanyl.
“I was in shock and hyperventilating,” she said.
The police recorded his death as an accidental overdose and didn’t take his phone for examination, Sarantos said. She tracked down the father of a young man in a nearby county who had died under similar circumstances shortly after Dylan to swap notes. They believe the same Snapchat dealer sold their children poisoned pills.
Cindy assembled evidence on the suspected dealer and sent it to her police department. “They didn’t do anything,” she said. “The kid is still on Snapchat offering to sell Xanax, molly, Percocet and showing his bank account.”
A spokesperson for El Segundo Police Department said that they had investigated the case but did not find enough evidence to file criminal charges.
Sarantos was one of several parents to attend a Zoom meeting with Snap this year.
“They said they didn’t realize it was such a big problem,” she said. “I feel like they didn’t care.”