San Antonio Express-News

Teen’s overdose death part of a troubling trend

Fentanyl has killed four Hays County students in recent months

- By Ricardo Delgado

Janel Rodriguez wanted her son’s upcoming 16th birthday to be special.

Noah had overdosed in May on a mixture of cocaine and benzodiaze­pine. He spent a week in the hospital — four days in intensive care.

“You’re not going to survive another one,” Rodriguez warned her son. “Be smart.”

After that, Noah avoided harder drugs and grew closer to his family.

“I’m so proud of you — you’ve been doing so well,” Rodriguez told him Aug. 20 as she and his stepfather drove him to a friend’s house.

It was the last time they saw him alive.

Noah, an athlete who was a jokester from a young age and adored his siblings, died of a fentanyl overdose in the early hours of Aug. 21.

In July and August, he and three other students in Hays Consolidat­ed Independen­t School District — two 17-yearolds and another 15-year-old — died of fentanyl poisoning, marking a grim trend.

Illicit fentanyl is the top killer of Americans ages 18 to 45, according to a December report by advocacy group Families Against Fentanyl. The death toll in that age range increased 170 percent from 2020 to 2021. And in Texas, from 2015 to 2021, fentanyl deaths across the board increased 670 percent to 3,260, according to a report the group published in February.

At Noah’s funeral, Rodriguez warned his friends to stop risking their lives. Some of them overdosed days later. But they survived.

Local and federal authoritie­s addressed the rise in fentanyl-related deaths in Hays County at a news conference Sept. 8.

Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett said his department has investigat­ed 25 fentanyl-related overdoses this year — many of which involved minors, seven of which proved fatal. San Marcos investigat­ed 45 related calls for service in the same period.

One pill can kill

Drug Enforcemen­t Administra­tion agent Tyson Hodges said his agency would partner with local law enforcemen­t to form an overdose task force to stop the distributi­on of counterfei­t pills and to educate people through the One Pill Can Kill campaign.

Hodges showed those in attendance pictures of two nearly identical pills — one legally produced and a fentanyl-laced counterfei­t — emphasizin­g the danger the increasing­ly prevalent counterfei­ts pose.

“If you can’t tell the difference ... there’s a reason for that,” Hodges said. You’re not supposed to.

Any pill from an untrustwor­thy source could contain a lethal dose of fentanyl — as little as 2 milligrams for the average adult, according to the DEA.

Sheriff Gary Cutler said Hays County would team up with first responders to form an “overdose mapping tracking system” to better register overdoses in the area. Cutler emphasized the importance of education in combating an overdose outbreak.

Barnett said the fentanyl investigat­ion by the DEA, Sheriff’s Office and Kyle Police Department produced two arrests on several drug-related charges. Police arrested 20-year-old Anthony Jean Perez Rios and seized nearly 400 counterfei­t pills containing fentanyl. The other arrest was of a 16-year-old boy.

Noah’s family attended the news conference wearing screen-printed shirts depicting him on his 15th and final birthday. Mordecai Dunn, born two weeks before Noah’s death, wore a onesie bearing the same picture. Even Mordecai’s infant carrier bore a pin with a picture of his late brother.

‘Genie in a lamp’

The next day, Noah’s family picked up his remains at a funeral home in Kyle. Jolene Dunn, almost 5 years old, helped pick an urn from the dozens on the wall.

Rodriguez said they chose a reflective, golden urn banded by a white stone pattern. Noah enjoyed wearing jewelry, and he “liked his gold.”

The family waited for Noah’s remains to be transferre­d to the urn in a room filled with products to commemorat­e lost loved ones. There was jewelry to hold cremated remains or to bear the deceased’s engraved fingerprin­ts. Another option: stones made of solidified remains.

Rodriguez and her husband, Brandon Dunn, watched with care as Jolene and her 18-monthold sister, Alnora, walked around the pointed edges of the glass table in the center of the waiting room. They made sure the little ones didn’t play with the jewelry and stones on display.

Answering Jolene’s questions, Rodriguez explained to her now-oldest child the purpose of the urn.

It’s like a “genie in a lamp — only if you rub it, he won’t come out,” she said.

A funeral home employee led the family into a more warmly lit room. Surrounded by Noah’s jewelry, accessorie­s and a propped-up picture, his urn stood on a table, softly reflecting the lit candles beside it.

A television showed pictures and videos of Noah. He celebrated his birthdays. He met his newborn siblings.

He and Jolene’s bond was particular­ly strong, and he’d said he wanted to get a job to buy all of Mordecai’s clothes.

Sitting in the passenger seat of her car while about to leave the funeral home, Rodriguez held Noah in her lap and cried.

Suburban menace

As with many overdose deaths, Noah showed no suicidal tendency or self-destructiv­e intent, Rodriguez said.

“We trusted, we believed he’s done with all that stuff,” Rodriguez said, “like all he wants to do was smoke. And even though he’s 15, like, it’s pot, you know?”

Rodriguez stressed that Noah was not a “bad kid” — just independen­t and occasional­ly stubborn.

Unable to hang out with friends from school during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Noah made friends with the kids in his neighborho­od. Rodriguez said that might have been Noah’s introducti­on to more lethal drugs.

Peer pressure plays an important role in cases like Noah’s, said Ty Schepis, a professor of psychology at Texas State University who has researched adolescent and young adult prescripti­on misuse. And an inclinatio­n to experiment, along with an “it wouldn’t happen to me” attitude, can lead some adolescent­s to throw caution to the wind.

Schepis said cases like Noah’s tend to rock communitie­s such as Buda — where Noah’s family lives — and neighborin­g Kyle.

“If someone who is unhoused living downtown in Austin overdoses, that’s really not a new story,” Schepis said. “I think that a lot of those deaths, while also extremely tragic, don’t get the attention that suburban deaths do because there’s sort of an expectatio­n of, ‘That doesn’t happen here.’”

But “the reality is drugs are available in suburban areas,” he said. “If you want to find them, you will be able to find them.”

Marc Rector, director of operations at Briarwood Detox Center in Austin, has years of experience in inpatient care related to substance abuse. He said that as drugs such as marijuana have become more widely accepted, a shift in the drug culture has made drugs possibly containing fentanyl more popular.

Schepis and Rector agree that Texas’ and the federal government’s heavy focus on supply rather than treatment or prevention is ineffectiv­e.

“We don’t know how to combat it. So we’re just flailing,” Rector said. “We’re throwing darts at a board and hoping something sticks.”

Processing grief

Rodriguez hopes to start a nonprofit to prevent fentanyl deaths. And she plans to speak about the dangers of fentanyl and counterfei­t prescripti­on drug abuse whenever she’s asked.

She’s ready to speak at schools, at events — wherever she’s needed.

“I’m going to bring Noah’s urn; I’m going to print out pictures of him in his casket,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to make it as raw as possible. This is not a game. Don’t play roulette with your life.”

Rodriguez’s father, Adam Rodriguez, said his grandson was a jokester from a young age. He recalled a lunchtime grace that a 4-year-old Noah gave at day care, mimicking the country music his mother liked.

“Every day, the teacher would ask a different kid to pray for lunch,” Adam Rodriguez said. “They asked him to say the prayer. He comes up with, ‘God is great, beer is good and people are crazy.’”

Jolene wants to move into Noah’s room, which Janel Rodriguez believes is part of her processing her grief.

Noah’s mother said she is seeking counseling for her and her family to help them come to terms with their loss.

But every night, she still expects him to walk in.

“To me, he’s still at a friend’s house,” Rodriguez said. “That’s how I’m dealing with it, so that I don’t have to think of what really happened.”

 ?? Photos by Jessica Phelps/staff photograph­er ?? Janel Rodriguez reaches into the urn her family chose so she can touch the remains of her son Noah, 15, who died Aug. 21.
Photos by Jessica Phelps/staff photograph­er Janel Rodriguez reaches into the urn her family chose so she can touch the remains of her son Noah, 15, who died Aug. 21.
 ?? ?? Rodriguez holds daughter Jolene’s hand as they pray at Fellowship Church at Plum Creek in Kyle after a baptism.
Rodriguez holds daughter Jolene’s hand as they pray at Fellowship Church at Plum Creek in Kyle after a baptism.
 ?? Jessica Phelps/staff photograph­er ?? Janel Rodriguez becomes emotional as she watches Edgar Olvera, a friend of her son Noah, hold the urn containing his remains.
Jessica Phelps/staff photograph­er Janel Rodriguez becomes emotional as she watches Edgar Olvera, a friend of her son Noah, hold the urn containing his remains.

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