CONCORD (KPIX) — A Bay Area father is making a plea to other parents after a counterfeit pill destroyed his family.
Counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl are killing Americans from coast to coast. The problem has grown worse in recent years, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently issued its first public safety alert in six years.READ MORE: UPDATE: High-Speed Stolen RV Pursuit Ends In Horrific San Ramon Crash
The DEA also recently launched a public awareness campaign called “One Pill Can Kill,” in the hopes of educating people about the dangers of counterfeit prescription pills and fentanyl. The phrase tragically rang true for an East Bay family at the start of the school year.
“She was always smiling and happy,” Walter Langhammer said. “I miss her so much.”
Langhammer’s 14-year-old daughter, Valentina, who he lovingly called Titi, died of what investigators believe was an accidental fentanyl overdose in August.
It was a regular Friday. She was a week into her freshman year at Concord High School. Langhammer and his daughter walked home together, had dinner, watched TV, and said goodnight. But Titi never woke up – and her father found her body in bed the next morning.
“She was gone. That was the end of her life,” Langhammer said.
He later found out his daughter took half of a pill she got from someone from school, that the kids called ‘sweet dream.’
“After she said goodnight, she started texting her friends and she was telling them that she got this pill from school,” Langhammer said. “Little pill, and she popped half.”
She though she was taking something to relax, but likely took a counterfeit pill that was laced with fentanyl.
“I didn’t realize that half a pill could kill you, how bad the fentanyl is,” Langhammer said. “God it’s horrible. It’s destroying the whole country. 90,000 people are dying a year. 270 people per day. It’s like a whole plane crashing every day.”
Wade Shannon, the Special Agent in Charge for the DEA’s San Francisco Division, explained an incredibly small amount of fentanyl can be enough to kill a person.
“Just an amount the size of the tip of a pencil can kill you,” he said. “2 milligrams or more is a lethal dose.”
Shannon says fentanyl seizures have skyrocketed across the country – and California is not immune to that trend. The San Francisco division stretches from Bakersfield to the California/Oregon border.
“This issue with counterfeit pills and drug overdoses is affecting every community – big and small – in the United States, including the smaller ones here in the Bay Area,” he said. “Our seizures have skyrocketed in this division to 74 kilograms of fentanyl this year. It’s mind-boggling. That’s epidemic levels.”READ MORE: Zuckerberg Launches Facebook's 'Next Chapter' By Renaming Company Meta
Shannon says 4 out of 10 pills the DEA seizes and tests contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. The counterfeit pills also look incredibly similar to real prescription pills.
“People aren’t experts on what drug manufacturers production quality is. The shapes look very similar to what people are familiar with, and that’s enough of a sales pitch for people to believe that oh, this has got to be a Xanax because it’s rectangular and a box-shaped pill,” he said. “If you go to a party and someone offers you a pill – you don’t know what you’re getting. It may very well be a counterfeit pill that could end your life.”
The bulk of the counterfeit pills are coming from Mexican cartels, according to Shannon.
“The cartels have set up shop in the Central Valley. They’re bringing large quantities of these counterfeit pills into the Central Valley and they’re making their way to the East Bay into the Bay Area, into the city of San Francisco, and all of the San Francisco area communities,” he said.
But he says some people also find their drugs online as well.
“People have been using e-commerce sites, the dark web, social media sites to acquire their drugs,” he said. “When you take these pills that you’re buying on the Internet, you’re playing Russian Roulette. There’s no doubt about it.”
Shannon says the DEA can target the traffickers and try to stem the flow of fentanyl and counterfeit pills from coming into the USA, but that alone won’t stop the problem.
“That’s not the only thing. It also has to be education and treatment. If you can reduce the demand – that’s a very significant event for us,” Shannon said. “If I can arrest the major cartel members and try to stem the flow of fentanyl coming into the United States, that gives treatment and prevention more time to work. My job is to help buy time for the other parts of the equation to work so we can save lives.”
Healing can take a lifetime.
As the Langhammers begin that process, Walter says he spends a lot of time sitting in his daughter’s bedroom, staring out the window at a windchime he placed there.
“Every time I see the wind and the leaves moving, I feel like she’s around me,” Langhammer said. “I get in the window and tell her to be happy, dance from cloud to cloud.”
He’s hoping to spread awareness about the dangers of counterfeit pills and fentanyl, and pleads families talk with their kids about what’s going on.
“Tell them this is real. Don’t take the pill – they can kill you,” Langhammer said. “We were a very naïve family. We didn’t know this was really happening.”MORE NEWS: Atmospheric River: PG&E Says Power Restored To Nearly 851,000 Customers After Massive Storm
If you’d like to learn more about the DEA’s campaign, visit dea.gov/onepill.