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Back-to-back loss of 2 students from same high school focuses Portland on fentanyl scourge

Source: The Oregonian/OregonLive

By Maxine Bernstein | The Oregonian/OregonLive



Olivia Coleman and Griffin Hoffmann, both students at Northeast Portland's McDaniel High School, died last week within 24 hours of each other after taking what police believe were counterfeit prescription pills made of fentanyl.

Griffin Hoffmann, a sophomore at McDaniel High School, was a star tennis player on the varsity team. He had a sharp wit and sophisticated taste in movies. He aimed to one day win a scholarship to play tennis in college.


Olivia Coleman, a McDaniel High junior, loved children and often babysat her cousins. She was known for her empathetic, nurturing nature. She talked about wanting to become a child psychologist someday.


Their deaths within 24 hours of each other, both from suspected accidental fentanyl overdoses, have left two families shattered and their school community devastated.


Their sudden loss also underscores the extreme potency of fentanyl and how nearly impossible it is to tell if a pill is laced with a deadly dose of the synthetic opioid because it can’t be seen, tasted or smelled.


Coleman had turned 17 in January and was found dead March 6 in the bedroom where she taught herself how to play guitar.


Hoffmann had turned 16 in February and was found dead March 7 at his desk, with his earbuds in and his laptop open.


Though the teens attended the same school, they weren’t friends and didn’t hang out in the same circles, their parents said.


Each of them took what they believed was a prescription opioid painkiller, their families believe.


Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. Most people don’t know they’ve taken fentanyl because it’s typically pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription pills. Users typically die from asphyxiation from the drug’s effect of depressing the respiratory system.


Coleman apparently thought she was taking oxycodone, her mother said.


Hoffmann thought he was taking a Percocet pill, his mother said.


But police suspect the two each got hold of a blue pill stamped with “M30″ – a marking also used on authentic oxycodone pills – but made of fentanyl.


Portland Public Schools, the Multnomah County Health Department and the Oregon Poison Center all issued a rare public warning about a surge in the deadly drug after the deaths.


Portland police, with federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations, are working to identify the source of the fentanyl, a growing scourge that has driven up overdose deaths across the state and nation.



‘THIS CAN HAPPEN’

Family members discovered Coleman lifeless on her bed about 10:30 a.m. that Sunday.


Her family suspects she had been dead for several hours after taking the pill shortly after midnight. Several other blue pills stamped with “M30″ were found in her room, said her mother, Karen Coleman.


Once emergency paramedics and police arrived, the 17-year-old’s bedroom was transformed into a crime scene, her mother said.


Olivia Coleman was born and raised in Portland, the youngest of two girls. She had transferred from David Douglas High School to McDaniel High in the midst of her freshman year.


Olivia Coleman had turned 17 in January and was a junior at McDaniel High School. Family photo

“I think that’s important to say because people should know that even though they’re fully engaged with substance abuse counseling, this can happen,” her mother said. “She was working very hard in making changes in her life for a couple of years.”


She attended Zoom-based substance abuse group sessions and Zoom-based one-on one-counseling four days a week, her mother said.


Though Coleman struggled, she had a lot to live for, with exciting plans just on the horizon, her parents said.


Her best friend was planning to visit next week during spring break after moving to Pennsylvania about a year ago.


She was set to travel to Hawaii in April with her parents and 19-year-old sister Sophia.


Olivia Coleman had taught herself how to play guitar. Family photo

She had developed a relationship with a new boyfriend and recently got a job at a Domino’s Pizza that she had yet to start.


Karen and Todd Coleman said they have no idea where their daughter got the drug.


But she had been frank with them in the past, sharing that she had bought oxycodone before on Snapchat.


She told her parents how she ordered the pills online and the seller drove up to their driveway. She met the seller at the car and watched as the person used a test strip to suggest the pills didn’t contain fentanyl.


Police, however, warn that just because a test strip doesn’t detect fentanyl in one pill, it doesn’t mean the same is true for another pill in the batch.


“Olivia described all this to me, how it worked, how she’d do these things,” Karen Coleman said. “We were advised to get cameras on the outside of our house. We never went that far. We did a lot of talking and she was in counseling.”


The Colemans sensed their daughter was suffering setbacks and wonder what they could have said or done to make a difference, though they said they had grown to recognize that it had to be Olivia who ultimately made the choice not to take drugs.


Olivia Coleman had told her parents that she'd tried oxycodone before, her mother said. Family photo

They considered inpatient residential treatment for her but said there was at least a two-month wait list before being accepted.


Tracking her actions also was challenging; it was difficult to trace her online Snapchat communications, which disappear quickly, or her purchases through a private Venmo account.


“It’s sort of this secret way of communicating and managing your life without supervision,” her mother said.


“Teenagers feel invincible, that this can’t happen to me. But you just don’t know. Unintended consequences happen,” Karen Coleman said. “I hope that this opens some people’s eyes, that it’s somehow a wake-up call for kids.”



‘SOMEONE KILLED MY BABY’


Hoffmann met up with friends on the night before he died to see the movie “The Batman” at the Century 16 Eastport Plaza. His mother drove him home from the theater about 9:15 p.m.


Before school that next Monday morning, his father went downstairs to his son’s basement bedroom to make sure he was awake.


Griffin Hoffman with the family dog, Betty. Family photo

The father found his son unconscious at his desk just inside the bedroom door. His laptop was open to the TV series he had been watching, “The Sopranos.”



His parents called 911 and unsuccessfully tried to revive him.

“I saw my son dead and I basically died,” said his mother, Kerry Cohen. “He was poisoned. Someone killed my baby.”


Hoffmann was born in Portland, the younger of Cohen’s and Michael Hoffmann’s two sons.


It’s been too painful for his parents to spend any significant time inside their house now. They’re already planning to put it up for sale.

He was a big gamer, often walking around his house with his gaming headphones on, and loved their black-and-white tuxedo-colored cats, Arnold and Ethel Rosenbaum, and their dog Betty. He also was caring and protective of his older brother, Ezra, who has autism, his mother said.


Griffin Hoffmann was known for making his friends and parents laugh with his dark sense of humor and wit.


“He was so quick and so sharp and able to bring a room to laughter no matter what was happening,” said Lesley Harper, a close family friend.


Griffin Hoffman's coach called him his "freshman superstar" last year because he started on the varsity team, his mother said. Family photo

His maternal grandfather in New Jersey helped support Hoffmann’s love of tennis, hosting him and his father years ago at the U.S. Open in New York.



The sport came naturally to him when he started playing around age 10.



At McDaniel High, his tennis coach called him his “freshman superstar” last year as he started on the varsity team, his mother recalled.



Griffin, she said, had little interest in children’s TV shows or movies. Instead he enjoyed watching such gritty classics with his father as “The Godfather,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Breaking Bad” and was in the midst of watching all the “Sopranos” episodes.


“My kid was a normal, good kid who thought he’d try this pill he was probably told would make him feel good but not kill him,” Cohen said. “He didn’t want to die. … Yet here we are and he is gone.”


She believes her son may have thought he was taking a Percocet, something he had seen and tried before with a friend. But the pill must have been a fake prescription pill made of fentanyl, police suspect.


“We spoke a gazillion times about drugs and knowing what you’re taking,” Cohen said. “He wasn’t an addict or even much of a partier.”

Friends created a memorial honoring Griffin Hoffmann at the tennis courts where he competed. Maxine Bernstein | The Oregonian/OregonLive

She’s eager for investigators to trace the source of the fentanyl.


“The moment one of my friends said to me, ‘Kerry, do you understand the DA was in your house, that this is a criminal case? Your son was killed,’ that has helped, the tiniest bit,” she said. “I need somebody to pay.”



The loss is unbearable, Cohen said.


“His dad and I are unable to imagine this world now that he isn’t in it,” she said. “We don’t want it. We long for him. I can’t imagine that will ever change.”



‘THERE’S NO WAY YOU CAN TELL’


McDaniel High School Principal Adam Skyles took to Instagram last week to alert parents, faculty and students of the potential danger of counterfeit pills made up of 100% fentanyl.


He urged students not to take any pill that isn’t prescribed for them and to turn in any other pills to administrators, assuring them there would be no questions asked.


The pill on the left is tainted with fentanyl, intended to mimic a 30-milligram tablet of oxycodone. The pill on the right is a legitimate oxycodone tablet. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

“There’s no way you can tell the difference between the counterfeit and the real ones,” he said. “Please stay safe.”


Nationally, fentanyl overdose deaths tripled among teens over the past two years, according to early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled by the nonprofit group Families Against Fentanyl.


Users often don’t know that the drugs they’re taking contain fentanyl. The opioid is legally used to manage severe pain, but drug dealers often put it in phony prescription pills or use it to boost heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs because it’s easier and cheaper to manufacture.


Fentanyl poisoning is now the No. 1 cause of death among Americans ages 18 to 45, surpassing COVID-19, suicide and car accidents. Families Against Fentanyl's analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data

Fentanyl often reaches teenagers and other buyers through Snapchat and other social media channels.


Fentanyl is primarily manufactured in foreign clandestine labs, mainly in China, Mexico and India, and smuggled into the United States through Mexico, then distributed across the country and sold in the illegal drug market. An increasing number of pills laced with fentanyl are being made in the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.


Fake prescription pills sold with fentanyl are often referred to as “Blues,” “M30s” and “Perc-30s.” As of January, illicit fentanyl accounted for 64% of all drug-related deaths in the United States last year, according to the analysis of national data by the Families Against Fentanyl.


In an unrelated drug seizure, federal agents said they confiscated these counterfeit pills and bulk fentanyl after an informant arranged a drug buy that was to take place in a parking lot in Oregon City on Mon., March 1, 2022. Court records

The risk of taking fentanyl isn’t a side effect or addiction; it’s death, experts say. In its pure form, less than a pinhead of fentanyl -- an amount similar to a couple grains of salt -- can kill someone.


Adolescent brains aren’t fully formed around assessing risk and reward, so teenagers are disposed to experiment, said Dr. Olivia Wright, a clinical faculty member at OHSU who specializes in family medicine and addiction medicine.


It doesn’t matter whether a teen is addicted to opioids or a first-time user -- everyone is in danger when it comes to fentanyl, Wright said.


Illicit fentanyl is responsible for 175 deaths every day and has killed more than 200,000 Americans since 2015.

Since one dose can be fatal, kids need to understand that fentanyl isn’t a drug, she said.


“It’s a poison that’s mixed with drugs,” she said.


“They may think they’re taking something that ‘oh yeah, everybody takes’ or that it’s not a big deal or they tried that in the past,” Wright said. “You really don’t know what you’re getting.’’

‘FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS’