Open Site Navigation

Deadly Consequences: Overdoes exacerbated by fentanyl poisoning spark national movement


One Pill. And A Grief With No Finish Line

Two Young Hurdlers Among Thousands Dying Of Fentanyl-Laced Pharamaceuticals, And Two Mothers With A Dire Warning

A DyeStat story by Dave Devine

The video is short, unedited. Casual and spontaneous. A propped-up cellphone, footage on the fly. Exactly how a teenager would do it.

Just a boy and his dog, singing.

Laura Didier discovered it on her son Zachary’s phone, shortly after he died.

The local police had completed their work by then. They had performed the necessary download of the phone’s contents, carried out the forensic analysis, returned the unlocked phone to the Didier family.

By then, the family knew what likely had killed Zach. Knew that he’d almost certainly been poisoned by a counterfeit Percocet pill laced with fentanyl, two days after Christmas, December 27, 2020.

He was 17, a senior at Whitney High in Rocklin, Calif.

Laura still isn’t sure what caused her to pick up his phone one night before bed.

Grief, certainly.

The ache of missing Zach. A vague hope that perhaps she’d find some new images of her son. A need to see his face.

“I just wanted to see if he had any pictures I hadn’t seen,” Laura says, “and then I found the video. It felt almost like he guided me to find it.”

In the short clip — less than three minutes long — Zach leans in to press Record on the phone’s camera, turns to his dog Jake, says, You ready? Me too, and then begins playing a jazzy, improvisational version of “Christmas Time Is Here” on a piano.

His fingers dance across the keys, deftly finding notes, while behind him Jake angles his nose toward the ceiling, howling and “singing” along.

It’s a disarming, intimate glimpse into Zach’s personality. His evident gifts. His playfulness and humor.

His laughter and light.

The video ends with Zach shaking his head at Jake’s singing, smiling impishly at the camera, and then reaching to click it off.

When Laura saw the footage, it felt like something providential. Meant to be found. He’d recorded it only a few months earlier. She’ll never know why.

“On the one hand it’s comforting,” she says, “but on the other hand, it’s very jarring. I still have to remind myself that he’s gone.”

It’s a story that’s unfolding all over the country.

More than 1,700 miles away, in the northern suburbs of Austin, Texas, a different mother — Becky Schulze Stewart — was struggling with the same jarring disconnect. The same weaving path through a fog of grief.

Becky, too, had lost a son to a fentanyl-laced pill, less than three months after Zach died in northern California.

Cameron Stewart, 19 years old. Recently graduated from Cedar Park High School.

“Of course, hands down the worst day of my life,” Becky says. “You can’t think of that day and not re-live it over and over again. He was such a beautiful, talented, funny kid.”

She’s talking about Cameron, but she could easily be talking about Zach. They had that much in common; far more than simply the way they died.

A pair of boys: one from California, one from Texas.

Both with sly, clever smiles. Mischievous, knowing eyes under mops of shaggy brown hair.

Both standout hurdlers on their high school track teams.

Both killed by fentanyl, leaving shattered families with more questions than answers.

Leaving two mothers, half a country apart, sifting through old photos, scrolling police-scoured phones, caressing yellowed album pages, folders of forgotten schoolwork. Pulling up videos, hitting rewind and replay.

Over and over.

Searching for ways to still see their sons.

“I watch that video all the time,” Laura says, “when I need to feel him alive.”

Once Zach Didier figured out how to three-step between barriers, his hurdling took off.

It happened in the spring of 2019, his sophomore year. He trimmed his strides from five down to three, and every meet after that featured a personal best in the 110-meter hurdles.

“He was just a natural,” Laura recalls. “Really beautiful to watch. After he perfected his three-step, it was like everything clicked.”

Zach had been athletic his whole life, first starring as a defender on middle school soccer teams coached by his father, Chris, and then taking up track and field in eighth grade. By high school, he was a high jumper and a hurdler, transferring his speed from the soccer field to the track.

“He always loved running, even for fun,” Laura says.

She’s a runner herself, having completed multiple marathons. Chris was a hurdler in high school; the sport was a natural fit for Zach.

He showed promise his freshman year, but it was that sophomore season when everything fell into place. He cut his best in the 300-meter hurdles from 49.62 to 45.29. Shaved more than two seconds from his 110 times, from the mid-19’s down to 17.03.

“He was just on fire,” Laura says, “every race.”

And it wasn’t just his own races that excited Zach, he loved circulating between events to cheer on teammates when he wasn’t competing. It was part of the reason he received awards for improvement and sportsmanship from Whitney High’s hurdle coach at the 2019 season-ending banquet.

All of it — the success, the awards, finding efficiency between hurdles — left Zach excited for his junior year. But that track season in California, as it was almost everywhere else in the country, was eliminated by COVID-19.

And Zach never got a senior season.

He died the December before track resumed again.

His parents’ favorite track memories then, all go back to that sophomore campaign, when everything was still possible.

“You could feel his sense of accomplishment,” Laura says. “The first race where he three-stepped the entire way and his time really improved. That would probably be my favorite memory — seeing that hard work pay off.”

Cameron Stewart’s strength as a hurdler was his form: low and smooth over the sticks.

He was tall, like his older brother Hayden, so the challenge for Cam was getting his long legs moving again after clearing each barrier.

“But he had beautiful form,” Becky says.

Athletic from a young age, Cam followed Hayden, who was three years ahead in school, through a succession of sports. Football, soccer, track. For one year, they competed together on those teams at Hill Country Christian School. It’s a small, faith-based K-12, the kind of school where a gifted freshman can make varsity across multiple seasons.

Hayden was already an established star there; Cam was impatient to catch up.

“Cameron was a very talented athlete,” Becky recalls. “But he also felt a self-imposed pressure to be better than his brother.”

Hayden had set school records in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles and won both events as a junior at the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) State Meet. He had no intention of letting his freshman brother beat him while they were in school together, but once he’d graduated and moved on to Angelo State University for a program in exercise science, he supported Cameron from afar.

“After I left, I didn’t care if he beat my times,” Hayden says, “so I was encouraging him to get better and better. I wanted him to go to State and have a chance at winning.”

Cam nearly did that his sophomore and junior years, making the podium in both hurdle events — runner-up in the 110-meter hurdles in 2018 and 2019, third in the 300-meter hurdles both years — along with a third-place finish for his 4x400 relay in 2019.

With personal bests of 16.11 for the 110 hurdles and 41.69 for the 300’s, he was closing in on Hayden’s school records.

“His goal was always to beat me,” Hayden says, “which I’m sure would’ve happened at some point, had he run his senior year.”

COVID arrived during Cam’s senior spring, but that’s not the reason he didn’t run. At some point during his junior year, alongside those podium finishes on the track, he began struggling with significant mental health challenges.

“Anxiety, depression…you name it,” Becky says. “And he chose to deal with that in unhealthy ways.”

Reluctant to accept professional counseling, Cam began self-medicating with a variety of substances. The Stewarts discovered the issue early on and helped him enter a rehabilitation program. By the beginning of the 2019-20 school year — which he began at a new school, Cedar Park High — Cam was doing well again. But that spring, as the pandemic shuttered his school, and interrupted most of the social outlets in his life, Cam experienced a relapse. He completed a second stint in rehab — “He was doing great,” Becky says — and then graduated in July from Cedar Park, but he never did run the hurdles again.

Like the Didiers in California, Becky clings to memories of those earlier seasons, of Cam winning races, when every meet was charged with possibility.

“When he did succeed,” she says, “it just lit up my heart. Knowing he was blissful. Because I knew the struggles he had, and to know that in that moment he had some relief was — it was just pretty cool to watch.”

Overdose isn’t the right word.

Laura and Becky understand why it’s used so frequently in describing drug deaths, but they’re adamant that it doesn’t accurately capture what happened to their sons, or what’s happening to tens of thousands of other people, young and old, around the country.

An “overdose,” Becky points out, suggests that someone, intentionally or by accident, ingested too much of a known substance. Zach and Cam each died taking a single pill made to look like a familiar prescription pharmaceutical. In both cases, the pills were laced with fentanyl, the cheap, deadly synthetic opioid that drug dealers are increasingly mixing into traditional street drugs and pressing into counterfeit prescription pills.

Zach, who died over Christmas break in 2020, connected with a stranger on Snapchat who sold the 17-year-old what Zach understood to be a pharmaceutical-grade Percocet.

He had begun, during that break, to exhibit some subtle signs of tiredness and irritability, but nothing that raised a major red flag with his parents. When Laura checked in with him a few days earlier, he’d assured her, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”

On the night of Dec. 26, Zach went to bed at his dad’s house after spending the evening with friends. When Chris went to check on him the next day, after Zach didn’t come downstairs around his normal wake-up time, Chris found him slumped and unresponsive at his bedroom desk.

Chris immediately began administering CPR, but it was too late.

When Laura arrived in the driveway at Chris’s house, amid the baffling swirl of emergency vehicles, a stunned Chris managed three devastating words: “Our baby’s gone.”

Both parents were incredulous that their healthy, vibrant son could somehow die so unexpectedly. But almost immediately, the coroner informed them that he suspected only two possible reasons for Zach’s death: natural causes or fentanyl. That’s how prevalent poisoning by counterfeit drugs had become in Placer County, where the Didiers live.

In Texas, Cameron’s death was remarkably similar.

Although he’d continued to struggle with mental health concerns in the year after high school graduation, he was doing well by the spring of 2021. Living in his own apartment, holding down a successful lawncare job with several side projects in the works, considering applying to college after a year off.

He and Becky had been texting back and forth on Friday, March 19, planning to meet at Austin’s Town Lake the next morning to walk his dog, Bailey, and get lunch at the food carts. But when Becky didn’t receive a reply to her final text asking to confirm a time, she knew something was wrong.

She called Cameron’s dad, Dwayne — who hadn’t heard from Cam since the day before — and they agreed to meet at Cam’s apartment.

“He didn’t answer the door, of course,” Becky says.

She immediately called the police, and when officers entered the apartment they found Cameron in his bed, unresponsive and without a pulse. Toxicology results showed he had died from a single pill containing a lethal dose of fentanyl. Becky and Dwayne eventually learned that he’d purchased the pill from an anonymous dealer on Snapchat, thinking it was Valium.

"Truly, one pill killed him," Becky says. "He went to sleep and never woke up."

The definitiveness of that death, the complete blindsiding, is the most striking aspect of fentanyl poisoning.

“These kids are dying from their mistakes,” Becky says, “instead of learning from them…Cameron’s death was just the cost of doing business to these dealers. They know their product is killing people, but they don’t care, because there’s always going to be someone else to buy the product.”

And the numbers are truly staggering.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose is now the leading cause of preventable death among Americans ages 18 to 45, outpacing suicide, gun violence and traffic accidents. Overdose rates for adolescents between 14 and 18 have also soared in the last two years.

More than 107,600 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, the highest annual death toll on record, and drug experts consider poisoning by fentanyl to be the primary driver of the astonishing increase.

Only two milligrams of fentanyl — an amount equal to a few grains of salt — can constitute a lethal dose. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 4 out of 10 pills containing fentanyl hold at least that much. And due to a lack of dosage control in batch mixing by drug dealers, many illicit pills contain much higher amounts.

It means that stories like Zach’s and Cam’s are everywhere now.

A single pill, purchased on-line. A sudden, shocking death. A grieving family.

A coroner who immediately suspects fentanyl.

“It’s the finality of it,” Laura says. “It’s not like you have a bad hangover and you learn a lesson. You are just gone…forever and ever.”

Zach loved music.

He taught himself to play the ukulele, the guitar and the piano. He loved singing with his dog, Jake. His favorite singer was Shawn Mendes.