FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — As fentanyl increasingly spreads throughout the region, there are new efforts underway to crack down on the drug.
Daya Krueger spent most of her life surrounded by addiction.
“I really like to say drugs are like a silent storm. They’re quiet. Everybody turns a blind eye. There’s such a stereotype on it,” she said.
For her, that storm began when she was prescribed fentanyl for a back injury. The skies darkened from there, leaving nothing but destruction in its wake for her family.
“The first overdose; it hit us hard. It kinda woke me up but at the same time, I was like, ‘It couldn’t happen to me. It’s from a doctor.’ The second overdose, it was like, ‘Okay, this isn’t funny anymore.’ And then the third one just rocked our world,” Krueger said.
Her story is becoming increasingly common. According to numbers from the Arkansas Department of Health, drug overdose deaths in Arkansas went from 390 in 2019 to 588 in 2022. Growing even faster were overdose deaths due to synthetic narcotics like fentanyl. In 2019, there were 115. In 2022, there were 293.
U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas Clay Fowlkes’ office and the legal system are reimagining how it addresses fentanyl cases. A new drug overdose response team in Benton and Washington counties serves as a pilot for all of the counties in Fowlkes’ district.
“We are looking for any piece of evidence that can help us identify the drug trafficking organization or simply the drug dealer who distributed that fentanyl that resulted in that overdose death,” he said.
In September, Ethan Driskill of Farmington was sentenced to 38 years in prison for distributing fentanyl resulting in a death, a charge rarely seen in Western Arkansas until recent months. And the effort to find the source of the drug is also intensifying.
“We’re finding more and more that these drug trafficking organizations that we investigate and prosecute in Northwest Arkansas are becoming more and more sophisticated,” Fowlkes said.
That sophisticated network is now shipping drugs through the mail from all over the country. KNWA/FOX24’s research has found at least 11 search warrants for packages heading to Arkansas in 2023.
In 2023, according to search warrant affidavits, multiple packages were seized from a home in Benton County, including one package that contained one kilogram of fentanyl powder. That is enough fentanyl to kill 500,000 people or about 90% of the population of Washington and Benton Counties. A search of the home in February also recovered 4.5 kilograms of methamphetamine, 1,389.2 gross grams of suspected fake OxyContin pills laced with fentanyl, and approximately 862 gross grams of suspected fentanyl powder. The U.S. District Attorney’s office says earlier this month, two residents of Nayrit, Mexico were sentenced to 408 months in prison in relation to that investigation.
The United States Postal Service has its own law enforcement arm that is working to stop this type of activity. The United States Postal Inspection Service, or USPIS, made 85 different seizures in 2022 of shipments destined for Arkansas that contained illegal narcotics. It also seized $48,761 going to and from Arkansas.
Dr. Wesley Northey with Reboot Recovery says those drugs are everywhere.
“For young people, teenagers, it’s probably harder to stay away from it than to actually have access to it,” he said.
That has Krueger worried, hoping her teenage daughters don’t follow in her footsteps.
“They come home and tell me, so-and-so overdosed in the bathroom. Somebody laced a vape one day. I mean, pop rocks now have fentanyl, and it looks like candy,” she said.
Search warrant affidavits show that when added up, other packages shipped through the mail to Arkansas this year included more than 14 pounds of marijuana and THC products, an unknown amount of meth, meth pills, a clear crystalized substance, and blue pills which is common of pills laced with fentanyl meant to look like OxyContin.
“Whatever can increase the addiction to a drug, people are going to put in the drugs you’re buying. They want you addicted. One-time users aren’t going to keep the money line coming,” Benton County Circuit Judge Thomas Smith said.
As Fowlkes investigates where the drugs are coming from, Smith is working directly with the addicted.
“This isn’t just about being locked up. This is life and death,” Smith said.
Instead of sending addicts straight to jail, the drug court will put them on a path to sobriety.
“When enough’s enough and they’ve hit rock bottom, and they’re ready for a change, it takes this type of intensive program,” Smith said.
He says drug court cases have doubled since the program started in 2013.
Transitional programs, like Nicole’s House, are also constantly at capacity.
“We’ve turned away 200 women in six years because we just can’t accommodate them. And it breaks my heart,” Nicole’s House founder Sandra Warmack said.
She started Nicole’s House after losing her daughter to a drug overdose.
“When she did die, I had about five years of shame and guilt. I’m her mother. Why wasn’t I able to make that difference?” Warmack said.
With Nicole’s House, she is now making sure more resources are available for other people like her daughter, and those resources have helped Krueger weather the storm.
“The restoration that comes with the family, I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Krueger said.
But as drugs continue to make it into the area and overdoses continue to rise, Warmack says more resources will still be needed.