Ken and Andrea Tousignant hold a picture of their late son, Dru, who passed away of a drug overdose in December.
Doctored drugs take a young life in Gillette
Ken Tousignant spends a lot of time these days thinking about the past. That’s all he has now. The past. The reel plays on a continuous loop. The signs he should have seen. Things he could have done to help his 21-year-old son had Ken known he was struggling.
Nobody told him that Dru had been doing drugs, and Ken had no idea what he should have been looking for had he known. The truth was revealed on a Monday morning just shy of Christmas last year when he found his son dead lying face up in his bedroom with foam coming out of his mouth. Despite his shock, Ken thought his son looked peaceful as he quickly tried to resuscitate him.
The EMT and coroner suspected a drug overdose right away. Since then, Ken has become a near expert on the ecstasy tablets (aka ‘molly’) and opiods that his son had been secretly taking, and it all fits together now. The excessive thirst, constant hoodie and sunglasses, the moodiness that never quite made sense.
Reading everything he can about his son’s addiction is a solace for Ken, who feels better as he tries to re-piece his son’s life.
“It’s a way to remember and spend time with him,” Ken said simply.
The hard part is knowing he hadn’t been able to save him. That’s all Ken wanted. A chance to help save his son.
Sitting on the leather couch next to his wife Andrea in the couple’s townhome in south Gillette, Ken stared down at his hands as he relived the details of Dru’s last day.
It had been a Sunday, he said, and Dru had been excited to go to work in the morning at his job at Big Horn Tire. For whatever reason, tires made their son tick, Ken recalled with a smile.
Dru had been changing tires for as long as he could remember, taking his first job at a tire store in their home state of Minnesota when he was a just a young teen. After moving to live with his dad and stepmom in Gillette just eight months prior to his death, he was once again working at a tire store. That Sunday, the family had been enjoying a relaxing day at home, when Dru told them he was running out for snacks. After returning shortly thereafter with a bag of chips and a soda in hand, they hadn’t thought anything about the quick errand, though in retrospect, it was odd because they already had both items at home.
“I thought that maybe he just needed to get out for a bit or wanted a different kind of snack,” Andrea said.
Perhaps automatically both of them stared through the back window at a small wooden building just yards away from the main house in the family’s fenced-in back yard. This had been Dru’s bedroom, Ken explained. When he’d moved to be with them, they wanted to give him a sense of privacy and a good place to practice his music. That’s another thing Dru liked to do, Ken added. DJ and mix music and share his videos on YouTube. In recent months, Dru had been garnering some attention in his work, which Ken learned in retrospect.
But otherwise, it was a normal weekend day, or so they thought.
Dru’s cell phone tells a different story. Multiple text messages to friends begging for pills, asking if anyone could sell him any. They figure he must have found some. When he got home from his errand, he had sat for a while with his parents in the living room, excitedly talking about his work the next day before heading off to sleep.
“By the time we said goodnight,” Ken said, “he was probably already a walking dead man.”
An increase in the number of fentanyl-related related deaths – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic – has prompted both the American Medical Association (AMA) and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to issue public warnings about fentanyl-laced drugs disguised as prescription opioids.
In 2016, the DEA released a report warning of the influx of these doctored pills flooding the drug market disguised as common prescription drugs like Norco (hydrocodone), Percocet (oxycodone) and Xanax (alprazolam). Fetanyl, an opioid used in cases of extreme pain mainly for terminal or cancer patients, is 25 to 50 times stronger than both heroin and morphine, per the report. Given its potency, the report stated, even a small amount can cause an overdose. And because it’s much cheaper and more accessible than other opioids, drug dealers find it advantageous in cutting production costs, regardless of its potential for fatalities.
The pills are manufactured in China and smuggled into the U.S. via Mexican drug cartels, according to the DEA, and are slowly making it into rural communities like Wyoming, that have traditionally been less hard hit by opioid-related deaths than southern and eastern states.
In a recent County 17 story, Campbell County Coroner Paul Wallem confirmed that there have been at least six fentanyl overdoses in the county since December of 2019. Moreover, Gillette Police Department (GPD) Narcotics Detective Eric Small reported that they’ve seen these doctored pills cut with fetanyl in Gillette and report a notable increase in the number of these arrests in recent months.
The blue pills mimic opioids with a “M-30” marker inscribed on the surface, which Small believes are coming from a pill press in Mexico who are deliberately manipulating the pills to avoid U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scrutiny. On the street, Small said they can sell anywhere from $30 – $45 per pill.
The problem, Small said, is that people have no idea what they’re buying, and dealers might not know either nor may people understand how deadly fentanyl can be.
Nationally, AMA warned of an increasing number of reported fentanyl-related deaths in 40 states, including Wyoming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl increased 10% between 2017 to 2018, killing more than 31,000 throughout the U.S.
The Tousignants are convinced that Dru was a victim of these doctored pills.
“He never would have deliberately taken his own life,” Andrea said vehemently. “Even all of his friends said that.”
Dru’s toxicology report bared out this suspicion. Campbell County Coroner Paul Wallem told the couple that Dru had 11 micrograms of fentanyl in his system, which is up to four times the therapeutic level.
Ironically, Dru had talked to his parents about how dumb people were to buy street drugs knowing the risk of overdose, of which he was well aware, according to Andrea. That’s what troubles them mainly, the fact that knowing the risks, his addiction won.
Ignoring the signs
From where they are sitting, they have a perfect view of the rows of photos of Dru lining the fireplace. In one corner, Dru plays the keyboard in a large canvas photo. Music symbols are seen painted on an adjacent wall. From Ken’s left calf, Dru’s tattooed face is preserved in a smile while Dru’s cat, Elliot, sprawled out on the coffee table for his afternoon nap.
With their son gone, the Tousignants are on a mission to warn parents and people buying drugs from nefarious drug dealers out to make a profit, regardless of who it might kill. They can only speculate that Dru had been trying to buy ecstasy or other opioids to fuel an addiction that the family – including his younger half-sister Bre with whom he was close – had no idea he had.
“This stuff just wasn’t around when we were kids,” Andrea said, with outstretched palms pointed at the ceiling. “We used just drink cheap beer, but now, these kids are going to pill parties.”
Since their son’s death, they’ve learned a lot about things they hadn’t known, including parties in which kids bring prescription pills that they throw into a bowl and pick at random.
“We had absolutely no idea he was into this stuff,” Ken said gravely.
Now, they know.
These are the regrets of parents who lost to their child because they had no idea what they should have been looking for.
Looking back now, they knew Dru had experimented with pot. Though he had previously lived with his mother in Duluth, he’d moved briefly to live with them in Gillette as a teen after the couple had relocated to Wyoming about eight years ago for work. Despite the drugs, Dru always held a job and made it to work on time.
“We’re a working family,” Andrea said. “All of us work a lot, and Dru never had a problem when it came to work.”
For this reason, they hadn’t thought there was any cause for worry. This is what obsesses Ken now, all of the overt signs he hadn’t known to be looking for, which now, in retrospect, are painfully clear, beginning as a teen. When Dru had lived in Gillette briefly at age 14, he got caught smoking pot, which didn’t sit well with Ken, and as a result, Dru moved back to live with his mom. Apparently, his drug problem was well documented back home, including a prior charge for felony possession, which nobody had told them about at the time, but they later found online when researching online.
This is Ken and Andrea’s advice to other parents or family members.
“Know what to look for,” Ken said. “Read everything you can, even if your kid’s behavior seems normal.”
Many of Dru’s behaviors are clear in retrospect, he said. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, MDMA (ecstasy) causes excessive dehydration (hence, Dru’s incessant thirst), involuntary jaw clenching, lack of appetite, restless legs, illogical thoughts, hot flashes or chills, headache, sweating and joint stiffness. And because it’s typically a binge drug, after using people also tend to become depressed, moody, aggressive, anxious or irritable along with having an impaired attention and memory.
This explains a lot of their son’s behaviors, which they’d just chalked up to young adulthood. Now, however, they see that the signs were sitting right under their noses.
“He was always really moody,” Ken said of his son, “and thirsty. I’ve never seen a kid drink so much. It all makes sense now.”
Then there’s the photos, lasting proof of his son’s addiction. Ken stood at the kitchen counter, shuffling through a large pile of photographs, all printed from his son’s phone. Many Dru took while high to share with his buddies, including a zoomed-in selfie of his eyes glossy, dilated eyes under a hoodie.
They also have advice to other parents about keeping unused medications in their home, which as Andrea learned the hard way, kids can get definitely get into. When the EMT asked if either of them had any pain pills in the house. Andrea nodded slowly. She’d forgotten all about them. After a recent surgery, she’d only taken a few of the 90 prescribed pain pills, which were now mostly missing. Likewise, a few of Ken’s prescription pills had also been short a couple times in the past few months, which at the time, he had blamed the pharmacist for miscounting, as illogical as he knows that now sounds.
They also tried to set a positive example, Ken said, and neither ever smoked or drank in front of their kids.
Regardless, their son is gone, so Ken and Andrea want to do what they can to warn parents and loved ones as well as anyone who is buying drugs off the street.
“You have no idea what you’re getting,” she said. “It’s so scary, because you have absolutely no idea.”
For his part, Ken’s not quite ready to stop beating himself up yet and still has a hard time erasing the memory of the morning he found his son.
“Losing someone is hard enough,” Ken said, “but to know he had been struggling and didn’t know how to ask for help weighs on me.”
Ken sees a counselor for help and finds solace in tidbits shared from Dru’s friends about how much his son loved his dad and how good he was at mixing music as well as his passion for music, which he truly enjoyed. In their hearts, the Tousignants believe their son was working hard to turn his life around and was succeeding, save for this last unfortunate slip.
“He was a true sweetheart of a kid,” Ken said of his son, eyes misting. “It’s just too young. Nobody should ever have to see their kid in a casket.”