Mary and Ed Ternan had just slipped into bed at their Pasadena home when they heard the phone ring and knocking at their door.
A pastor from their parish and two family friends were at their doorstep, phoning the couple. “We have to talk to you,” they said.
Something’s wrong, Ed Ternan thought. Someone must need our help if the pastor is at our front door at 10 p.m. He did not think the worst. Maybe, he would later say, it was “the brain protecting itself.”
But, the worst had happened: the Ternans’ 22-year-old son Charlie, a graduating senior at Santa Clara University, had died in an accident, the pastor told them.
The next two hours were a whirl of desperate phone calls: How did their son suddenly die at the off-campus fraternity house in Santa Clara where he had lived?
What the parents eventually learned from their son’s housemates and investigators was unfathomable: On the afternoon of May 14, 2020, Charlie Ternan swallowed a pill investigators said he bought from a seller on Snapchat. He ordered what was advertised as a Percocet painkiller. But he received a counterfeit pill that contained a lethal dose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is between 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Within 30 minutes, Charlie Ternan was dead.
The Ternans had heard about fentanyl overdose deaths on city streets, in dark alleyways, among people addicted to drugs. But until their son’s death, they did not know that teens and young adults with no history of substance abuse were dying inside their homes from accidental fentanyl overdoses after ingesting a single counterfeit pill.
Charlie Ternan, 22, was an economics major at Santa Clara University.
Provided by Mary and Ed Ternan
The drugs are manufactured by criminal networks — most in Mexico using fentanyl from China, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — marked like prescription pills and often sold to unsuspecting buyers through social media apps. The DEA said in September that authorities had seized 9.5 million so far this year, more than double the past two years combined. The agency says that two out of every five counterfeit pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose.
In its first public safety alert in six years, the DEA said counterfeit pills are “killing unsuspecting Americans at an unprecedented rate.” Though the number isn’t known, the deaths are a growing piece of the widespread fentanyl epidemic. District attorneys investigating the deaths say the use of social media apps like Snapchat makes it difficult to prove who the sellers were and that they knew the pills were potentially lethal.
Many people remain unaware of the dangers, though families of victims are trying to change that.
The Ternans had to scour the internet for information, where they found Facebook posts from parents whose teenage and adult children died after consuming counterfeit pills, and news stories of deaths from around the country. And they met Brian Buckelew, a supervising district attorney with Santa Clara County who knew the cases all too well.
“We have a lot of young people, a lot of naive users, inexperienced users, experimenters, folks in junior high school,” Buckelew told The Chronicle in an interview when he was with the district attorney’s office. He is now a judge in Santa Clara County Superior Court. “The great majority appears to not know they have taken fentanyl.”
Charlie’s case was one of 87 fentanyl poisoning deaths in Santa Clara County last year, more than triple the number of fentanyl poisoning deaths from 2019. It is unclear how many of those deaths were caused by counterfeit pills.
“It really raises your eyebrows to say, ‘Wait a minute. So Charlie is not a one-off?’” Ed Ternan said. “You start to think, ‘How could I have not known about this?’”
Many of the buyers purchase pills from strangers online thinking they are getting Xanax, oxycodone or another prescription medication online, Buckelew said. People have ordered pills on social media platforms and have had them delivered to their homes within minutes.
“It’s over and over again that people buy them on Snapchat. Over and over again,” Buckelew said. “Half the fentanyl overdose cases that I am aware of — where the method of ingestion is a pill, and it’s a young, young-ish group, I’d say 30 and under — I’d say half purchased it on Snapchat.”
Snapchat officials said they are working with law enforcement to thwart drug-dealers attempting to sell fake pills on the platform and with victims’ groups to provide education and information about the dangers to the app’s users.
In 2019, Buckelew wrote a public health warning alerting county residents of the “major uptick” in fatal fentanyl overdoses. Several deaths were tied to round, blue counterfeit pills engraved with a large “M” on one side, and a smaller “30” on the other. There were clusters of deaths, including three in a week.
Responding to the crisis is “like sweeping back the sea,” Buckelew said.
“These cases are really hard to prosecute,” Buckelew said, “Unless you can show that the dealer actually knew of the fatal properties of fentanyl and the dangerous-ness of it and then proceeded to continue to deal in reckless disregard of human life. And that is really hard to prove.”
Charlie’s case is one the district attorney’s office is working on.
Just six days before his death, Charlie left his family’s Pasadena home to return to Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college nearly 400 miles away in the Bay Area. The university transitioned to remote learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but Charlie wanted to ring in his remaining weeks as a college student living in an off-campus fraternity house with his friends, his parents said.
He was three weeks from graduating with an undergraduate economics degree, and was preparing for a 5 p.m. interview with a prospective employer on May 14, 2020.
That day, his back was in pain.
At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Charlie Ternan had undergone back surgery to repair a disc two years prior and had been prescribed Percocet, an opioid pain reliever. He was familiar with the painkiller’s effect on his body, his parents said, and his back had been hurting after his recent drive from Southern California to the Bay Area. His parents said they do not believe Charlie was addicted to the painkillers.
He contacted a dealer he connected with on Snapchat, where shared content disappears after it’s viewed. He purchased what he thought to be a single Percocet and took the pill at about 3 p.m. that day, his parents estimated based on conversations they had with his friends. He planned to play video games in his room until his interview. His friends — who had left the home to spend the spring day outside — found him unresponsive in his room at 8:45 p.m., Ternan’s parents said.
One of Charlie’s housemates frantically called his own parents, who are close friends with the Ternans and like them lived in Southern California. The couple and the pastor soon were standing on the Ternans’ doorstep.
“That is a shocking thing to hear and kind of knocks you over,” Ed Ternan said.
People like the Ternans who have lost children to counterfeit pills want other parents to know the dangers.
“We’re screaming at the top of our lungs for people to listen to us and to warn kids, and it’s finally starting to pay off a little bit,” said Gilroy resident Lisa Marquez, who also lost a son. “Even if it saves one person, if it saves one mom from living this nightmare that I live every single day, then I’m OK.”
The knock on Marquez’s door came at 5 a.m. on March 26, 2020. Gilroy police said her 17-year-old son, Fernando Michael Sanchez, was in an ambulance, may have ingested something and was on his way to the hospital. Paramedics found a heartbeat while in the ambulance.
Lisa Marquez poses for a portrait displaying a tattoo of her son Fernando Michael Sanchez on her back.
LiPo Ching/Special to The Chronicle
But by the time she reached the hospital, Fernando was dead.
A day earlier, Marquez learned, Fernando and two other teens had purchased what they believed to be Xanax from someone off social media. The others took one pill each, but Fernando took at least two and then went to the home of a friend, Marquez said.
Her son had used Xanax before, in 2019 — and it had landed him in trouble with the law after he got into a fight with someone while under the influence. He had just finished his probation for that incident. He was a funny, mellow homebody who would turn up the radio volume while singing and rapping in the shower, just to playfully spite his mom, she said. Marquez cherishes a video that one of Fernando’s teachers shared of him rapping in a classroom. She still grapples with what else she could have done to guide him away from his interest in pills.
“I wish I could ask him, ‘Why did you do it again? It got you into all this trouble the first time,’” Marquez said of her son who loved watching boxing matches with her, playing video games at home and rapping. “I know he didn’t try to kill himself.”
This undated photograph shows Jacob Vasquez with his mother, Geralyn Maul-Vasquez.
Provided by Geralyn Maul-Vasquez
Another Santa Clara County’s fentanyl poisoning death happened last year inside the Gilroy home of Geralyn Maul-Vasquez, 61.
Her son, Jacob Vasquez, 24, was found unresponsive in his bedroom on the morning of Nov. 28. Vasquez’s family later learned that he purchased what he thought were Xanax pills from an acquaintance in Gilroy he knew from high school, according to messages they reviewed on his cellphone. A toxicology report confirmed that he died from accidental fentanyl toxicity. There was enough fentanyl in his system to kill four people, Maul-Vasquez said.
“He had so many plans, and so we all know he did not want to die,” Maul-Vasquez said, pointing to a business he had started selling CBD products for animals, his dreams of visiting every Major League Basebll baseball park, and purchasing a retirement home for his parents. “Had someone said, ‘Jacob, this pill has fentanyl in it, enough to kill four people,’ he would not have taken it.”
Maul-Vasquez said Jacob may have been trying to suppress feelings of anxiety. He had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had showed interest in getting a prescription for medication to better handle his symptoms, Maul-Vasquez said.
She said she and her family are trying their best to live life “as joyously” as Vasquez did, saying that he was always singing, dancing and quick to remind people to accept and embrace their authentic selves, just as he did.
“He would walk in a room, and people would just be lifted by his presence and by his brilliant smile,” Maul-Vasquez said.
In recent months, teens have died in their Bay Area homes. In August, a 14-year-old Concord High School student died in his Concord home shortly after ingesting a round blue pill with the same “M” and “30” markings found in other fentanyl poisonings in the Bay Area region.
In Sonoma County, Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar told The Chronicle that he knew of three families that had lost young people to fentanyl overdoses from counterfeit pills in the past year. In two cases, Jamar said, the individuals believed they were getting a counterfeit pharmaceutical drug — but not pills with fentanyl.
Fentanyl-related deaths have been rising for the past year and a half to two years, Jamar said, and while figures specifically related to deaths from counterfeit pills were unavailable, Jamar said, the district attorney’s office has seen a rise in those fatal cases.
At center, Lisa Marquez listens to prayer for her son Fernando Michael Sanchez given by a family member before a family dinner at Lisa’s house on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021 in Gilroy, Calif.
LiPo Ching/Special to The Chronicle
“I hear from parents and family members that some of these young adults went to a party, they thought it would be fun to take a Xanax pill and… they think it’s going to be fairly innocuous,” Jamar said. “And they end up dying.”
Marquez and Maul-Vasquez connected with each other and other families who have lost relatives to counterfeit pills. They’ve been advocating in Gilroy to boost education on the lethal drug in the community — particularly in schools — and are each scheduled to speak with local youth in Gilroy about the dangers of counterfeit pills.
The Ternans navigated their loss by starting a nonprofit, Song for Charlie, to raise awareness of the deadly counterfeit pills. They’ve partnered with Snapchat to launch a social media awareness campaign about how the counterfeit pills are sold online and marketed to young people.
“We didn’t know how to deal with our grief, and we thought that if we put our efforts in trying to save lives and so parents wouldn’t have to go through what we were going through, that would give us a purpose,” Mary Ternan said.
Snapchat officials said in a statement that they’ve “heard devastating stories from families impacted by this crisis, including cases in which fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills were purchased from drug dealers on Snapchat,” adding that they are working to stop drug sales on their platform by launching new initiatives and bolstering existing ones.
“We hope that our ongoing operational improvements and educational efforts will help to keep our community safe from the devastating impacts of the fentanyl crisis,” said officials with the Santa Monica-based company.
When Snapchat discovers a drug dealer on the platform, employees remove the user and prevent them from creating a new account under the same phone number or device ID, and report them to law enforcement, they said. They did not say how many cases the company has referred or provide more details.
Snapchat officials said as drug dealers evolve to try to evade the platform’s rules, they’re developing “proactive detection” technology.
Snapchat said it plans to roll out a filter on its app to raise awareness about the dangers of prescription pills and fentanyl. When Snapchat users search in the app for drug-related keywords, a new in-app education portal called “Heads Up” will show content from nonprofit Shatterproof, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Song for Charlie.
Hand prints of Fernando Sanchez and his half sister Angelique Sanchez are placed in Sanchez’s memory garden at his mother Lisa Marquez’s house on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021 in Gilroy, Calif.
LiPo Ching/Special to The Chronicle
Buckelew said the Ternans are “doing God’s work” by educating other grieving families, creating a network of parents who are bound together by inexplicable losses.
“Nothing is worse, I think, than people thinking that their loved one died in vain. If any good can come out of this tragedy, it’s preventing it from happening to other people,” Buckelew said. He paused for a beat, slipping his fingers beneath his glasses to wipe away the tears welling in his eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s really hard stuff. I deal with this stuff all day, but the grieving families? That’s hard.”
Lauren Hernández is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @ByLHernandez