For months, Jaime Puerta has done what no parent would ever want to do — relive a nightmare dozens of times recounting the day when his only son Daniel died.
In schools and organizations, in small groups and large auditoriums, in person and on Zoom, Puerta gives talks aimed at educating parents, teachers and especially students between the ages of 12 and 17 years old who attend middle school and high school.
He’s ringing the alarm bell, to tell how his own precious teenager lost his life by taking a counterfeit pill that he likely didn’t know was made with fentanyl.
“It’s not easy but I put myself through this pain every day because I’m sick of seeing so many young people die of the same thing,” said the Santa Clarita resident.
Puerta, a Marine veteran, has made it his mission to prevent other families from going through the same horror. He’s given almost 40 talks at various local and national school districts this year and delivers his message to students with the help of a powerful 21-minute documentary called ‘Dead on Arrival,’ or in Spanish ‘Muerto al Llegar,’ which presents four heartbreaking testimonials about how fentanyl infiltrates the community through counterfeit pills.
After finding other parents online who lost their children the same way, Puerta founded Stop the VOID (Victims of Illicit Drugs) — an organization whose mission is to inform the public about sudden deaths associated with fentanyl.
Fentanyl, currently considered the deadliest drug in the country, is a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Criminal drug networks are making counterfeit pills that appear to be the prescription drugs commonly known as hydrocodone, alprazolam or oxycodone, but unknown to those purchasing them — they aren’t those drugs at all and aren’t just laced with fentanyl — they are made up completely of fentanyl.
“All the pills that people think are prescribed drugs and are sold online have 100% fentanyl,” said Bill Bodner, DEA special agent. “One hundred percent of pills of what people think are Percocet, Xanax and oxycodone that are being sold online now are all counterfeit.”
“People look at me and ask me how could you say something like that? We seized the pills. We seized 7 million pills this calendar year ,” said Bodner. “We do undercover buys on social media and test them, we don’t see any pills that have oxycodone in it [everything is fentanyl].”
The 7 million pills seized by the DEA this year were in seven counties: Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
The counterfeit pills are oftentimes sold on e-commerce platforms and the “darknet,” making them easy to purchase by anyone who has a smartphone.
The DEA found through laboratory testing in 2022, “six out of 10 [counterfeit pills] now contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.”
One of these pills arrived at Puerta’s home on March 31, 2020.
The next day, when Puerta entered his son’s room, he found him passed out. At the hospital, the doctors reported that the young man was in a coma and was struggling to breathe.
He was placed on life support. Within days his organs began to fail and his parents decided to discontinue efforts to keep him alive. Daniel died on April 6 at 5:08 p.m., at the age of 16. He was a year away from graduating from Santa Clarita’s Opportunities for Learning Charter school.
His father found half of a blue pill in his son’s room and when searching the internet he found that it looked like an oxycodone pill —a medication used to treat severe pain. Legitimate oxycodone is only available by prescription.
Daniel had been diagnosed with ADHD and severe depression and was taking medication. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced families to quarantine themselves and the teenager wasn’t able to see his friends.
“He spent hours in his room studying. He didn’t have an addiction but we think that due to the confinement he began to feel sadder,” Puerta said.
When the sheriff informed him that Daniel had died of an overdose, Puerta couldn’t understand how a healthy young teenager could die taking half a pill of oxycodone. It wasn’t until he was told that his son had actually ingested fentanyl that Puerta realized the type of monster that had entered his home and got into his son’s hands.
“My son did not die of an overdose, he died of poisoning,” Puerta maintains.
To support his position, he shares the example of the seven people who died in Chicago in 1982 after ingesting what they thought was Tylenol but in reality they took capsules laced with potassium cyanide. That case was classified as one in a series of poisoning deaths.
A lethal dose of fentanyl is about two milligrams, equivalent in size to a few grains of salt; Daniel ingested half of what he thought was a 30 milligram of an oxycodone pill.
Opioid medication requires a prescription to be purchased. But the authorities indicate that now counterfeited opioid medication containing fentanyl is being sold on the ‘darknet’ through dealers operating on social media sites. “Sometimes the negotiations finish on Snapchat because messages from that app are deleted,” says the Colombian-born father.
The authorities have launched a ‘One Pill Can Kill’ campaign and have carried out operations in an attempt to stop this crisis.
During a recent press conference in Los Angeles, FBI Special Agent in Charge Brian Gilhooly gave information about the indictment and charges against Christopher Hampton, a 36-year-old Cerritos man that “obtained bulk fentanyl, operated labs in Inglewood and Compton that used high-speed pill presses to create fake pills containing fentanyl, and sold millions of pills to thousands of customers on at least nine ‘darknet’ sites.”
Using search warrants, authorities seized 450 pounds of suspected narcotics and more than 20,000 multicolored pills containing fentanyl-so-called “skittles” manufactured to resemble oxycodone pills.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has also warned of brightly colored pills and squares of powder dubbed “rainbow fentanyl” that have been illegally manufactured to target the very young and appear harmless – made to look like candy.
Puerta, who has previously worked with the authorities in the DEA’s Education Division, attended the news conference.
With a photo of his son Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson in hand, he recounted what happened. Once again, he found the courage to talk about Daniel, whom he remembers having a wide smile, being brilliant in mathematics, playing football at his high school in Saugus where he was a good friend sought out for his advice and who always enjoyed eating a good ‘bandeja paisa,’ a favorite Colombian dish.
“My son was big-hearted, humble and had a lot of compassion and he hugged me a lot,” said Puerta, who has turned his grief into a fight. He believes it will take much more than the “Don’t do drugs” discourse.
“You have to let them know that one pill can cost them their lives in a matter of seconds.”
Many ask Puerta how he keeps going.
“I do it on behalf of my son. Fentanyl destroyed my family and my nightmare is that other children continue to die from the same thing,” Puerta replies.
He also speaks about Melanie Ramos, a 15-year-old student in Hollywood, and Cade Kitchen, a 17-year-old student in Woodland Hills. Both died from fentanyl poisoning in recent months.
After the death of these young people, more and more schools are bringing in presentations like Puerta’s to their students, but he’s requested that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) do more by providing specific education on fentanyl.
“The goal now is to reach more teenagers and let them know about the dangers they are exposed to,” he said. The organization’s next step is to train other parents who have gone through the same experience who are also willing to reach out to more schools and provide their testimonials. They also want to make the public aware that Stop the VOID has educational resources on its website and everyone can download them for free.
Members of the group are communicating with legislators to pass laws to regulate internet sites that sell counterfeit medications and fentanyl online.
It’s an uphill battle, but Puerta has started to notice the direct difference he’s making.
Sometimes, at the end of his talk, students will hand him notes. One wrote,“Thank you because we didn’t know about this danger.” Another wrote,“Now I can make better decisions.”“That is already a step forward,” said Puerta.
For more information about Stop the VOID, visit: www.stopthevoid.org/ and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/stoptheVOID/.