A family’s loss moves beyond the statistics in fatal fentanyl overdoses

30 April 2023

Their collective grief palpable in the morning air, members of Mia Gugino’s family filled every available seat in District Judge Michelle Leavitt’s Las Vegas courtroom. They were there to witness the sentencing of the man who provided the fentanyl-laced pill linked to the 17-year-old girl’s fatal overdose in 2021.

The display of unity came in a wave, filling up the hallway before flowing into Department 12, where Officer Randy Hawkes asked attorneys present for other matters before the court to make room for the family of the 17-year-old Centennial High School graduate and soccer standout whose life had been so full of promise. In the end, there were far more friends and family members than room in the gallery.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Schwartzer had the unenviable task of attempting to quantify the human loss with the grim reality that fentanyl overdose deaths have become so common that they might have lost their shocking impact on a jaded society. He went with statistics.

Such cases have become such regular occurrences, Schwartzer said.

“I feel like every week I’m here talking about another young person who has passed away because of fentanyl,” he said. “This drug has become an epidemic upon our society and has taken away so many young people. The life expectancy of an American citizen now is at the lowest point in 20 years, according to the CDC, because of the opioid epidemic driven by outlaw fentanyl.”

Opioid-related deaths jumped from 70,029 in 2020 to 80,816 in 2021 largely because of increased ingestion of fentanyl either by design or unintentionally, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

It’s no secret that we’re the world’s largest recreational drug users, but the proliferation of fentanyl – 50 times more powerful than heroin – as an ingredient in a variety of street drugs has created a kind of chemical Russian roulette for even casual users. In Gugino’s case, she ingested what she believed to be a pill of MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and wound up dying in her own bed.

Schwartzer referenced a DEA analysis that estimated six of every 10 pills sold on the street contain enough fentanyl to be potentially lethal. At least 255 people died of fentanyl-related overdose in 2022 in Clark County, he said.

Imagine for a moment what those statistics would be without the increased availability and use of life-saving naloxone, which can reverse overdose. Initially used by first responders, it can be safely administered without training or a prescription.

Joshua Roberts, the 23-year-old defendant in the Gugino case, knows something about being saved from an overdose death. He’s struggled with opioid dependency. Initially charged with Gugino’s murder, Roberts pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and the sale of a controlled substance. Judge Leavitt sentenced him to serve more than four years. He had no prior criminal record and caught a break after the Clark County Coroner’s Office ruled the girl’s death an accidental overdose.

With his capable public defender Kathleen Hamers at his side, Roberts left the court in handcuffs after offering a brief apology to the victim’s family, none of whom appeared particularly interested in hearing it. His attorney described him as “a bright young man with potential and without criminal history” and asked the court for probation.

Schwartzer’s sense of déjà vu aside, drug overdose cases create a challenge for the district attorney’s office. As in Roberts’ case, murder charges have been reduced before trial. It’s an issue in similar cases across the nation.

But that’s the trouble with statistics and comparisons. No matter how staggering the numbers, or how recurring the awful theme, they don’t come close to describing the gut-wrenching human suffering that families endure.

When it came time for family members to speak, the victim’s grandmother, Judy Gugino, described her lovely granddaughter as “the best girl in the whole world. On Feb. 18, 2021, her dad went to wake her up in the morning and she was not breathing. There are absolutely no words to describe the horror of that day.”

Like other parents of young fentanyl overdose victims, Mia’s father Lee Gugino  has been outspoken about the dangers of the drug. When he spoke, he sounded like a man who had lost his life’s compass. He had angry words for the defendant, expressed no hope for Las Vegas. He said he was taking his “poster family” for fentanyl’s danger to a safer place.

“We’re moving,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for my family to be in a city with a murderer pushing poison on people.”

You can’t help but empathize with the grieving father’s pain and wish him luck finding a sanctuary for his family. The tragic fact is that no place is safe from the scourge of illicit fentanyl and fatal opioid overdose. 

The post A family’s loss moves beyond the statistics in fatal fentanyl overdoses appeared first on The Nevada Independent.

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