A day after 23-year-old Wyatt Williamson laughed and joked with friends during a hike, he collapsed on the floor of his Louisville apartment.
The former University of Louisville student had recently signed a modeling contract in Los Angeles and was looking forward to the move. Then, suddenly, her life was slipping away.
His mother, Julie Hofmans, and his friends say Wyatt wasn’t addicted to drugs, yet on April 5, 2020, doctors pronounced him dead from an accidental overdose after he took a pill deceptively designed to mimic a prescription Xanax tablet.
Wyatt and his girlfriend ate dinner, sipped on wine and were watching a movie when he took what turned out to be a fatal dose of fentanyl, which has become America’s deadliest drug. His death from him was one of more than 93,600 in 2020 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blames on drug overdoses, many from fentanyl hidden in pills.
The deadliest drug epidemic in the nation’s history is only intensifying, with overdose deaths topping 107,000 last year, 15% more than the year before, according to provisional data released by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Many of those deaths are blamed on fentanyl, which can be 40 times more potent than heroin.
Cartels in Mexico mass produced fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, in super labs and hide it in everything from heroin and cocaine to pills shaped, dyed and stamped to look like legitimate prescription medication, driving up the US death toll, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
“It’s basically a tidal wave of pills across the country,” said J. Todd Scott, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Louisville Field Division.
“It’s a threat unlike any I’ve seen in my long career.”
The DEA is spearheading a “One Pill Can Kill” campaign nationwide, aided by Hofmans and other parents willing to share their pain to warn young adults about fentanyl,
The two main importers smuggling the drug across the Mexican border, according to the DEA: The Sinaloa Cartel previously led by infamous drug lord “El Chapo,” and the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, led by fugitive cartel boss “El Mencho.” CJNG is less known in the US, but the 5,000-member global powerhouse helps dictate the current drug dangers on American streets, even in tiny towns and remote mountains and deserts.
“What we’re seeing are people lured in by these fake pills,” who often aren’t experienced drug users or people battling from addiction, Scott said. Often it’s high school students and college-age youth, he said.
The dealer in the US and the user often don’t know if a pill has any in it or enough to kill several people.
“In many cases people think they’re taking legitimate pills, Xanax, Adderall or something like that,” Scott said. “So many of the fake pills are laced with fentanyl.”
An average of one in every four fentanyl pills confiscated by the DEA contained a lethal dose, according to the DEA. It offers information, photos and warnings on its website.
Hofmans wants to warn other parents about the fake pill dangers she didn’t know about.
“That’s the chance that your children are taking, people,” she said. Young adults are “not just going and drinking a bunch of White Claws.
“They’re (experimenting) with recreational drugs and if they don’t know where they came from, that’s when tragedy happens.”
Photographer Matthew Goebel said he never saw Wyatt take drugs. On photo shoots, he said Wyatt was a jokester who was not aware of his good looks. Goebel lost his mother years ago and said Wyatt, who was close to his own mother de ella, was always supportive when he struggled with her absence de ella.
Goebel said when he learned of his friend’s death, “I bawled like a little baby.”
Wyatt’s friends say they don’t believe many young adults, including Wyatt, understand that a pill that looks like something prescribed by a doctor can actually contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.
Neil Plante, 26, Wyatt’s close childhood friend, said he was stunned when Hoftmans called to tell him Wyatt had died.
“I don’t think I have understood the dangers at all,” Plante said.
Wyatt and his friend, who bonded over football in their youth, had looked forward to reconnecting when Wyatt moved to California, where Plante was stationed in the US Marine Corps. Plante said he did n’t know about pills laced with fentanyl until after his friend’s death.
George Arnold, 25, who shared an apartment with Wyatt on University of Louisville’s campus in 2016 when the two were sophomores, also said he and his friends didn’t know about deadly fentanyl pills.
“We thought they were mainly in hard drugs like cocaine and stuff like that,” he said.
Pills are “just so in plain sight, acceptable,” Arnold said.
“It’s not as dramatic or seemingly bad as heroin or cocaine. It looks like it’s better, more safe − but it’s not.”
Arnold said he and Wyatt knew a couple of people who were addicted to drugs and went to rehab, but he didn’t worry about Wyatt. He said he thought Wyatt, who was gregarious and helped pull him out of his shell, “was completely clean” in recent years.
When Wyatt was in college, he struggled to concentrate while studying so a doctor prescribed Adderall, a pill used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, his mother said. Hofmans believes her are likely shared his pills with other students so they could improve their concentration, depleting his supply. He was also prescribed Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication.
Hofmans believes her are likely to share his pills with friends so they could fell better, too — depleting his own supply.
She believes Wyatt sought more from a friend, instead of contacting his doctor.
Wyatt once admitted to his mom that he and friends sometimes popped Mollys, or Ecstasy, a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception during concerts. She urged him not to use drugs recreationally, but she also didn’t understand the danger hidden in pills.
The day before Wyatt swallowed a fatal tablet, he called his mother during a hike. They had a lively chat and quickly blurted out “I love you.” The two liked to compete to see who could say it first and his mom usually won. It was their last conversation. The next night, on April, 4, 2020, her phone de ella rang and her son’s girlfriend’s name popped up on her phone screen. She knew something was wrong.
She was told that Wyatt was unconscious and headed to the hospital. She and her husband de ella rushed there, along with Wyatt’s father, brother and sister. She burst into tears when she saw her son de ella, jovial and vibrant hours earlier. Now, a machine and a series of tubes breathed for him and kept his heart pumping.
“You don’t ever expect to see your child on life support,” she said. “You cannot prepare yourself for that.”
Hofmans refused to leave her son’s side, even after doctors pronounced him dead the next day at 7:13 pm
As a teen, Wyatt decided on his own that he wanted to be an organ donor, a commitment his mother thought was surprisingly coming from a healthy teen. So for three more days after his death, he remained in his hospital room hooked up to life support so doctors and nurses could make arrangements to honor that pledge.
A 26-year-old husband and father of three received Wyatt’s heart, according to a letter sent to Hofmans from the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates. Wyatt’s left kidney was transplanted into a 36-year-old man, his right kidney into a 37-year-old man and his liver into a 38-year-old woman. Hofmans said her son, who had a tattoo on his left calf of German soccer team Dortmund, would have been particularly pleased that a local soccer player received his Achilles tendon from him.
His mother held his hand, sang songs from one of his favorite bands, Coldplay, and lay beside him to rest her head on his chest.
“I brushed his hair,” Hofmans told the Courier-Journal during a recent interview at her home in Prospect. “I put Vaseline on his lips because he hated chapped lips.”
She asked nurses to wash his hair because he liked to be clean.
She wrote a note to the doctors and tucked it under her son’s white flannel bedsheet. It reads in part: “This man, my Baby … is about to trust in you to take his wonderful organs out of his body from him for others to live full lives … Please know that he was no ordinary human being.
“His soul is so pure. His love so real. His heart so big!”
When a medical team came into the room to get Wyatt, four days after his overdose, Hofmans broke down, realizing she and her son had to part.
Doctors and nurses honored Wyatt’s decision to save lives by lining the hallway to wait for his gurney to pass by. His mother of him trailed behind as long as she could.
Then she slowly walked out alone.
Reporter Beth Warren: [email protected]; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
For more information on the dangers of fake prescription pills, visit the DEA’s website at www.dea.gov/onepill
For details about fentanylvisit the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s drug fact page.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism