RAY COUNTY, Mo. — A dangerous drug called fentanyl is gripping places with the fewest resources. The KSHB 41 I-Team continues investigating the fentanyl crisis by focusing on rural communities.
In the last year, Ray County, Missouri, about 45 minutes east of Kansas City, has lost four lives recently to suspected fentanyl overdoses.
One of those lives belonged to Mason Hewitt. His mother, Elizabeth, knows firsthand about the pain after Mason died in November from the dangerous drug.
“It’s destroying our community and the lives of the people in our community,” she said.
Hewitt wears a ring containing her son’s ashes and a bracelet with his name.
“It’s a reminder every day,” Hewitt said.
That’s why she’s focusing on raising awareness about fentanyl.
“I think honestly this has been the worst thing anyone could go through,” Hewitt said.
Many knew the young father to be full of life and a comedian.
Hewitt said Mason battled an addiction to painkillers for a little over a year. He was getting better and going to narcotics anonymous meetings.
“He was doing what he needed to do and just in a moment of weakness, he thought he was getting a painkiller and it was one pill with fentanyl,” Hewitt said.
Ray County Sheriff Scott Childers has only been on the job since January of 2021. He covers 573 square-miles with only two to three deputies on shift at a time.
His focus has been on fake prescription pills that have fentanyl in them.
“It’s just coming in everywhere,” Childers said.
Childers showed the KSHB 41 I-Team some of the drugs confiscated from a recent traffic stop. One included powdered methamphetamine, which the sheriff says tested positive for fentanyl.
He says he isn’t the only rural sheriff fighting fentanyl. The I-team contacted the state health departments in Missouri and Kansas.
Those health departments said fentanyl accounts for most of the synthetic opioid overdose deaths and those numbers have been going up.
In Missouri, the latest data shows 275 people in rural counties died from a synthetic opioid overdose in 2021.
In Kansas, 16 people in rural counties died from a synthetic opioid overdose in 2020.
“This is impacting nationwide, and the rural areas are not immune to the problem we’re seeing,” Sheriff Mike Milstead, chair of the National Sheriff’s Association Drug Enforcement Committee said.
Sheriff Milstead speaks with sheriffs across the country on a regular basis. As the sheriff of Minnehaha County in South Dakota, he said the fentanyl problem has only expanded.
“Just in our county alone, we saw a 40% overdose death increase in the last year and 133% increase in overdose deaths in the last five years,” Milstead said.
The agency added fentanyl is “driving the nationwide overdose epidemic.”
Milstead says that when two of every five pills being sold are lethal, it's basically like selling poison.
In Ray County, they have two new four-legged detectives. One is named Karma.
“Most likely, they’re going to detect the odor of methamphetamine, heroine, cocaine, which is what Karma is trained on, but all of that stuff is intertwined with fentanyl,” Corporal Matthew Cowan with the Ray County Sheriff’s Office said.
Even with fewer resources than more populated counties, the pit bull rescues turned into trained K-9s is one way they’re putting focus on the fentanyl crisis.
“It’s a real touching story because they’ve taken her and re-purposed her,” Cowan said.
Childers said the hardest part of his job is letting mothers like Hewitt know their children died from an overdose. In Mason’s case, he said depending on the outcome of the investigation, he may recommend murder charges.
“That one was really difficult because I knew Mason since he was born," Childers said. "His mother and I went to school together."
Hewitt believes her son’s legacy could be to save lives and that’s why she’s sharing his story.
She hopes her new focus could make a difference to her neighbors.
“I don’t want any other family to have to go through what we’re going through and will for the rest of our lives,” Hewitt said.
Childers also mentioned another resource they work with called Tri-County Mental Health Services. They come to Ray County once a week.
Since December, the I-Team has been investigating the fentanyl crisis including how dealers use social media to target kids and peddle the dangerous drug.
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