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Marion County moms band together to fight fentanyl

This undated file photo shows fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills collected during an investigation.
U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah
This undated file photo shows fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills collected during an investigation.

Each woman has lost a child to fentanyl - two of them at age 26 and another at 36. Says one: “The message has to get out there.”

Michelle Pepin, Lisa Bolton and Andrea Nadeau-Jones are united in a common cause: to show Marion County that fentanyl kills and destroys lives and families.

Each woman has lost a child to fentanyl. Pepin’s son and Bolton’s daughter died when they were 26. Nadeau-Jones’ daughter was 36 and a mother to two children.

“The message has to get out there,” Pepin said.

Andrea Nadeau-Jones

Standing at the intersection of Northeast 11th Avenue and Silver Springs Boulevard is a digital billboard. These days, it features faces, names and ages of 26 men and women who lost their lives to fentanyl.

The message on the billboard, written in bold letters, is clear: “fentanyl kills.” Underneath are the words “know what your children are doing.” The children of Pepin, Bolton and Nadeau-Jones are among those featured.

Nadeau-Jones and her sister visited the spot where the billboard is located on Thursday. She said her daughter, Amanda Nadeau, died on June 23, 2022. Amanda Nadeau left behind two teenagers.

“It’s difficult,” she said.

Nadeau-Jones said she hopes the billboard makes a difference because “real people are dying from this epidemic.”

The women said fentanyl poses a danger to anyone, and too many people think it doesn’t affect them. It’s a false premise that makes the situation worse, the women said.

“You’re closing your eyes to the problem. It happens in every home, every race and every age, from babies to older folks,” Bolton said.

UDEST numbers on fentanyl

According to the Unified Drug Enforcement Strike Team or UDEST, from 2020 to 2022, 584 people in Marion County died from drug overdoses. Of those, 106 were directly related to fentanyl overdoses. Another 527 deaths had a combination of drugs to include fentanyl.

Of the overdose deaths in the three years, the youngest victim involving fentanyl was 1 and the oldest was 83. For the baby, a boy, the manner of death was exposure to fentanyl and xylazine. In the case of the elderly woman, the cause of death was fentanyl and phenobarbital toxicity.

UDEST officials said from 2020 to 2022, they confiscated 18,052 grams of fentanyl and 907 fentanyl pills. Those figures don’t include seizures conducted by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office; the Ocala, Belleview and Dunnellon police departments; or the Florida Highway Patrol.

Capt. Jason Douglas, head of UDEST, said his team is “finding it (fentanyl) in every single drug we seize.”

For example, Douglas said agents are seeing fentanyl in cocaine, marijuana, crystal methamphetamine and pills.

Douglas said there’s a high probability that all drugs presently sold on the streets contain fentanyl.

Michelle Pepin

Pepin’s son, Ian Nelson, died on April 20, 2018. She operates, a nonprofit whose mission is “to reduce or prevent the harms of alcohol and other drug use through education, intervention and advocacy.”

She said they test people for diseases and distribute Narcan, a spray used to revive someone who has overdosed. The group works in partnership with the state Department of Children and Families.

Pepin said she started her organization because she noticed “no one else was doing it.”

Pepin said her daughter, Caitlin Perez, has been a recovering addict for eight years. She said her daughter and son are 11 months apart and were close.

“She’s my rock,” she said.

Pepin said the Silver Springs Boulevard billboard went up at midnight on Feb. 6 and is expected to run until March 4. Then, from March 5 through April 3, an anti-fentanyl message will be broadcast on the billboard by the Gaitway Plaza at State Road 200 near Southwest 27th Avenue.

Lisa Bolton

Bolton said her daughter, Kerri Fernley, graduated with a forensic psychology degree. She said two weeks before her death, Fernley visited the family. Bolton said her daughter had a “fantastic time.”

She said her daughter was in recovery, and when she left for New Jersey, she seemed fine. Despite the optimism, Bolton felt it would be the last time she would see her alive.

Her daughter died on Jan. 25, 2019 in New Jersey. At the time of Fernley’s death, she was working in a group home with autistic adults.

Bolton said she’s in the process of creating a nonprofit group call The Dandelion Project. Its mission will be to raise awareness about fentanyl.

She said she would like to speak to school children, grandparents, parents and educators, to let them know they’re not alone and that resources are available.

Lisa Bolton and her daughter Kerri Fernley

“She’s here with me and guides me through everything I want to do. She wanted to raise awareness and she’s doing it through me,” Bolton said about her daughter.