Stories From Baltimore’s Overdose Crisis: ‘I Love You in the Sky, Daddy’

Stories From Baltimore’s Overdose Crisis: ‘I Love You in the Sky, Daddy’

Signs of loss are scattered across Baltimore. Sprays of flowers in front of a boarded rowhouse. Makeshift memorials in the lobby of an apartment building or the therapy room of an addiction treatment program. Each a statement: Someone who was loved died here.

People in Baltimore have been dying of overdoses at a rate never before seen in a major American city, a New York Times and Baltimore Banner examination has found. The epidemic has claimed almost 6,000 lives in the past six years.

Here are some of their stories.

Dec. 14, 1995, to June 22, 2022

Growing up in a small, football-obsessed town in Louisiana, Jaylon Ferguson knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wrote his goals in permanent marker on the wall of his childhood home: Play on the all-state team. Graduate high school. Go to college. Make it to the N.F.L.

In 2019, he checked the last item off his list when he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. His coach at Louisiana Tech University, where Mr. Ferguson had broken collegiate records, held a watch party that night. They erupted when his name was called.

But injuries led to lackluster seasons. Mr. Ferguson, who had been known for his easy gold-toothed smile and parties with inflatable bounce houses, struggled with anxiety and depression. The death of his grandmother and a destructive house fire added to his troubles.

On the night of June 21, 2022, Mr. Ferguson arrived at an acquaintance’s home in North Baltimore. He acted erratically and said he was “xanied up,” a witness told officers, according to a police report, which noted the football player had been prescribed Xanax. Mr. Ferguson passed out upstairs and was pronounced dead shortly after midnight. He was 26.

Back in Louisiana, his mother Jackie Ferguson read Mr. Ferguson’s death certificate. A toxicology test had detected no sign of Xanax but found cocaine and fentanyl in her son’s system, the autopsy showed.

She was familiar with the synthetic opioid. In the months before Mr. Ferguson’s grandmother died of cancer, Ms. Ferguson had carefully applied fentanyl patches to her legs, using gloves to prevent accidental exposure. The same drug that she had used to ease her dying mother’s pain had also taken her son’s life.

Ms. Ferguson said her son had started talking about his legacy at an early age. He used to say, “Mama, everybody gonna know Ferg, everybody gonna know my name,” she recalled last year from her home outside Baton Rouge, where a photo of Mr. Ferguson in his Ravens uniform rests inside a glass cabinet.

Now, his name has taken on new significance. To many students in his hometown, it has become a warning about fentanyl. To his mentors and coaches, it has become a reminder to prioritize the mental health of their athletes.

Some had tried to help him. Ed Jackson, an associate athletic director at Louisiana Tech, had talked to Mr. Ferguson about the challenges he faced after moving to Baltimore, he said. Mr. Jackson encouraged him to stay focused.

By that time, Mr. Ferguson had set new goals for the future, his mentor said: Marry his college sweetheart. See their three young children grow up. Return to Louisiana to train the next generation of athletes.

He died before he could see them through.

Sept. 21, 1971, to Sept. 21, 2021

When Yvonne Holden became a mother at 14, she held her baby and noticed a resemblance to Charlie Brown. It was so striking, she said, she started calling him by the character’s name.

Her son, whose real name was Al Holden, grew into a boy who loved to box and then a man who taught his younger brothers how to cut hair. At some point in his youth, he got his first taste of heroin, his mother said. Addiction was the source of many challenges in his life: imprisonment, homelessness, health problems.

Still, he remained close with his large extended family and made many friends. After dying of an overdose on his 50th birthday on Sept. 21, 2021, a few weeks after being released from prison, a crowd came out for a candlelight vigil, Ms. Holden said. They told stories about Mr. Holden cooking for his neighbors and giving friends a place to stay when he himself was in financial straits.

Since then, Mr. Holden’s family has gathered annually to honor his birthday and death day, an anniversary of love and loss. They play basketball and release balloons. Ms. Holden pictures the child she used to hug and kiss, who looked a lot like Charlie Brown. “I lost my baby,” she said.

Dec. 31, 1954, to Oct. 7, 2020

William Miller Sr. had been “hustling” his entire life, from when he was using and dealing drugs to when he began persuading people to carry the overdose antidote Narcan, said William Miller Jr., his son.

Later in life, after taking a class in which he learned about community organizing, Mr. Miller Sr. had become a leader in Baltimore’s movement to save people from overdoses. He started a group called Bmore Power that set up tables in neighborhoods where people were overdosing. His team took an approach called harm reduction, focusing on mitigating the risk of illness and death rather than promoting abstinence from drugs.

Mr. Miller died of an overdose in his bathroom on Oct. 7, 2020. His death at age 65 sent a shock through the community.

One group in the overdose prevention field remembered his “soft spoken, no-nonsense manner” that commanded respect. Another called him a “legendary organizer.”

Behavioral Health System Baltimore, which funds Bmore Power, has downsized the outreach team over the years, said Mr. Miller’s son, who no longer works with them. Those who remain and other groups across the city carry on the work that Mr. Miller promoted.

July 27, 1978, to March 14, 2022

Bruce Setherley, 43, was found on March 14, 2022, in an abandoned home in Southwest Baltimore.

His body was in such bad shape that the medical examiner’s office and funeral home wouldn’t let his family see him, even when his sister asked to look at just a hand.

Without a chance to say goodbye, his mother, Mona Setherley, has had difficulty processing his death. She wondered if the body was really her son’s until she saw a description in his autopsy of his tattoos: a butterfly, in memory of his grandfather, and the word “outcast,” how he felt in the world.

Mr. Setherley had been addicted to heroin, then fentanyl, for more than 20 years, Ms. Setherley said. He didn’t think he would live to become old.

As Ms. Setherley sorted through piles of paper her son left in her home, she saw a note, dated 2004, for people to find after his death.

“My last wish is that when you do remember, you smile and if you can laugh, always laugh,” he had written. “If nothing else, laugh at me.”

He signed the note warmly: “Love, Dubbs.”

In life, Mr. Setherley was generous. He once spent Christmas morning making bacon-and-egg sandwiches and passing them out to people sleeping on church steps and on medians, the types of places he slept when homeless.

Since his death, Ms. Setherley and her daughter have honored him by spending part of Christmas in the neighborhoods where he used to buy drugs. Last year, they gave a few dollars, two cigarettes, cupcakes and peanut butter crackers to anyone in need.

June 5, 1989, to July 24, 2021

Cassidy Fredrick, 6, climbed on top of her father’s grave and pointed to the clouds.

“I love you in the sky, Daddy,” she said.

Her father, Devon Wellington, had died in his truck of an overdose on July 24, 2021, at age 32.

In high school, Mr. Wellington was prom king and played on the basketball team. But after graduating, he grappled with addiction like mother, father and grandmother before him.

A year before his death, he found out he was Cassidy’s father. He took her to the park, braided her hair and was trying to figure out what it meant to be a parent, said his mother, Donna Bruce. Though Mr. Wellington loved his daughter, he couldn’t escape his addiction. He relapsed that summer.

Ms. Bruce now works for a public library program that hires people who have been addicted to drugs to help others find treatment and social services. “I couldn’t save my son,” she recently said. “I took that pain and turned it into purpose.”

Sometimes, she and Cassidy look for signs of Mr. Wellington in the sky: a heart-shaped cloud, a rainbow, a butterfly flitting past.

Oct. 13, 1997, to July 22, 2020

When 22-year-old Aidan Filer died on July 22, 2020, it seemed like no authorities cared how or why, said his mother, Lisa Filer. A police officer told her this happened all the time, and his family should grieve and move on, she recalled.

So Ms. Filer examined the evidence herself. A photo of a dilapidated corner store with a hand-stenciled sign. A bank statement showing $40 A.T.M. withdrawal. A police report about gel capsules filled with white powder, her son found slumped over in his Toyota Camry.

Piece by piece, Ms. Filer assembled a picture of her son’s last day. She put the documents together in a three-ring binder. She knew some details could not be accounted for: Without his cellphone, which had gone missing, she had no way of figuring out who had sold him fentanyl.

Still, the act of documenting her son’s life felt cathartic. She kept going, stretching further back in time. She feared forgetting a single detail about her son, who had excelled at lacrosse, football and basketball and loved raising reptiles and buying designer clothes.

In the years since Mr. Filer’s death, the collection of binders has grown to thousands of pages.

They cover his middle school years, when he developed a facial tic related to anxiety and started seeing a psychiatrist for the first time. His high school years, when he attended parties with drugs and alcohol. His first year of college, when his parents realized the extent of his addiction and scrambled to find treatment options in a complicated system.

Nearly four years after her son’s death, Ms. Filer’s dark hair includes strands of silver and hangs down her back. Neither she nor her husband has had a haircut since their son’s death.

She helps lead a support group called Love in The Trenches for parents who have lost children to overdose. They gather virtually from their homes across the country, united by a common bond. They refuse to forget.

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