By Frank Zufall
Sawyer County Record
Some of the most heart-breaking moments at the Thursday, Oct. 19 morning presentation given to Hayward High School students seated one side of the bleachers were the very last images projected in a slide show accompanied by music, the kind of audio-visual production one sees at commencement of smiling teenagers surrounded by friends.
Heartbreaking, because all the images included a youthful, blonde girl whose face brimmed with joy, like her middle name — Cassidy Joy Metropulos — a face of promise and hope, a person obviously appreciated by her classmates, but the students on Oct. 19 understood that this beautiful young women who had literally been in the same bleachers they were seated on just a few years previous that her life came to a tragic ending in August 2019 from five milligrams of fentanyl.
The message to the students Thursday morning is they live in the age of fentanyl, a drug so powerful that barely enough to cover one end of pencil tip will kill, an age where deciding to experiment with any drug or even fake prescription pills might be the last decision they ever make.
The presentation by the Sawyer County Fentanyl Awareness Teams was a pretty heady way to start a Thursday morning, but as Superintendent Greg Olson told the students the message to follow was one that could save their life.
Sawyer County Public Health Nurse Jess Bjork told the students the topic wasn’t a joking mater but one impacting the nation and locally.
Mark Mantey told the students the reason for the presentation was to save their life from one possible bad decision to take a substance laced with fentanyl.
He showed an image of new stadium built in Los Angles, California where his son had recently seen a Taylor Swift concert, a stadium that could hold 100,000 people or roughly the same number of people in America who are yearly dying from a fentanyl overdose.
“The statistics say that every 11 minutes there’s another death due to fentanyl,” said Mantey. “During the course of this presentation here today, four people somewhere across this country are going to lose their life.
“Who are a lot of these victims? It’s a very complex subject, but you’ll see up here that it includes a lot of young people, a lot of young people in their teens have lost their life to fentanyl because they made a poor decision or more importantly were unaware.”
He added, “The dangers of fentanyl it’s not your fault. We don’t talk about it much across this country, and that’s why we’re here because we want you to be educated. We want you to be aware of the dangers.”
The youth were shown a video from an organization called Natural High about the dangers of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times the strength of heroin.
“Fentanyl is one of the most addictive substances known to man,” said the video. ‘It’s also cheap to produce considering its potency, which is why it is being used in all types of illicit drugs : pills, cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA and even some instances of marijuana. Illegal drugs have forever changed because of fentanyl. The most notable are the fake prescription pills. In 2021, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) alone seized over 20 million fake prescription pills with fentanyl.”
The video notes there has been enough fentanyl seized by law enforcement to kill every person in the United States.
“Fentanyl is being found everywhere in almost every drug, but you won’t know it’s there until its too late. Your decision to not try drugs is one of the most important decisions that you can make,” said the video.
Mantey said the pills one gets from a doctor from a pharmacy are safe if properly administered, but the pills people are buying over social media or online no one can tell if they are safe, not even a doctor.
He noted that two milligrams of fentanyl could kill.
“And fentanyl can be found in cocaine and heroin, with marijuana and meth and in some cases vaping,” he said. “It’s finding its way into everything and killing 110,000 people across this country. Our slogan, and you’ve seen our yard signs across the community, ‘Don’t be fooled by fentanyl. Your future depends on it.’”
A mother’s story
Then Kim Dale, Cassidy’s mother, spoke for the next 20 minutes.
“That is my youngest daughter, Cassidy, on the screen, on the posters you’ve probably seen her around town a lot on yard signs,” said Dale. “Cassidy went to school here. She graduated from here. She loved soccer. She did some cross-country skiing. Typical kid like all of you sitting here, Cassidy loved hanging out with her friends. She went to homecoming; she went to prom. She was a little on the shy side; she was probably one of the smallest of her class. She loved being with her family, with her sisters. And she was excited when she graduated for the future and not sure what she was going to do.”
Dale then recounted Cassidy moving to Minneapolis with friends where she found work but also began hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” including a man, eight years her senior who was in a popular band that played in downtown Minneapolis who later Dale would discover was a heroin addict, who had previously been in recovery.
Dale believes it was then Cassidy began drinking alcohol. She remembers warning Cassidy that alcoholism had been an issue in their family.
But Dale said, as Cassidy’s mother, she knew very little about drug addiction.
Dale said that Cassidy believed she could save her boyfriend from his addiction.
But then Cassidy was asked to leave her apartment in Minneapolis and was back home for the summer and Cassidy began working to save dollars for another start in Minneapolis and being on her own again.
Cassidy retuned to Minneapolis and rejoined her boyfriend with the addiction. Dale said, she could see changes in Cassidy.
“My Cassidy didn’t want me to know anything that was going on; she never wanted me to worry,” said Dale.
The Christmas of 2018 Cassidy came home, said Dale, but she knew something was wrong with Cassidy and when confronted Cassidy admitted that she was using meth.
Cassidy returned to Minneapolis. Dale learned Cassidy was given an eviction notice on her apartment and that Cassidy had been living with the man who had the heroin addiction.
“At that time, I knew I had to save my daughter and I did,” said Dale. “I went and took her home. She didn’t fight me. But I was terrified that this boy would come to find her. So I kept her home and I kept her safe. I quit my businesses. I stopped working. I took her car away. I drove her everywhere she needed to be. I looked for help here in this small little town. I figured that I could bring her back home to our safe place where you all live.”
She said Cassidy welcomed the help and went to counseling and during the summer months of 2019 Cassidy wasn’t using drugs and went to group meetings and was excited that her life was getting better and that she was soon to become an aunt.
The weekend of August 26, Dale said, the family came together with her other daughters along with friends for a baby shower.
After the baby shower, Dale said, she had to drive her oldest daughter to the airport but Cassidy wasn’t able to join them on the trip.
Dale recalled saying goodbye to Cassidy several times that morning and she remembers calling Cassidy from the airport and Cassidy sounding “really good,” and Cassidy talked of going out with friends that night and Dale saying she would leave the door open and the light on for Cassidy’s return.
The next morning, Dale said, her husband reported that Cassidy hadn’t returned and then there was a knock at the door and Dale said she didn’t answer initially, but then saw it was the sheriff who was walking away from the house.
“So I opened up the door and I said, ‘Doug, (Mrotek, Sawyer County Sheriff) is she okay?’” said Dale.
Dale’s voice broke as recalled the anguish she felt at learning Cassidy had died.
“At that point I thought I was going to keep my girl home and keep her safe in our little town of Hayward, Sawyer County,” she said. “That morning my girl, my little blonde daughter was gone.”
Dale recounted that an autopsy discovered Cassidy had consumed alcohol that night and also had five milligrams of fentanyl in her body.
Sheriff Mrotek, who said he knew all the family members, recalled that morning when he told the family of Cassidy’s death that they were all concerned that Cassidy’s sisters would learn of the news over social media before they could be contacted personally.
“Cassidy, like I said, was excited for her future,” said Dale. “She did not want to die. And had she known that was fentanyl she wouldn’t have taken it. Absolutely not. She was so excited to be an aunt. Like I said, she was so proud of herself for what she has accomplished and getting better, but Cassidy will never fall in love. She’ll never get married; have children. She never got a chance to be an aunt.”
Dale noted a person didn’t have to be an addict or a recovering addict or even have taken meth or heroin or cocaine to die from an fentanyl overdose because there are fake prescription pills being distributed that appear to be safe but six out of 10 are laced with fentanyl.
Dale said she was there to tell Cassidy’s story so the young people would think about Cassidy and learn a lesson from her life that when presented with a pill or encouraged to experiment with a drug, even that one time, to take that one chance, that they would reconsider.
“You’re in a time when you guys can’t event take that one chance,” she said. “You can’t learn from your mistakes right now. You could die from your mistakes. That’s what’s happening.”
Sheriff Mrotek said concern is also being raised with vaping and marijuana vapes and other drugs laced with fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is manufactured in China and comes down to Mexico and comes into our country through the border and on the interstate,” said Mrotek. “Most of it that we receive in Wisconsin, or the northwestern part of Wisconsin, comes to the Twin Cities.
“In just an example, the first county on the interstate system coming into Wisconsin, St. Croix County, the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department, a small division alone, has seized in 2022, 144 grams of fentanyl. That’s enough fentanyl to kill off all of Sawyer County, Rusk County, Washburn County and Bayfield County,” said Sheriff Mrotek.
The sheriff also noted how law enforcement in Sawyer County had made 208 drug arrests in 2022 alone and was doing its best to keep drugs off the street, and he noted the court system was hard on drug dealers, but he also said many drug dealer were users selling to support their habit.
“So make the right choice from the start and stay clean,” Mrotek said. “Don’t get into that addiction.”
Mantey ended the presentation by reminding the the youth that they were their parents’ “greatest gift from God on this earth.”
And he left them with the encouragement to “make good decisions.”