This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first part here: “How a Kansas woman emerged from the storm of addiction to fight fentanyl.”
This story contains references to drug use, addiction and overdose.
When Ashley Alexander found her fiance, Dustin Gotham, lying on the bathroom floor with a needle in his arm, she couldn’t believe he was dead.
They were planning their lives together.
The two had finally overcome long histories of addictions to enjoy life in a way neither ever had before. Dustin was six months clean from drugs and alcohol with a chip from his recovery program to show for it. Ashley had been in recovery from alcoholism for nine months.
But on a cold January morning days after his 32nd birthday, he was unconscious on the floor of the house they shared in Park City.
Ashley’s phone battery was dead, so she fished Dustin’s phone out of his pocket and called 911. The 911 operators told her to place him on his back.
“He was a very big guy… not fat or anything, but very muscular and very tall, and they were trying to get me to flip him over. And I couldn’t for the life of me,” she says.
Once the paramedics arrived, they moved Dustin out of the bathroom. Ashley saw them put a mask on his face and she watched the monitors, which she thought indicated breathing.
“It had been 20 minutes and they said, ‘We are calling it,’” she remembers. “What do you mean you’re calling it? He is breathing, why are you giving up on him?”
The paramedics explained Dustin likely died instantly. He had never been breathing. The paramedics’ equipment was doing the work.
“That’s kind of when I broke down, and I was screaming. I was so mad at him. And I was sad.”
Ashley called their recovery sponsors, and both arrived before Dustin’s body was removed.
Dustin would be one of the first of at least 219 people in 2022 to die in Sedgwick County from accidental fentanyl overdose, an exploding public health threat.
In the bathroom, Ashley found a box that had needles in it, equipment Dustin used for testosterone injections. Low testosterone is a common problem for some people with drug addictions. It appeared that Dustin had ground up fake Perc 30 pills and mixed them with water to inject them.
Perhaps if he had fentanyl strips, Dustin might have tested the mixture and known the danger before he shot up. But fentanyl test strips are considered illegal drug paraphernalia under Kansas law, making them difficult to obtain. Harm-reduction advocates are pressing the legislature to change the law to allow them.
Even with her fiance still dead on the floor, Ashley was thinking about justice. She asked the Park City police officers who were there waiting for the coroner if they needed the box or needles for evidence.
“I jump up, and I run out and I say, ‘Hey, I think you guys missed something.’ And they were pretty much, ‘Nah, it’s fine. Just leave it.’”
She also offered them Dustin’s cellphone, believing police could find the text messages to the person who supplied the fentanyl and prosecute him. The police declined, saying they could not take it without a warrant. A 2014 Supreme Court ruling, Riley v. California, says constitutional privacy rights prevent police from taking a cellphone without a warrant.
The coroner’s autopsy would eventually rule Dustin’s cause of death accidental, attributed to a mix of Xanax, cocaine and fentanyl. No oxycodone was detected. Ashley believes the small amount of cocaine detected was in the fake Perc 30.
Ashley can’t fathom that Dustin knew there was fentanyl in the pills. “There is no way he would have shot up a whole pill (if he had known). Because he was not ready to die.”
But he did.
On Jan. 22, 2022, five days after his 32nd birthday.
Trying to turn fentanyl overdose tragedy into purpose
More than a year after Dustin’s death, Ashley remains frustrated that the person who sold Dustin the fentanyl has not been held accountable.
She sees an epidemic of death that must be stopped.
In 2019, just 28 overdose deaths in Sedgwick County were attributed to fentanyl. In 2020, the number climbed to 90 deaths; it rose to 160 in 2021. So far, 219 fentanyl deaths have been tallied in 2022, according to Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter.
But that 2022 number is not final. A surge in overdose deaths has created a backlog for the Sedgwick County Forensic Science Center. Hundreds of autopsies from deaths last year remain to be processed.
On Feb. 28, Ashley posted on Facebook that she intends to save as many lives from fentanyl as possible: “I’m tired of … going to funerals. These murders have to stop. If you sell this sh*t…. you’re a serial killer, literally.”
Ashley has written emails to the media, to politicians, to people featured in a documentary about fentanyl deaths on YouTube called “Dead on Arrival.” She told her story twice to KAKE-TV, once in May 2022 and again in March 2023.
And she opened her life to The Wichita Beacon for this story. “It’s hard to get people to listen to addicts — even if they are clean. It’s easier to lie usually so you are treated with more respect and believed, but I refuse to do that.”
She believes people who sell fake Perc 30s that contain fentanyl should be charged with murder or at least manslaughter. She points to Dustin M. Bright, who was charged with distribution of a controlled substance causing a fentanyl death in Hutchinson, Kansas. Bright is currently incarcerated in Reno County on previous drug charges, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections.
Such charges are possible under what are called drug-induced homicide laws. Kansas enacted one in 2013. It is considered a “severity level 1, person felony” carrying a possible sentence of 12 to 54 years.
In Sedgwick County, two cases are currently being investigated for possible prosecution under this law, according to Sheriff Jeff Easter.
Under the state’s drug homicide law, the person distributing a deadly controlled substance may not use as a defense the fact someone made a choice to use the drug.
That concept is in direct conflict with what members of the Kansas Legislature often say when declining to enact drug harm-reduction measures, such as legalizing fentanyl test strips — that responsibility for avoiding drug-related deaths falls on the user.
Easter announced in August 2022 he would no longer prosecute anyone for possessing fentanyl test strips. “I don’t support facilitating someone’s drug habit,” Easter told The Beacon in February. “However, when it comes to fentanyl and these kids that are getting into it … if it could help save their lives, then I do understand.”
Asked what she believes addicts deserve from society, Ashley pauses.
“That’s a good question. That’s a hard question … I know for sure that they don’t deserve to die.”
Emerging from the storm
Ashley says she has been in recovery and sober since April 8, 2021. She’s at work in a new job in management, a career goal of hers. “After his bender to the time he had died, I have not used since. I stayed sober through the whole situation.”
She continues to attend recovery meetings. Recently, she met a new boyfriend online. He checks none of the old boxes: He has a job, doesn’t use drugs and has never been in jail. He knows about Dustin and supports her effort to keep Dustin’s memory alive and to fight for justice on his behalf.
She imagines that Dustin would approve of all of it — she even wonders if he orchestrated it from above. “I know he would want me to be happy,” Ashley says.
“I think he would be very proud of me. Proud of how I picked myself up and fought every single day. Proud I stayed sober. Proud I hold boundaries and have self-respect today.”
In the aftermath of the storm of addiction, Dustin Gotham died… but Ashley Alexander reclaimed her life and now fights so others may do the same.
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