ABC13 given rare access inside DEA lab fighting Houston's fentanyl crisis

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Monday, September 19, 2022
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Fentanyl is now the deadliest drug on Houston's streets. ABC13 anchor Chauncy Glover gives us a rare look inside the DEA's operation to fight the crisis.

DALLAS, Texas (KTRK) -- "Oh, Allison. Allison was a beautiful girl inside and out," Deb Scroggins said.

Scroggins says her daughter Allison was in the prime of her life and studying to be a paralegal. But she says on March 18, 2020, while partying with friends for St. Patrick's Day, her daughter took what she thought was oxycodone. Allison Scroggins went to sleep and never woke up.

"We had to bury our daughter, not really knowing what happened," Scroggins said.

Six months later, testing proved that the pill Allison took was laced with fentanyl.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the DEA, fentanyl has turned into the deadliest drug on our streets. It's now the number one cause of death for Americans between 18 and 45 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Eyewitness News went to Dallas to get a rare look inside the DEA's operation to fight the fentanyl crisis and discovered the problem in Houston is getting worse.

Chemists were hard at work at the DEA lab, testing all kinds of drugs. This one lab, which covers Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, showed us a vault full of boxes and boxes of evidence.

"So the chemists are opening their evidence here and performing various instrumental tests to determine what exactly the evidence can contain, and then they issue reports that then go to court," Jamie Vazquez, the lab director, said.

Vazquez showed us what's coming in from Houston.

"The predominant drug that we see is methamphetamine, followed by cocaine, and then fentanyl, and then heroin. So from just last year to this year, we now receive maybe 20% of our evidence intake as suspected fentanyl, whereas last year it was only about 4%," Vazquez said. "Fentanyl in Houston has increased from maybe a 4% submission rate to now over 12%."

We saw two kilos of fentanyl confiscated. Vasquez said it was enough to kill a million Houstonians. She told us most of the fentanyl from Houston is in pill form.

Investigators are using the term "fentanyl poisoning" more these days than overdose, because most victims think they're taking something else, not knowing the pill is laced with deadly fentanyl.

"Young people are supposed to learn from their mistakes, not die from their mistakes," Scroggins said.

And sadly, so many Houston families are suffering the same loss.

According to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science, deaths involving fentanyl in Harris County from 2019 to 2021 rose from 104 to 459, a roughly 340% increase. The DEA says four out of every 10 pills on the streets of Houston right now is laced with a deadly amount of fentanyl, and agents are worried it's going to get worse.

"Unfortunately, we are in a major problem right now. The Mexican drug cartels are flooding the market with this fentanyl, causing numerous overdoses and poisoning on a daily basis in Harris County," Daniel Comeaux, the DEA special agent in charge of its Houston Division, said. "This drug here, it's all over the place. It's not any one area. This drug is not discriminating, for social economic or race or location. This is all over Houston."

Comeaux's team just launched a fentanyl-fighting task force.

"We'll start from the individual who sold it, to the victim, and we'll go all the way back to the source of supply. And we'll try to put everyone in that line, in that chain in jail," he said.

Agents are also tracking pill pressers in our area. The task force is currently investigating 15 fentanyl-related deaths.

Back at the DEA lab, the staff here changed the priority of seizures because of so many deaths. Fentanyl cases now go right to the top.

"Once the fentanyl exhibits come in, they get turned around within a week or two, and everything else kind of has to be prioritized down based upon that," Vaquez said.

And that's good news for victims' families.

Deb Scroggins traveled to Washington for a special fentanyl summit where she met other families torn apart just like hers. She visited the "Faces Of Fentanyl" wall.

Her daughter's picture is between a 15-year-old and a 27-year-old. Scroggins is now dedicated to raise awareness and not letting her daughter's death be in vain.

"Our family will never be the same. This needs to stop happening. I don't want this to happen to any more families. Unfortunately, it's going to," Scroggins said.

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