Skagway police suspect fentanyl poisoning in deaths of 2 men

suspected fentanyl pills
Pills seized by Skagway police, which officers believe to contain fentanyl. (Skagway Police Department photo)

Two people died within 24 hours in Skagway over the weekend. Illicit drug overdoses are suspected in both cases.

On Friday night, shortly before midnight, Skagway Police Officer James Michels responded to a 911 call about an unresponsive male.

“Upon arriving on scene, there was evidence of possible illicit drug use,” Michels said.

Michels says Narcan, used to reverse the effects of opiates, was administered by EMS who arrived within seconds of police.

“Life-saving measures were in progress. I was doing chest compressions, While EMS was pushing Narcan. And we continued to roll that way until the on-duty provider showed up and took over,” Michels said.

Those efforts were unsuccessful. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene by the on-duty medical provider at the victim’s residence.

Then on Saturday afternoon, just after 4 p.m., another 911 call came in.

“This time, it was for an unresponsive male. And we responded to the scene again, did life-saving measures and were unable to obviously save his life. And again, there was signs of illicit drug use present at the residence,” said Michels.

Police do not have confirmation that fentanyl was involved in either case, but, Michels says, signs of illicit drug use at the scene led police to believe it was a contributing factor in both deaths.

The Skagway Police Department immediately opened an investigation and seized a large number of pills. Skagway’s police chief, Jerry Reddick, says they believe the pills are laced with fentanyl.

a Skagway police officer
Skagway Police Officer James Michels holding a bag of confiscated pills. (Skagway Police Department photo)

“We will be sending them off to the crime lab to get a confirmation of fentanyl. All preliminary research and talking with the drug task force, everything is leading to the facts of them being Fentanyl with the markings. And the color coding is corresponding within everything that they have seen,” Reddick said.

The department released a photograph of the confiscated pills on its social media page on Sunday. The pills are designed to look like prescription drugs like oxycodone. But with their bright colors, Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata says, they also look like candy.

“Not unlike looking at a Skittle or those little sugar candies that people get on Halloween. So if you’re a 4 or 5-year-old child, I’m sure that distinction can be difficult,” Cremata said.

Skagway officials are urging residents that have received any drugs through non-legitimate channels to dispose of them properly. But Reddick notes that incorrectly handling or accidentally inhaling fentanyl dust particles during disposal can lead to an accidental overdose.

“We would recommend that if somebody does think that there’s fentanyl involved with their pills or whatever, just to call 911. And let us handle it and take care of it,” Reddick said.

However, not everyone wants the police to know they have illegal drugs. In that case, Reddick said there’s a web-based tip line that can be used to set up a pickup by police.

“It can be anonymous or you can give us your name through that. But there’s no way for us to find out who it was if you decide to be anonymous, and we can interact with you and we can talk to you through that tip line,” he said.

Reddick said a location for a dropoff can be discussed through the tip line, and the police will not know your identity.

Skagway’s Dahl Memorial Clinic has special bags designed to make the disposal of potentially dangerous drugs safer. They also have an expired medication dropbox outside of the building that can be used as a dropoff location for illicit drugs. The Skagway Police Department has a similar dropbox.

Police would not comment on the ongoing investigation about how the drugs got to Skagway. But Cremata said they are looking for help from the community.

“Drugs being brought into the community is done in a sophisticated manner, I think far more sophisticated than many people realize. And that’s why it’s essential for members of the community to weigh in. When they see something that is obviously drugs being exchanged, or a person that they know well who’s exhibiting behavior like they may be on drugs, that’s why we have the tip line,” he said.

Cremata said the municipality is working on bringing emergency mental health services to town for those suffering from these events.

Reddick urges anyone who suspects a friend or loved one has overdosed on fentanyl or other drugs to call 911 immediately.

“There is protection under the law for people trying to get help. We’re not going to be there trying to develop any kind of case, we’re going to be there to try to save lives,” said Reddick.

Narcan has been distributed to several Skagway establishments and the borough manager has ordered fentanyl test strips for possible distribution. The Skagway Traditional Council also has Narcan available.

In Haines, emergency Narcan kits have been distributed to the library and local bars. Personal kits are available at the SEARHC Clinic Pharmacy and the Fire Department. 

KHNS will continue to cover the investigation as it develops. Here is a link to the official press release from the Skagway Police Department.

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