Middle Georgia’s opioid overdose outbreak remains unsolved

Gaylord Lopez, a doctor of pharmacy and director of the Georgia Poison Center, shares a few facts about the opioid epidemic in Georgia and around the nation. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that opioid-related overdoses in the state of Georgia claimed the lives of 982 people last year. The AJC also found that doctors aren't being held accountable when they behave more like dealers than healers. Video by Ryon Horne, Carrie Teegardin and Curtis Compton

In his nightmares, Jamarco Gibson doesn’t know where he is, why he is there and where he is going. He feels as if he is dying, just like when he swallowed the yellow “Percocet” pill he bought from a stranger six months ago.

When the 24-year-old Macon resident wakes up from his nightmares, he is drenched in sweat, jobless, deep in debt and worrying how he will provide for his five-year-old son, Jamarco Jr., especially during the holidays.

Gibson is among more than two dozen people who were treated after overdosing on counterfeit Percocet pills over several days last June in Middle Georgia — a deadly crisis that drew national headlines. The rash of overdoses came amid a nationwide opioid overdose epidemic, which President Donald Trump has declared a public health emergency.

Jamarco Gibson, who survived an overdose on counterfeit Percocet in June, shares his story as his mother Timiko Jackson holds her grandson Lamar Jones at their home in Macon. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Jamarco Gibson, who survived an overdose on counterfeit Percocet in June, shares his story as his mother Timiko Jackson holds her grandson Lamar Jones at their home in Macon. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Although it’s unclear how many people overdosed on phony Percocet pills in Georgia, at least five died during that period. After investigating the Georgia cases, public health authorities linked 27 of the overdoses and one death to the pills. They contained a mixture of highly potent synthetic drugs that police suspect came from overseas, possibly China: cyclopropyl fentanyl and the synthetic opioid U-47700.

Other victims from the same time frame swallowed pills containing a different synthetic drug called carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and is used to sedate elephants.

The pills were deemed so toxic that medical workers who found them on patients were told to wear two sets of gloves, goggles and masks to handle them.

RELATED: Doctors and the opioid crisis: An AJC National Investigation

RELATED: Audit: Barriers prevent adequate treatment for opioid abuse in Georgia

RELATED: Georgia medical board easy on opioid violators

“One thing we’ve see in cases we’ve worked recently is when undercover officers have gone in, the dealer will take precautions of their own — wear latex gloves,” said Joe Chestnut of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “One dealer put a T-shirt up over his nose when they were pouring it out. They realize how bad this is.”

Police have made no arrests and have not identified any suspects. Investigators say some victims fear retribution if they talk to police and don’t want to lose their drug connection, said Lt. Mike Kenirey of the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office.

Several of the overdose victims told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they bought their pills from strangers in Macon. The pills, they said, were meant to help them cope with pain from surgeries or workplace injuries. After nearly dying, all of them said they would never buy drugs on the streets again. Meanwhile, they are hoping the police will bring the drug dealers to justice.

“I’ve been down a rocky road ever since,” said Gibson, a lean and soft-spoken Central High School graduate, “but I am sure glad I’m still alive. It just messed me up completely.”

Investigators believe fake Percocet pills like this one were linked to dozens of overdoses in Middle Georgia last June. Photo Contributed.
Investigators believe fake Percocet pills like this one were linked to dozens of overdoses in Middle Georgia last June. Photo Contributed.

Three overdoses and a death

Henry Howard and his fiancée Betty Jean Collins agreed to speak to the AJC about their overdoses, but not to be photographed. The West Macon residents fear the man who sold them the yellow “Percocet” pills will hunt them down and murder them if he spots their pictures in the newspaper.

“These guys already know who we are,” Howard said as he smoked a cigarette and watched television with Collins in their modest home recently. “They already done sent word.”

A retired roofer and janitor, Howard, 70, struggles with pain from a hip replacement and back surgery. He said he used to take Lortab, but his doctor wouldn’t increase the dose to keep up with his pain. So on June 5 he bought what he thought was Percocet from a man on the southside of Macon, near the Pendleton Homes community. He paid $7 apiece for 10 yellow pills. Right away, Howard swallowed two. He passed out on his bed as soon as he got home, his eyes rolling up in his head.

Alarmed, Collins, 60, shook Howard, trying to rouse him. When he didn’t respond, she called 911. Emergency workers revived him on the way to Navicent Health Medical Center, in Macon. Howard came home from the hospital hours later, shaken but believing he simply experienced a bad reaction from some vitamins he had been taking.

Collins, a retired waitress and motel worker, was trying to give Howard a shave when she felt pain radiating down her arm and leg. She still aches from open-heart surgery she had years ago, but said her doctor won’t up her Percocet dosage. She swallowed one of Howard’s yellow pills. Minutes later, Collins passed out on the floor of her home, foaming at the mouth. That’s when Howard realized the pills were the problem.

Collins remained in the hospital for four days, barely able to stand or even speak. She ultimately recovered. But her 52-year-old brother, Gregory Mitchell, did not. She said he bought some of the yellow pills from the same dealer to help him cope with an injury, overdosed and died. Mitchell was a friendly and generous car mechanic who was revamping his life and preparing to return to church when he died, Collins said.

“Boy,” she said of her brother’s death, “that hurt me so bad. And I still think about him.”

‘This is big time’

Dr. Gregory Whatley was working his night shift at the Medical Center in Macon on June 4, when a young woman was brought in with mystifying symptoms. Unresponsive and barely breathing, she also had a high heart rate and was suffering from kidney failure.

Whatley gave her multiple doses of Narcan, a medication that can rapidly revive overdose victims. But it had no effect. He inserted a tube down her throat to keep her breathing. He performed a CT scan, ruling out bleeding from her brain. She had a fever and a high white blood cell count, so he tested her for meningitis. As he was trying to unravel the mystery, she suddenly became restless and yanked the tube out of her throat. In a barely audible whisper, she attempted to speak. Her voice was so faint he couldn’t hear her.

“I got closer, ‘What did you take? What happened to you?’” he recalled asking her. She replied “Percocet,” telling him she bought the pill – she said it was yellow — from someone on the street. “And that was the first clue.”

Dr. Gregory Whatley, an emergency room doctor at Navicent Health Medical Center in Macon, noticed similarities between some of his hospital’s overdose patients and alerted the authorities in June. Dozens of overdoses were attributed to counterfeit Percocet pills that month. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Dr. Gregory Whatley, an emergency room doctor at Navicent Health Medical Center in Macon, noticed similarities between some of his hospital’s overdose patients and alerted the authorities in June. Dozens of overdoses were attributed to counterfeit Percocet pills that month. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The following night, a young man was brought into Whatley’s emergency room with similar symptoms. The patient said he had taken Percocet for chronic back pain. In all, the hospital treated about a dozen patients suffering from similar overdoses over a two-day period in June, including a group of five or six people who swallowed the pills in the same Macon-area house.

Whatley called the Georgia Poison Center, a 24-hour poison emergency treatment information service based in Atlanta: Are you all having some cases of an unknown toxin or drug, he asked the operator. Listen, I have two or three patients with a constellation of findings and I need to know what is going on with them.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Georgia overdose deaths jump

RELATED: GBI: Deadly counterfeit pills contain two synthetic opioids

The center’s director, Gaylord Lopez, was preparing to turn in for the night at his home in Snellville when he got the call from one of his staffers about Whatley’s query. Lopez directed his staff to call nearby hospitals and ask if they were seeing similar patients. A nurse at the Houston Medical Center in Warner Robins reported her hospital had treated nine people with similar symptoms over the last 24 hours. Lopez alerted Georgia Public Health Department officials.

“By the time we reached the morning, we were learning of one or two more cases, and one who had just died,” Lopez said, adding he remembers thinking: “This is big time.”

Alerted by the Georgia Poison Center, the Georgia Health Department scrambled to get the word out about the outbreak to the public, doctors, emergency workers and the police. They took to social media and held several news conferences. They warned people to look out for yellow pills stamped “Percocet” at a slight angle, a sign indicating they were counterfeit. In October, they released a report connecting 27 of the victims, saying they included both men and women and blacks and whites. They ranged in age from 19 to 69.

Dr. J. Patrick O’Neal, Georgia’s commissioner of public health, and his colleagues are now developing statewide plans for how to respond to the opioid epidemic, fearing another overdose outbreak inevitable.

A father’s grief

Jack Moore is haunted by the image of his dead 21-year-old son. He has trouble recalling images of the charming towheaded boy or the sensitive young man he became. His son, Jackson, was the youngest to die during June’s rash of overdoses, though his death is not believed to have been caused by the same counterfeit Percocet pills that sickened the dozens of others, police said.

“Now I’m still stuck on seeing him lying dead,” his father said. “That’s the thought that haunts me every day… That powerless feeling, seeing him and knowing I couldn’t bring him back. That’s where I’m still stuck.”

Jackson had been living at his father’s house in the southern Monroe County for six weeks. His parents had divorced and he lost his beloved grandfather, all in the same year. Jackson was working in the warehouse at the family business he was destined to inherit, Moore’s Furniture Outlet in Macon. But it was unclear if he wanted to take it over. He had no big plans for his life, no passion for a career. His father reached out to him, but Jackson repeatedly dismissed his invitations to play golf. The younger Moore “didn’t have the patience” for the sport and preferred fishing, his father said.

Jackson Moore
Jackson Moore

Jackson went to a June 3 party in Macon with a girlfriend. His friends later told his father Jackson had slipped over to the house next door where he bought the pill. Jackson used marijuana but rarely drank, according to his relatives. They believe the pill he swallowed was the first time he had ever tried a narcotic. They suspect he may have thought it was Percocet, but instead it contained carfentanil. His father found him lying on his garage floor that night.

“He acted like he was real drunk,” his father said. He told his son he needed to go to bed. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m not a kid,’ and then he turned around and hugged me and said he loved me. That was the last thing he said to me.”

As he was leaving for his regular golf date the next morning, Moore checked on his son. Jackson was still in the clothes from the night before, lying face up on his bed.

“I knew he was dead.”

‘In the unknown’

Something didn’t look right about the supposed Percocet pills Jamarco Gibson bought off the street. But his back hurt and he suffers from Crohn’s disease, a painful inflammatory bowel disease. He couldn’t get his doctor to write him a prescription for pain medication and he needed the pain to lessen so he could hold down his job making school bus seats at a local manufacturing plant. He paid a stranger in Middle Georgia $7 apiece for the pills.

Gibson said he popped one of the pills in his mouth on his way to work in Fort Valley. Moments later, he felt woozy. Maybe I'm just hungry or dehydrated, he thought. He took a sip of Gatorade and nibbled on some peanut butter cookies as he drove. He didn't get far. Gibson started to black out. The cookies were still in his throat. Choking, he gasped for air as he hit the brakes at a stop sign. That's when he passed out.

Someone at the hospital told Gibson the pill he had taken contained carfentanil. Gibson said he spent about a week recovering at the hospital, racking up more than $100,000 in medical bills. He has lost as many as 20 pounds. It’s now hard for him to concentrate. He struggles with a mixture of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. He said his ordeal cost him his job.

Gibson wants the police to catch the man who sold him the pills so he will be forced to confront the devastation he caused. People ask him what it was like when he nearly died. He tells them there was no dark tunnel or bright light, just nothingness.

“I was just in the unknown,” he said. “You don’t know what is going on.”

In Other News