The Lonely, Tragic Fentanyl OD Death of a Denver Teen

Dylan's body was found in a tent downtown. His grandmother says he died there two days earlier.
Dylan's body was found in a tent downtown. His grandmother says he died there two days earlier.
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In 2020, Colorado in general and Denver specifically set unfortunate new records for overdose deaths, with fentanyl leading the way. Indeed, the number of fentanyl-related fatalities in the Mile High City last year — 119 through December 4 — easily exceeded the total for the previous three.

And such tragedies continue, as evidenced by the story of a sixteen-year-old named Dylan. According to Sandra, his grandmother (we're omitting both of their last names, at her request), Dylan died in late January in a tent near a homeless encampment by downtown. She believes he overdosed on fentanyl and was dead for two days before his body was identified.

These conclusions are still unofficial. According to the Denver Police Department, Dylan's body was found on February 1 near East 18th Avenue and Emerson Street, and is "the subject of a non-criminal death investigation." A spokesman for Denver's Office of the Medical Examiner says that Dylan's toxicology and autopsy report have not yet been completed and the cause of death is pending that investigation.

Sandra describes Dylan as "dyslexic, but he had a heart of gold and had a certain way of doing things. He loved music, he wrote poetry and songs, and he was a genius at numbers. He was not a mean person, he was not a vengeful or dangerous person. He cared for others, sometimes over his own safety."

The circumstances that led to his death are both heart-wrenching and all too typical. According to Sandra, his upbringing was chaotic. Because his parents split up, as did Sandra and her husband, his home situation was constantly in flux even after he moved to Colorado from the East Coast several years ago. One example: Sandra says "Dylan lost it" after one particularly vivid domestic incident and was promptly arrested. He was fourteen at the time.

This crime landed Dylan in Lakewood's Mount View Youth Services Center. In recent years, insiders have claimed that facilities in Jefferson County's YOS system have been rife with violence, secret drug use and more, and the accounts Dylan shared with Sandra about his time there back up those assertions. "He fell prey to all the things that were going on there: the gangs, the initiations, the retaliation," she says. "He told me he had to fight to survive."

Over the years that followed, Dylan wound up in a series of foster homes, but he didn't see any of them as permanent stops — and even when he was out of Mount View, associations formed there seemed to follow him wherever he went. "These individuals, these dealers, would latch onto him and make him carry stuff for them," she allows. "They threatened him, threatened to hurt his family, if he didn't do what they wanted him to do. He said he couldn't be seen with me, because he was afraid they would hurt me, too. They used intimidation, and he couldn't break free from them."

This past summer, Sandra moved to Colorado and was considered for kinship placement. But that didn't happen. She has extremely limited resources; right now, she's living in a metro-area rescue mission.

The grimmest elements of Dylan's life conspired against him again last month. "The dealers forced him to steal cars so they could keep their guns and drugs in them," Sandra contends. "Then, in early January, the police found a car near a hotel my grandson had gotten for the night, and they were looking for him. So he ran — he ran to downtown Denver, where a lot of these kids are at. He was terrified about being sent to jail, and he was also afraid of the drug dealer who owned all the stuff that was in the car — so he went into hiding."

The next few weeks were harrowing. "He was jumped five times," Sandra says. "The first time, they broke his nose and his teeth. He showed me the injuries." Dylan last visited her on January 28, the day she believes he died — and she thinks he sensed the end was near: "He came up to where I'm at and said, 'I have something to give you.' And he gave me this special hat he wore all the time and a T-shirt. When he left me, I put him on the train to Union Station, and he went back to his tent."

Dylan "hated drugs," she insists, "but he told me a couple of weeks before he died, 'Grandma, the only way I can survive on the street is to stay awake. If I don't stay awake, I'm going to be shot or murdered.'"

Instead, he overdosed, and Sandra, who says she saw plenty of open drug dealing when meeting with Dylan over recent months, has a message for other parents and guardians: "This fentanyl is a killer, and there's a lot of it out there. These kids have to know that there's someone who can help them. They're terrified not just from the cops and the system, but from the drug dealers. ... The deaths from this drug have reached epidemic proportions."

The number of overdose deaths in Denver supports this last claim, and authorities are now putting the issue front and center. At 11:30 a.m. today, February 12, for example, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, joined by representatives of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Denver field division and the 17th Judicial District Attorney's Office, is holding a press conference to "discuss the dismantling of an international drug trafficking ring and a related money laundering enterprise operating throughout Colorado."

These efforts come too late to save Dylan. As Sandra sees it, "Drug dealers target youths who are fragile" — kids like her grandson, whose short, troubled life came to a terribly premature end.

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