Editor's note: The illicit drug trade is undergoing a seismic shift, with Utah in the middle of the deadly impact of opioids. This is the second in an ongoing series about this modern-day plague.
PARK CITY —
The boys didn’t know what they were doing.
The drug was a powder. They called it “pink.” It had come from China.
It was September 2016, just a few weeks into the school year at Treasure Mountain Junior High. Over social media, the boys texted back and forth about the drug, which had come in a baggie. The boys got it from a friend. On the internet, most people called it U-4.
The two boys, Ryan Ainsworth and Grant Seaver, both 13, had become friends over the past year. Grant was on the ski team, could do back flips and rails. He’d traveled to Central America with his mom a half dozen times and could speak fluent Spanish. He had dark hair and soft brown eyes.
Ryan lived a few miles away on a wooded street near the high school. The family went to a nondenominational church called Mountain Life, which had big windows that looked out on the snow-capped slopes. The pastor had a gray goatee and talked about grace and hope.
Grant never gave his parents much trouble, but lately he’d worried them a little. The boys had been caught peeing off the roof of Park City Day School the previous year. The headmaster, a kindly man with white hair and the knobby knees of a marathon runner, hadn’t called the cops or tried to get them in trouble. Instead, they worked together in the school’s organic garden while he talked to them about choices and consequences. He knew kids from good families could often lose their way: His own son was a recovering opioid addict and now in prison. Trouble, he knew, often began with something small.
The heroin epidemic had been roiling through the United States for nearly a decade, picking up steam each year, killing people in the Rust Belt and Florida and Appalachia. It had affected Utah, too, especially in Emery and Carbon counties, the state’s coal country, where the stark reality of the crisis had spilled into public view: bodies, stiff and cold, were dropped off in front of the hospital, or in the desert, because addicts were afraid to call when a friend or brother or wife overdosed because of all the paraphernalia lying around.
It had arrived in Park City, too, albeit quietly. The headmaster knew the county jail was full of people hooked on heroin and pain pills. He knew kids could order opioids over the phone and meet a dealer in a parking lot 10 minutes later, like ordering pizza. He’d heard about the pill parties and the kids who snorted fentanyl patches they’d stolen from medicine cabinets. Park City is a place with a lot of absentee parents, he’d noticed, and perhaps that was a factor. Maybe your dad was a pilot and was often gone, or maybe your parents liked to travel and left you in the care of a nanny.
But that’s not how Grant’s parents were. His mom was involved. If there was a sleepover, she wanted to talk to the parents, know which kids were going to be there. She checked her two sons’ social media apps and their internet histories.
She didn’t know about “pink,” though — had never heard of it. Cooked up in clandestine labs in China, “pink” was a synthetic opioid, not yet illegal. Officially, it was called U-47700.
The boys continued to message each other about the drug, naive to its potency or lethality. Grant planned to take some, he said in a message later retrieved by police. He liked to go big sometimes. Maybe he was seeking a thrill.
The boys didn’t know what they were doing.
An unfolding tragedy
A few days later, Emily Sutherland was at Lagoon with her two kids. It was Sunday, Sept. 11. Tall and slender with the lithe build of a runner, she wore a stud in her nose, even when she was at Treasure Mountain, where she had been principal for one year. She had grown up in Salt Lake City but loved Park City. It wasn’t like the rest of Utah. It was more progressive politically, more tolerant. Her short hair, the stud in her nose — they were all little ways to signal to students that it was OK to be different.
Sutherland prided herself on being involved with her students. She knew most of them. She could stand outside her office as they were rushing from Advanced Placement geography to language arts and tell you something about pretty much any of them: the kid lugging his saxophone case to the band room, or the girl in the book club who read five books at a time and got visibly animated, like giddy, talking about “Traitor to the Throne” or “Of Fire and Stars.”
Park City is a town that prides itself on accomplishment, on being the best. In what passes for an affordable neighborhood, houses go for about $750,000. Its public school system is considered the best in the state. Sutherland knew there was a lot of pressure to keep up appearances. She knew the skiers hoping to make an Olympic team, the math whizzes who wanted to go to Stanford. She also knew which kids were talking to her counselors — the boys figuring out their sexual identity, the girls who cut themselves, the kids caught in the middle of nasty custody battles. She knew the kids who felt left out, didn’t know where they belonged, who worried that they didn’t quite measure up. She remembered how hard junior high was.
That morning at Lagoon, she was standing in line for the Mousetrap ride, trying to decide if her 8- and 9-year-old children could handle it, when she noticed a text from a teacher at school. Sutherland had told her teachers they could call anytime, but it was rare to hear from one on a Sunday morning. She looked down at the text. An eighth-grader had been found unresponsive by his parents. His name was Grant Seaver.
School had just started, and she’d only had a few weeks to get to know the incoming class of eighth-graders. She couldn’t place Grant. Lots of kids were on her radar, but not Grant. He wasn’t someone in her counselor’s office for depression or thoughts of suicide. He wasn’t one of the kids who’d been busted with marijuana in his backpack.
It appeared, however, that Grant had died of an overdose. She was stunned.
The previous spring, Treasure Mountain had held an after-school assembly with students and parents focused on drug prevention, in particular marijuana. A lot of the kids traveled as part of elite ski teams, often to states where marijuana was legal, like Colorado. Some of their parents smoked pot. Access was easy.
Midway through the seminar, a 10th-grader had stood up and warned Sutherland that the drug problems in Park City extended beyond marijuana. Kids were using pills, the student said. Sutherland decided they’d revisit the issue in the fall, perhaps in October during National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. Now she wondered if she had waited too long.
The next day, Sutherland gathered her staff in her office to decide how to deal with Grant’s death. In particular she was worried about 20 kids who had been part of Grant’s circle, so she pulled them aside for individual counseling. She said she was especially concerned about Ryan Ainsworth, Grant’s best friend. Unlike Grant, Ryan had been on her radar, mostly for truancy. Her counselors had been working hard to get him to come to school. After Grant died, she confiscated Ryan’s computer. Ryan didn’t resist, simply handed over the computer, as he sat talking to a counselor through tears.
Two days later, Wednesday, Sept. 13, Sutherland was in her office when she got a phone call from Superintendent Ember Conley. There had been another death. Conley was on her way over to Treasure Mountain.
Sutherland shut the door to her office and with her counselors tried to figure out who had died. In 48 hours, they’d lost two students to drug overdoses.
“When I found out it was Ryan, that was a moment that … ” she said, her voice trailing off. “We had really focused on helping him. That was very, very painful.”
School would start in 45 minutes. They needed to create an atmosphere where students felt comfortable sharing their feelings, but avoid glamorizing the deaths to prevent at-risk students from considering suicide, if that’s what this was. As they met, counselors from other schools in the district rushed to Treasure Mountain, along with therapists from Valley Behavioral Mental Health.
Sutherland decided that she and her assistant principal would go to each classroom and read a statement. “I was really shaky for the first few,” Sutherland recalled. “I had to hold on to a desk to get through it.”
She informed the kids that if they needed someone to talk to, they could go to the library, where counselors were waiting. Over the next two hours, more and more kids crowded into the library. Some were crying uncontrollably. Others started to scream. It became infectious.
“I thought we were prepared the first time, but this time, it was mass hysteria,” Sutherland recalls. “Teachers had to stand in doorways and physically restrain kids from running through the halls. We were trying to make sure the kids were safe and that was literally at times holding them on the floor, not tackling, but making sure they were safe on the floor, not like running around in the library. It was really disturbing.”
Once all the students were gone for the day, police brought in dogs to sniff the lockers of Grant and Ryan’s friends. In one locker they found a powdery white substance in a baggie.
A new threat
In the New York Times, in the Washington Post, and on “NBC Nightly News,” Park City was now being associated not with indie movie deals or celebrity sightings, but with a new breed of opioids known as synthetics. They represented a frightening new front in the opioid epidemic.
The fundamental rules that governed the illicit drug game seemed to be undergoing a seismic shift. Two months after Grant and Ryan died, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security raided a home 30 miles to the west, on the other side of the Wasatch Range, where they found evidence of a multimillion-dollar pill mill in an upscale suburb of Salt Lake City. The location of the bust — a quiet neighborhood near a golf course — and the drugs produced there (pills made with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than heroin) were as surprising as the deaths of Grant and Ryan. Taken together, the two incidents highlighted an emerging reality: thanks to the internet, just about anybody could become a dealer, and anyone — even a 13-year-old kid with no drug experience — could access the most deadly drugs on the planet.
On the internet, drugs like “pink” were known as designer drugs or RCs, short for research chemicals. They were analogues, or synthetic copies, of drugs like marijuana and heroin and had become popular for several reasons. One, their chemical structure was unknown, so they didn’t show up on drug tests and weren’t technically illegal. On top of that, they were incredibly potent, and therefore light and easy to ship. What was terrifying, however, was that no one knew exactly what these chemicals did to the body. In South Florida a synthetic drug called flakka, designed to produce a high similar to cocaine, caused users to enter a trance-like state of “excited delirium” where their body temperature could rise to 105 degrees and deep paranoia could cause them to strip off their clothes and run around naked to escape imaginary beasts. Flakka had resulted in 65 deaths in Florida.
The DEA was doing what it could. They had offices in Beijing and Shanghai and were working with the Chinese government to ban designer drugs like fentanyl. The bans had an impact. When the Chinese government banned the chemicals used to make flakka, for example, crime lab seizures in Florida dropped from 2,012 cases in 2015 to 259 the next year, according to Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University.
The problem was, as soon as one chemical was banned, the labs made a slight tweak to the molecular structure to produce a new designer drug with a similar high. But the science was shoddy, with no testing. The guinea pigs for these drugs were the people who ordered them over the internet. Police admitted privately that while they could catch major distributors who operated on the darknet, they could never stop all the small shipments that came through the mail.
Grant's and Ryan’s friends and family struggled to understand what had happened. At school, kids wondered if it had been a suicide pact, or an accident. Grant was known for “going big” and seemed to have little fear. Sometimes, he’d stand near the edge of a tall building for the adrenaline rush. It was the same on the ski slopes: he had no problem trying tricks that scared others.
At a memorial a few days after he died, his aunt shared a story about Grant’s fearlessness. He was 5 years old and the family had traveled to New York for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As they were watching the giant balloons being inflated, Grant suddenly disappeared.
“We panicked,” his aunt, Lisa Sippel, said at the memorial. “We looked everywhere, and then we realized the little imp had snuck under the barriers, passed all the cops and walked right up to the Pillsbury Doughboy and poked him right in the belly.”
That was Grant. He liked to push the limits. Maybe he had taken “pink” on a lark, not knowing what it could do.
Sometime after Ryan died, a 15-year-old girl who knew the boys came forward to police. According to a search warrant affidavit, she told them that she had a friend, also 15, who had ordered a drug over the internet. “Pink.” The friend had asked her if she could accept the shipment for him because his parents screened all his mail for drugs.
The package arrived sometime in mid-August, she told police. She opened the box and found a clear bag of white powder, which she delivered to her friend. Grant and Ryan had probably got some of the powder, the girl told police. She knew of at least two other kids in town who also had some.
Seven months after Grant and Ryan’s deaths, on March 31 of this year, the 15 year old who ordered the “pink” stood before a judge in Park City’s juvenile court. For the past seven months, he’d been in a residential drug treatment center.
“I started using drugs and got addicted,” he told the judge. “We got desperate to get more opiates, so we decided to order them online. I now realize how dangerous this was.”
He admitted that he had tried “pink” and become sick, and that several of his friends had used the drug, too. He pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, a class A misdemeanor.
Grant’s father said his son’s death was senseless. How was an 18-month sentence to drug rehab and 80 hours of community service appropriate?
“To me, when I do the calculation, that’s one week of service for each dead kid,” Jim Seaver said. “To me, that doesn’t seem possible.”
Ryan’s mom, Gillian Ainsworth, said the pain of losing her son was beyond something she could bear at times. This tragedy had already resulted in two casualties. She wished the boy who provided the drugs well. She didn’t want any more death.
Through tears, Grant’s mother addressed the court. She, too, often found it hard to go on. “Whatever he would have amounted to, nobody knows,” Debbi Seaver said. “But he had so much potential.”
A search for answers
After Grant and Ryan’s deaths, Sutherland searched for answers. The tragedy had been a wake-up call to her, the school and the community. Talking to other kids in junior high and high school, she and other teachers had realized how common drug use had become in Park City. What was driving the increase? And what could they do to stop it?
At the district office, Superintendent Ember Conley knew what the data said: According to the latest Student Health and Risk Prevention survey, which students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade completed every two years, about 20 percent of students in the district had experimented with marijuana, and eight percent said they’d used prescription drugs recreationally.
Conley pulled together about 50 community leaders to figure out what was going on. She met with a local filmmaker who had made a movie called "Resiliency" that looked out how the brain rewires when a child has been through four or more “adverse childhood experiences," such as child abuse, sex abuse or divorce.
She also got a call from the CEO of Westgate, a national hotel chain that had a resort in Park City. The founder of Westgate had lost his 18-year-old daughter to a heroin overdose and had since dedicated his time, and much of his fortune, to searching for answers to help other teens. Perhaps that research could help Park City.
“This is a town of action,” Conley said. “If we have problems, let’s go to work.”
Conley and her team became interested in a program developed by the University of Washington called Communities that Care, which identified risk factors particular to that community through surveys and then offered a menu of evidence-based solutions.
Conley didn’t want to rush to come up with an answer. Instead, she wanted to work with the rest of the community to do as much as they could to solve it. Grant and Ryan’s deaths had uncovered a problem that affected teens throughout Park City, not just at Treasure Mountain.
But Sutherland didn’t want to wait. In fact, the previous spring she and her counselors had already identified what they saw as a growing problem, and had begun searching for an answer.
Kids in the counseling office at Treasure Mountain struggled with all sorts of different challenges, but there were some underlying similarities. They felt alone, adrift, devoid of meaning or purpose. They spent much of their time playing video games or interacting with their friends, not in person but over social media, which could often devolve into negative interactions where girls mocked each other over their appearance or encouraged and glamorized risky behaviors like eating disorders or cutting. Boys could be mercilessly mean to each other, saying things they were unlikely to repeat in person.
When it came to kids who were struggling, Sutherland saw two types: high achievers who put tremendous pressure on themselves to excel, whether that meant making the Olympics as a ski racer or getting good enough grades to go to an Ivy League school.
And then there was another group of strugglers, and they worried Sutherland more because there were few resources for them. These were kids who were in the “middle" — not struggling but not excelling. They got decent grades but didn’t really stand out at anything. They were never going to be on podiums. They were unlikely to get into Stanford.
These kids, Sutherland realized, often went home from school with nothing to do and little supervision. Some got on Park City’s free transit system and simply rode around town. These kids often ended up at empty houses, smoking pot. Some escalated to harder drugs.
Conley was finding similar things through surveys. Risky and dangerous behaviors, from drug use to emergency room visits for suicide attempts, spiked during the holidays, partly because kids didn’t have as much to do. Surveys also found pressure points including easy access to pills, a relaxed attitude toward drugs like marijuana, and high expectations to achieve.
Kids were “overloaded and underprepared,” Conley said. Sixth-graders were doing three hours of homework a night. High school kids were taking too many AP classes.
Conley implemented mindfulness and yoga classes in the elementary schools, flexible scheduling for upper grades and encouraged teachers to give their students more downtime, completely unplugged from electronics.
In the meantime, Sutherland began building an after-school program at Treasure Mountain. The key, she decided, would be letting the kids come up with the programming.
On a warm spring afternoon this April, Emily Sutherland was walking through the halls of Treasure Mountain, taking stock of her school’s new Mustang After School Academy. She stopped in the library, where a group of seventh- and eighth-grade grade girls had gathered for the weekly meeting of the book club.
“Do you guys know if the philosophy club is meeting today?” Sutherland asked.
The girls weren’t sure; they’d seen the boy who started it, a fledgling Marxist who lately had taken an interest in Nietzsche, running through the halls.
“Maybe he’s over at the robotics club?” one of the girls offered.
Sutherland said she’d seen a change this year in kids who she’d previously worried were at risk for substance abuse. Kids in the RC club were building remote control trucks that they race on a dirt track behind the school. Others had started a small engine repair company.
“I think kids have to have something they’re passionate about,” Sutherland said. “Something that gives them a sense of identity and purpose. I don’t care what it is, so long as it’s not video games. It could be sports, it could be dance, or horseback riding or remote control cars.”
The program, in some ways, is similar to one of the most ambitious drug prevention efforts ever launched, a European program called Youth Iceland, which put an emphasis on parents spending more time with their kids, getting teens involved in extracurricular activities (especially sports) three to four times a week, and helping kids feel important at school.
While Sutherland used Youth Iceland as a reference point, she and her staff built their program from scratch, with the support of her teachers and counselors, and lots of input from the students. A grant from a local nonprofit helps pay for teachers to stay after school to run the programs.
“We don’t have the data yet to know how well it’s working. This is the first year, and really, we’re still reeling from Ryan and Grant’s deaths earlier this year,” Sutherland said. “But we’re hopeful. There are other measures we can take as a community, at home, the way parents interact with their children, and there’s a lot of positive momentum all over the city — but this is a start.”
In the meantime, the district has moved forward with the Communities that Care model. Thanks to a grant from the county and a $250,000 donation from the CEO of Vail Ski Resort, they've hired a coordinator for the program and are now conducting a community assessment to identify risk factors specific to Park City. Based on the results of that survey, they'll pick a program from the Communities that Care model. The district has revamped its life skills curriculum, putting an emphasis on resiliency, and put naloxone (which can revive someone after an opioid crisis) in the office of every nurse in the district. Conley continues to meet with about 40 leaders from the community to address the problem and come up with long-term solutions.
"This isn't a Treasure Mountain problem or a district problem," Conley said. "This is a communitywide issue, and we're all coming together to do what we can to address it."
Trying to move forward
Last week, the teenager who ordered the “pink” stood again before a judge in Park City’s juvenile court. He wore a dark suit and stood outside the courtroom with his parents, who hovered near him protectively. His father wore red suede shoes and a pale blue suit.
The teenager had finished his court-mandated time at a drug rehab facility. He’d been doing well, the judge said, as letters from the treatment center attested. Now it was time to go home, to his dad’s place in Colorado.
Debbi Seaver sat on the front row of the courtroom, across from the boy. The judge asked her if there was anything she’d like to say.
She tried to contain her emotion, but she’d been fighting back tears since she entered the courtroom. Through choking sobs she addressed the boy.
“I still feel like you haven’t told enough,” Seaver said. “I want to know more about what happened.”
In a previous court hearing, the judge had ordered Park City police to turn over investigative files to help the Seavers learn more. Had this been done? the judge asked.
“Yeah, but they don’t say much,” Seaver said. “And don’t you want to know how he got addicted in the first place, and who introduced him to this stuff? I mean, when are we going to stop this from happening again in Park City?”
The judge wasn’t sure what she could do. Perhaps the boy could write a letter? His lawyer, a tall woman with shoulder-length red hair, pointed out that young people start using with friends and that unfortunately, “there are all sorts of kids in this community who are using.”
“The truth is there’s not an answer that going to change this tragedy or change the fact that kids get addicted,” the lawyer said.
The boy meekly bowed his head, seeming to avoid eye contact with Seaver.
After the court hearing, the boy and his parents stepped out in to the mountain air, redolent with the scent of pine. They politely declined comment. They were eager to put this all behind them, their lawyer said. Then the boy and his dad turned away and walked toward their car. The boy had a lot to look forward to in the coming months: a move to a new town in the mountains of Colorado, fitting in at a new school, preparing for college. His life lay before him.
As they drove off, Debbi Seaver was still in the courtroom, talking to the prosecutor, searching for answers. There was nothing she could do to undo the past.
The boys didn't know what they were doing.