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Families who lost loved ones to fentanyl raise awareness, hope for change

Photos of DJ Ashenfelder, who died due to fentanyl.
Photos of DJ Ashenfelder, who died due to fentanyl.(FOX Carolina)
Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 6:34 PM EDT
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South Carolina (FOX Carolina) - Deaths by drug overdoses continues to increase at shocking levels in our country, especially fentanyl.

CDC data shows synthetic opioid deaths increased by 23 percent from 2020 to 2021, though still lower than the increase from 2019 to 2020.

We checked with a few coroners in The Upstate. Numbers remain consistent for Greenville, Pickens, and Anderson Counties when you compare 2021 to 2022, but that’s just from six months of preliminary data.

Two families are sharing their stories to, hopefully, help someone else.

Lisa Blackwell lost two sons to fentanyl: Jeffrey Dale Tolliver, 39, and Donnie Dwayne Strange, 37.

“My boys are gone. And I’m never going to see them again. Something has got to be done,” said Blackwell.

They leave behind a sister, Misty Treadway, and nieces. Blackwell says she knew her sons were struggling with substance abuse, but she says it’s not always as simple as just getting them help.

“We tried to get him into so many places,” Treadway said.

“And unless you have money or insurance, there’s just... they won’t do anything,” said Blackwell.

Family was home when both sons were found. Treadway says her daughters watched, traumatized.

“My children witnessed their uncle die. They all saw it. It was horrible,” said Treadway.

There are daunting parallels between the Blackwell and Ashenfelder families. Lori Ashenfelder found her son, Dean Ashenfelder, Jr., 31, at home as well. All men died in their 30s.

“He told me he was going to go eat his dinner in his bedroom. And I said, ‘OK, I’m going to go on to bed,’” Lori said, “And I came down the next morning, to wake him up for work, and found him. And he was gone.”

These men are only three of the 900,000 Americans we lost to fentanyl since 1999. And all it takes is five grains of salt’s worth to be fatal.

Lori says her son’s struggles started when he was in the military.

“2008, he joined the Army and was thriving--absolutely loved it, but he got injured,” said Lori, “And he was put on opioids.”

Lori had to call her husband Dean Ashenfelder to tell him DJ was gone. Dean was away at work. He says all he could do was yell, ‘No.’”

Lori says her son was in and out of rehab, working to change.

“He wanted to be free from it,” said Lori.

Dean and Lori got tattoos to remember D.J. Both families are hoping state legislators will hear their stories and strengthen laws and extend prison time for dealers to sell and distribute fentanyl. Only a few states have lead the change. In South Carolina, the first offense is up to two years behind bars.

“You feel so alone. Nobody wants to talk about it. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do is, say, ‘It’s OK to talk about it.’ We have to talk about it. It’s going to take a community,” Lori said.

The Ashenfelders held a rally for D.J. a few weeks ago. And Blackwell is planning a rally for her sons in August. She wants to donate care packages with Narcan, a drug used to treat narcotic overdose in an emergency situation. Blackwell says everybody should have it, because you never know when you’ll need it to save somebody’s life.

You can check with your local pharmacy. Many are a part of state programs that give away Narcan for free, and it’s covered by most insurance policies.