MT. CARMEL, Tenn. (WJHL) — Josh Russell was hoping he could get free of drug addiction for good when he went home from a stint in jail late last year.
He got a job, hung out with his parents and sister and was working hard to try and lose weight.
But on Feb. 7, Marsha Way and her husband found Way’s 41-year-old son — dressed for his job at a Johnson City manufacturing plant — unconscious in the bathroom.
I tried to do CPR,” Way, a nurse, told News 2’s sister station, WJHL, on Friday, just days after what would have been Russell’s 42nd birthday. “Tried all I could do but he was gone.”
Intent on losing weight, Russell had started using methamphetamine when he couldn’t get a prescription for the weight-loss drug phentermine. But it wasn’t the meth that killed him.
“When we got the autopsy back it was a drug laced with fentanyl, and he had seven times the amount, the lethal amount,” Way said.
Local law enforcement, emergency workers and drug prevention/harm reduction professionals all say experiences like Way’s are playing out in shockingly high numbers around Northeast Tennessee. A synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine, fentanyl is also relatively cheap and is finding its way into everything, from other opioids like heroin and pills to uppers like meth and cocaine.
It’s killing a lot of people, Second Judicial District Attorney General Barry Staubus said.
“A large part of the public thinks they’re getting one thing and it’s got fentanyl in it and has these deadly consequences,” Staubus said.
Way knew a good deal about addiction, as Russell had struggled with addiction for a couple of decades. She didn’t have a clue about fentanyl — what it is, how dangerous it is or that it’s been showing up more and more frequently in other drugs.
“He was dressed for work [and] had his lunch packed. He had gotten a job at LPI in Johnson City. He was doing really [well]. He had been out of jail for about two months.”
‘This might’ve been the time that turned his life around’
Way had seen her son get clean and relapse multiple times, but she’d never lost hope that one day he might stay off of drugs. In early 2022, the pair were going to the gym together, Russell was working and Way was cautiously hopeful.
“He wanted to move on,” she said. “Every time I would say ‘this might be the time’ and this might’ve been the time that turned his life around.”
Obviously, Russell wouldn’t have been considered “in recovery” in February due to his use of meth. But he was holding it together pretty well.
“He didn’t want to die. He has kids (two sons),” Way said. “He loved me and my husband, he loved his sister. He was doing things with us.”
Way looked at her son’s autopsy report. Her frustration returned as she thought about all she’s learned since his death — the growing prevalence of fentanyl, used to increase the potency of opioids and also just to cut other drugs because it’s so cheap.
“They need to be charged with murder,” Way said of the people who sold Russell the last drugs he ever consumed. “It’s murder plain and simple.”
“My son — yeah he did buy the pill and he should not have, but he didn’t [ask] to be killed. He didn’t ask for that. He didn’t ask for fentanyl.”
While Russell died in Hawkins County, officials around the region are often approaching overdose deaths similarly. Staubus and Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy said there, all fatal overdoses are treated as a hybrid homicide and drug investigation.
“We send their bodies off for autopsy to see what toxic levels of what drug caused the overdose, we’ll get their phones, dump their phones, see what information we can gather from that,” Cassidy told WJHL.
“It is hard to prove, but if we can prove that that individual distributed or sold that fentanyl related to the death of an individual, we can charge them with second-degree murder.”
Way said authorities still haven’t returned her son’s phone. She won’t get her son back, but she tries to remain hopeful that police will learn enough about his death to hold someone accountable.
“I’m hoping that somebody that knows Josh and cares about him and if they know where he got it if they would tell me or call the police,” Way said.
As she continues grieving, she is trying to figure out ways she can be part of turning a tide local officials say is growing stronger.
“I’m not sleeping at night. I can’t function hardly at work. I can’t bring my son back but hopefully I can help another parent not go through what I’m going through.”
Realizing she’s not alone, finding support
Way began checking into Grief Share programs and recently found one at Ridgeview Baptist Church. The leaders have been a huge help, she said, and while the group includes people grieving over a variety of things, Way has met a woman there who found her 38-year-old daughter dead of an overdose.
“It’s just good to be able to know somebody that has actually went through it because the loss of the child, you always hear that but you don’t know it until you’ve been there,” Way said.
“She knows exactly how my heart feels and I know how her heart hurts. It’s just unbearable sometimes, but it’s great that I have her.”
Staubus, the DA, said grieving families are what weigh on him emotionally more than anything as his office engages in a mounting battle.
“I think when I read the autopsy reports, I see they’re 35 years old, they’re 29 years old, find out they have children, they’re discovered by the children, [they’re] discovered by their parents, their spouse — I think that’s the most devastating,” Staubus said.
Jim Garbe, an emergency medical technician and paramedic who’s worked in Sullivan County for 26 years, said the rising number of overdose cases he and his colleagues encounter are hard to shake.
“Family members a lot of time they throw all those ‘ifs’ at themselves,” Garbe, who often finds himself trying to comfort strangers after they’ve found a loved one overdosed. “It’s ‘if I would have done this,’ or ‘if I would have done that.’ Sometimes it’s out of their control.”
That was the case in Way’s house on Feb. 7. Now the man who loved to fish, hike and watch University of Tennessee football games with his stepfather won’t be doing any of those things again. Way, her husband, her daughter and Russell’s sons are left only with memories.
“He loved his family. He was funny. And now he’s gone because somebody decided to make more money and throw fentanyl in the drug and kill him.”