Southern Oregon’s fentanyl crisis leaves local couple grappling with loss

By Juliet Grable (Jefferson Public Radio)
March 24, 2024 6:09 p.m.

Josh Wallner-Sentle’s death was one of over 100 fatal overdoses in Jackson County last year. Many involved fentanyl, a highly addictive and powerful synthetic opioid that can be mixed into other drugs.

Jeff Sentle and Catherine Wallner of Ashland, Oregon, hold photos of their son Josh in March 2024. Josh died from a fentanyl overdose the previous year.

Jeff Sentle and Catherine Wallner of Ashland, Oregon, hold photos of their son Josh in March 2024. Josh died from a fentanyl overdose the previous year.

Juliet Grable / JPR


On March 19, 2023, life changed forever for Catherine Wallner and Jeff Sentle. Around midday, an officer and a detective from the Ashland Police Department pulled up in front of their house to deliver impossible news: their son Josh, 27, was dead, the victim of a fentanyl overdose. The only witness, an acquaintance who had texted Josh after midnight and asked for a ride to the Ashland, Oregon, home where she was renting a room, had ended up in the hospital. Doctors found cocaine, cannabis and fentanyl in her system.

The loss of their son left both parents numb with shock. Wallner tried focusing her grief and anger, gathering and sending information to the Ashland detective assigned to the case. Sentle took just one week off from his work as a custom homebuilder.

“Your shock is almost two-plus months, and then the pain starts,” he says. “You think you’re already in pain, but no.”

Josh’s death was one of over 100 fatal overdoses in Jackson County last year. Many involved fentanyl, a highly addictive and powerful synthetic opioid. Locally, fentanyl has largely replaced heroin, says Josh Reimer, Sergeant at MADGE, the Medford area’s special narcotics and gang task force. “Fentanyl is just completely overwhelming our communities. We have a significant rise every year.” From 2022 to 2023, MADGE saw a 700% increase in seizures of counterfeit fentanyl pills and a 93% increase in seizures of fentanyl powder.

Nearly all of the drug is coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically the city’s Tenderloin District, says Reimer. Small-time dealers can hop on the I-5 highway, drive to the city, and score fentanyl without having any established relationships with sources.

“I personally went to the Tenderloin just to see it for myself,” says Reimer, adding that he could have purchased as much fentanyl as he could have afforded. “There’s no relationship required.”

This means MADGE is chasing many leads, often for smaller quantities of drugs. Following each requires the same resources as a large bust, leaving the task force spread thin.

Related: Oregon Democrats unveil bill to recriminalize drug possession, step up access to treatment

When fentanyl first hit the Rogue Valley, in 2019, most of it was disguised in counterfeit pills made to look like OxyContin or Percocet, says Reimer; now, more and more is in powder form. No illicit drug is safe from contamination. Fentanyl has been found in other drugs like methamphetamines and cocaine.

Fentanyl is different from other opioids, says Dr. Alicia Bond, supervising physician for Jackson County EMS agencies. “It requires much more of a reversal agent.” That “reversal agent” is naloxone, also known under the brand name Narcan. It works by chemically binding to opioid receptors in the brain and displacing or blocking molecules of opioid drugs, which include fentanyl, heroin, and painkillers like oxycodone and codeine.

Naloxone can be administered in the nose, as an injection, or intravenously. Until recently, it was difficult to obtain, but as of last March, anyone can buy naloxone as an over-the-counter nasal spray at drugstores. Locally, the non-profit Max’s Mission, the HIV Alliance and Jackson County distribute naloxone at no cost.

Bond recalls that, early in her career, 0.4 milligrams of naloxone was the most she would administer to reverse an overdose.

“Now, it’s routine for us to go onto a scene and give 10 milligrams in the nose, so we’re talking more than 20 times the dose than we had to give 20 years ago,” she says. Withdrawal is also more complicated, she adds. With other opioids, patients recover quickly, even though they feel “awful.”

“Now we have patients whose withdrawal from fentanyl is so severe that they have to be hospitalized and sedated for days,” says Bond.

Related: Oregon’s drug decriminalization experiment appears dead

‘He was adored’

Josh was Wallner and Sentle’s first of two sons and the first grandson on both sides of the family.

“He was very adored,” says Wallner, recalling a “very sweet, quiet, beautiful child.” “Good at sports; kind to everybody; lots of friends — tons of friends. Until he died, he had lots of friends.”

An altar for Josh Wallner-Sentle at his parents' home in Ashland, Ore.

An altar for Josh Wallner-Sentle at his parents' home in Ashland, Ore.

Juliet Grable / JPR

Athletic and graceful, Josh loved to mountain bike and snowboard — he and his father enjoyed going to Mt. Ashland together. But from a young age he also suffered terrible stomach pain and diarrhea. When he was in third grade, he was diagnosed with the bowel disease ulcerative colitis. The condition plagued him throughout childhood.

“You know, he was a senior in high school, [and he] kept losing weight and [was in] lots of pain,” says Sentle.

A colonoscopy revealed that Josh, at just 17, had stage 4 colon cancer — an extremely rare, one-in-ten-million diagnosis for someone so young. Surgery and chemotherapy followed, but despite missing most of the school year (and with help from a tutor), he managed to graduate with his class at Ashland High School.

Josh attended classes at Rogue Community College for a while, traveled abroad, then briefly moved to Eugene and Portland with different friends before returning to Ashland. He helped manage a cannabis dispensary in town, and most recently had begun working with his father building homes.

Josh didn’t like doctors or hospitals, and he preferred to self-medicate with cannabis rather than submit to treatment. Though he was in remission from the cancer, he suffered from “chemo brain” — mental cloudiness associated with chemotherapy — and still partly relied on his parents, who lived nearby. Wallner and Sentle knew their son liked to party, but they didn’t realize he used anything much “harder” than pot and alcohol.

“He was given a ‘rough vessel,’” says Sentle. “I was always fearful that one day the cancer would come back — you know, the probability’s kind of there. I didn’t think it would be fentanyl that would take him down.”


Related: Oregon governor will sign bill to recriminalize drugs, expand treatment

Piecing together the story

In the days after Josh’s death, Wallner felt frustrated that the Ashland Police Department wasn’t thoroughly investigating the case, so she began piecing together the story herself. She talked to the woman who was with Josh when he died, who told Wallner she and Josh did a small amount of cocaine in the car, but that it felt different than usual. After that, they went into the home’s garage to drink beer; she also used a concentrated form of cannabis, called a dab. The next thing she remembered was waking up in the hospital, shivering.

Wallner and Sentle unlocked Josh’s phone and learned that the last person he texted was someone called “Face Tats” — his drug dealer. Ashland Police recovered some pills in Josh’s car, which were kept as evidence but not tested, according to Wallner. Later, Wallner found a baggie of white powder she assumed was cocaine in the pants Josh was wearing when he died. After a frustrating search for fentanyl test strips, she finally obtained some through Max’s Mission. The substance tested positive for fentanyl.

Wallner sent screenshots of text exchanges between Josh and Face Tats to the Ashland detective assigned to his case. The detective said the screenshots were included in her report, which was forwarded to MADGE, but when Wallner followed up, MADGE hadn’t received them. Detectives at the Ashland Police Department did not provide comment or agree to an interview despite multiple requests.

Less than two months after Josh’s death, in May of 2023, MADGE announced they had arrested 22-year-old Mason Barrette, aka Face Tats, after a year-long investigation. Officers seized half a pound of fentanyl in the Medford apartment he was using as his hub of operations.

Barrette was charged with bringing fentanyl and other drugs that he had purchased in the San Francisco Bay Area to the Rogue Valley and using minors to distribute them. In August, he was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison.

MADGE Sergeant Josh Reimer says that all dealers up the chain can be charged with an overdose death. “Our number one goal is to identify the dealers that sell someone drugs or provide someone drugs that overdose and die,” he says. “A lot of our difficulty comes from identifying the dealer above the dealer that sold the fentanyl to the overdose victim.”

Wallner and Sentle are angry that Barrette received such a light sentence, since he has been linked to several overdoses in the Rogue Valley, likely including their son. Wallner reached out to Oregon’s Deputy District Attorney Nick Geil to learn what it would take to prosecute Barrette for manslaughter.

“Nick pointed out that these cases are so hard to prove because you don’t know who put the drugs in when,” says Wallner, referring to fentanyl added into other substances. Geil told Wallner that he had talked to a MADGE detective who would call her, but Wallner never heard from them.

Wallner says that many of her interactions with authorities left her feeling re-traumatized. She feels the baggie of tainted powder and text exchanges between her son and Barrette should be strong enough evidence to yield a manslaughter conviction — or at least, warrant further investigation. She and Sentle are considering pursuing the case. Meanwhile, the couple are finding ways to bear their grief — bereavement groups hosted by WinterSpring have been a lifesaver, and they like to visit places outdoors that remind them of Josh. Sentle carries some of his son’s ashes close to his heart when he skis.

“We’ve also learned that this type of trauma brings up past trauma that wasn’t dealt with,” says Sentle. “Our lives are completely different, and we are different people.”

Related: Oregon’s new drug penalties would mean surge in convictions, jail stints, state estimates suggest

Saving more lives

The fentanyl crisis in Southern Oregon mirrors what’s happening throughout the state. In 2022, there were 956 overdose deaths in Oregon, up from 282 in 2019. Recently released data from the CDC shows that overdose deaths in Oregon surged nearly 42% between September 2022 and September 2023. Fentanyl can kill anyone, from first-time users to longtime addicts.

Last July, Jackson County published an “Overdose Alert” — one of at least three last year — warning residents of a cluster of 10 overdose deaths within a single five-day period. The deaths occurred throughout the county, from the town of Trail to Ashland. The victims’ age ranged from 22 to 63; all but one were male.

Such clusters often occur when a more potent batch of fentanyl makes it into the community, says Reimer. Fentanyl powder is usually cut from pure to saleable form before it arrives in a hub like San Francisco. Since the substance isn’t regulated, its potency can vary wildly.

Many local organizations are focused on harm reduction — providing clean syringes, naloxone kits, and fentanyl test strips to drug users, for example. Max’s Mission, which was started by Julia and David Pinsky after their 25-year-old son Max died of a heroin overdose in 2013, distributes naloxone in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties, and provides kits to several fire districts so EMS personnel can leave them with overdose victims and their families.

An opioid overdose reversal kit with two doses of naloxone nasal spray provided by the non-profit Max's Mission.

An opioid overdose reversal kit with two doses of naloxone nasal spray provided by the non-profit Max's Mission.

Juliet Grable / JPR

“Having naloxone on hand allows somebody to give it and buy time, because you’ve got about three minutes in a fentanyl overdose to respond,” says Julia Pinsky. “We had over a thousand reversals in 2022.” Pinsky credits Measure 110, the controversial state law passed in 2020, for helping make naloxone more widely available and funding new treatment centers.

Dr. Bond with Jackson County EMS reports that by the time emergency responders arrive, law enforcement officers or bystanders have often already administered naloxone. This speaks to both growing awareness of the life-saving reversal agent and the breadth and depth of the crisis.

Measure 110 decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs like fentanyl; instead, officers issued citations which could be waived if users call an addiction hotline. HB 4002, which was just passed by the Oregon Legislature, reinstitutes criminal penalties. Counties can choose to implement “deflection programs” to steer users toward treatment.

Related: Oregon pioneered a radical drug policy. Now it’s reconsidering

Often, drug users don’t want to interact with law enforcement or first responders and face stigma when hospitalized, says Pinsky, adding that addiction intersects with many other social challenges, including homelessness and the dearth of affordable housing.

“People die waiting for treatment or people go back to using, because it’s such a long wait for treatment,” she says.

After her trip to Max’s Mission, Wallner handed out fentanyl test strips to several of Josh’s friends. She wants to see the strips widely available in schools and libraries — everywhere.

“You know, they’re not stopping the influx [of fentanyl] and I don’t even know if that’s possible,” she says. “Then put some tools in our hands, our kids’ hands, so they can save themselves.”

Sgt. Reimer urges parents to have frank conversations about fentanyl and other drugs with their kids, even pre-teens as young as 10 or 11.

“It’s absolutely not too young,” he says. “And I say that for statistical reasons. There’s kids that age overdosing and dying.”

Wallner says she and her husband were naïve to think fentanyl wouldn’t touch Ashland. “I mean, I watched the news…But for some reason I felt that Ashland was safe. And if it can infiltrate Ashland, it can be in any tiny little town anywhere in this country.”