The wood framed clock on the table of Melissa Hurst’s living room is stopped at 7:42 a.m.
Inside the clock are the ashes of her son, Luke, who on Mother’s Day 2017 was discovered at that same minute in his bed dead of an overdose.
He was 19.
“My heart was ripped out that day,” Hurst told Global News. “I wake up with pain every single day. I go to bed in pain thinking of him and in some ways I feel like I failed him as his mother.”
WATCH: Parents in Simcoe County speak out about the deaths of their children from powerful opioids and who is profiting from the crisis (Video by Brent Rose, Kurt Brownridge and Andrew Russell)
Hurst lives in Oro-Medonte, Ont., a bucolic town nestled on the shores of Lake Simcoe, a short drive from Orillia and about an hour and half north of Toronto. It’s an area people flock to on their way to cottage country, and visit in winter time to ski in Horseshoe Valley.
Simcoe County and the cities of Orillia and Barrie are made up of quiet neighbourhoods of Victorian homes with country roads linking to small downtown areas that blend local businesses with big box stores and chain restaurants. Long, scenic sections of the Niagara Escarpment run through western parts of the county that turn golden in the fall.
But the Simcoe-Muskoka area of Ontario has been devastated by powerful opioids like illicit fentanyl and carfentanil, where the overdose rate is significantly higher than the provincial average.
In 2017, the area saw the rate of emergency hospital visits for overdoses rise to 77.1 visits per 100,000 people, compared to a provincial rate of 54.6 visits, according to Public Health Ontario.
Between 2013 and 2017, deaths more than doubled to 81 a year.
WATCH: Six mothers who lost their children to fentanyl and carfentanil speak out about what needs to change (Video by Carolyn Jarvis, Trevor Owens, Kurt Brownridge and Andrew Russell)
When it comes to the people profiting off of fentanyl, detectives across Ontario have described how traffickers can vary from a single person ranging in age from 20 to 60, to a small-scale business, or large-scale criminal organizations, including Asian crime groups, Italian Mafia, biker gangs and even connections to cartels in Mexico.
“Anytime we hit these groups we get fentanyl,” said a detective with the Toronto drug squad who spoke with Global News on the condition of anonymity. “Now a lot more people can jump in the game because of the profits.”
Police also have to contend with the availability of sourcing the drugs as anyone with access to a computer can wire money to cities in Southern China and have the drugs delivered in the mail.
“It’s a bit of everybody right now. We haven’t pinned it to one group, we’re seeing it right across the board,” said Det.-Insp. Jim Walker with the Ontario Provincial Police organized crime enforcement bureau. “Organized crime groups will exploit whatever avenue they can, obviously to make the money.”
“With any commodity-based crime, it’s about money and greed.”
What separates synthetic opioids from other drugs, Walker said, is the potency. Roughly two milligrams of pure fentanyl is enough to kill a person. An ounce of product can explode in a community like a bomb, leaving behind a trail of overdoses and shattered families.
Court cases in southern Ontario show how individuals obtain quantities of fentanyl from mail order websites in southern China, which are then sent through the mail before landing in Ontario.
A 21-year-old Barrie man, Anthony “Tony” Mastromatteo, is serving a seven-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to importing fentanyl in October 2016.
Justice Jonathan Bliss details in his decision Mastromatteo’s connection to cocaine with fentanyl that lead to the near fatal overdoses of five users in downtown Barrie on Oct. 2, 2016, and sent panic throughout the community
WATCH: Where is the political will to stop the fentanyl crisis?
“Words fail to convey the human cost of the fentanyl crisis that communities across the country, and this community in particular, are facing. Words have a sterility to them. Lives lost, literally and figuratively are not sterile,” Bliss wrote in June 2018.
“To put it bluntly, people are dying. Until his arrest, Anthony Mastromatteo was an unabashed importer and peddler of a variety of drugs including, most significantly, fentanyl.”
WATCH: A look at how profitable fentanyl is for criminals in Canada
The report outlines chats on Facebook messenger between Mastromatteo and a website in China where he imported almost 100 grams of fentanyl analogues and other designer drugs which came to him in the mail via the United States.
Also submitted were images from Mastromatteo’s social media accounts showing a baby-faced drug dealer holding handfuls of cash and covered in gold chains and rings.
“He was essentially an illicit pharmacy dispensing drugs like bullets for the buyers to play Russian roulette with,” Bliss wrote. “So easy was the process, and so confident was Mr. Mastromatteo in it, that he used his own name and his own address for the packages of drugs to be delivered.”
Marilyn Muir worked as a nurse at a local hospital in Barrie for nine years. She remembers the night in October 2016 when five people suffering from overdoses related to cocaine cut with fentanyl flooded the emergency department.
“I don’t know where it ends. When I see what’s happening in Barrie, it’s certainly not getting any better,” Muir said, who retired as a nurse in the spring of 2018.
The rate of emergency department visits in Barrie for overdoses is the third-highest in the province among cities with more than 100,000 residents, following Brantford and Oshawa.
Muir was not only aware of the devastating effects opioids were having on her community but in her own life. Her son Neal, 34, had struggled with addiction in his 20s after his friend was killed in front of him while the pair were crossing a highway in 2004.
“These addicts have trauma problems and we do not treat trauma very well,” she said. “We live in a society that traumatizes people.”
WATCH: Melissa Hurst says she’s frustrated that nothing was done after losing son to fentanyl overdose
Muir lived in constant fear that her son would be among the patients admitted to hospital for an overdose.
“It crossed my mind that I’m going to be sitting here looking at the tracker and one day Neal’s name was going to come in,” she said.
Neal, who held a good-paying job working for a sandblasting company, would disappear for weeks at a time, retreating from the world to use cocaine and alcohol. For his mother, it was a cyclical battle of him struggling, getting better, and then relapsing. Muir kicked her son out of their house in the months before his death after he’d stolen money from her.
“I felt utterly betrayed. I kicked him out of my house and I thought, ‘You’ll either sink or swim.’” she said.
WATCH: OPP detective says opioid crisis in Simcoe County has ‘evolved’
On the morning of Boxing Day, Dec. 26, 2016, she received a call from police at 5 a.m. Neal had been brought to the hospital after an overdose.
Neal was removed from life support after five days so his organs could be donated. Muir, who also has a daughter, would later learn her son died of a mix of cocaine and fentanyl.
With fentanyl and its analogues generating huge profits for dealers, she sees the problem continuing unabated.
“There are people profiting off the death of our children — and they’re still profiting — they’re still going to profit and it’s going to get worse and worse,” Muir said.
WATCH: Mothers of fentanyl overdose victims share their grief
Mental health and addiction not only affected those who would become a victim of the overdose crisis but for those who supplied drugs like fentanyl. In the case of Mastromateo, Justice Bliss noted that the teenager’s life was marked by “appalling parenting and tragic consequences.”
When Mastromatteo was nine, his mother crashed her car while driving drunk, leaving his father a quadriplegic. His father later died. She was jailed for the incident and upon her release, his mother’s drug use only worsened, according to the court decision.
Mastromatteo was introduced to marijuana at age seven and was smoking it regularly by the time he was 12, before progressing to crack cocaine and ultimately heroin.
Det.-Insp. Sgt. Walker said the case is an example of the shattering impact a single dealer can have on a community.
“When an individual decides they’re going to either start selling or cutting fentanyl with other drugs, they have to know it’s serious and they’re taking people’s lives in their hands,” he said.
The stories of victims in the crisis share a similar thread: a young person, lost to an overdose involving a drug they didn’t intend to use — fentanyl or carfentanil.
Hurst remembers her son as an affectionate class clown, who loved adventure and was still starting to find his way in the world.
“He was always for the underdog,” she said. “He hated arguing, hated fighting. He always wanted peace and always wanted people to like him.”
She knew that her son was smoking pot, but did not know he was experimenting with a much harder drug — heroin. On the evening of May 14, 2017, Luke arrived home from his part-time job with two Mother’s Day gifts, a tulip plant and her favourite junk food — a bag of Skinnygirl popcorn.
“And he said, ‘Mom, I have no money but I know you love this and this is what I want to give you.’ And I was so grateful and I said to him, ‘I don’t need anything just being here is what I want,’” Hurst said.
She remembers going to bed at 11 p.m. that night and kissing him on the forehead before heading to bed.
“I went to wake him on Mother’s Day morning, May the 14th, and found that he’d passed away in the early morning hours,” Hurst said.
Police later told her he had died of an overdose of heroin cut with fentanyl.
“They are murdering our loved ones,” Hurst said. “A lot of that day I remember some things but a lot of it is still a blur. I wish to this day I wish it would have been my life taken and that he could have had a longer life.”
Simcoe County is a microcosm of the surging public health crisis that has gripped communities from Vancouver to Ontario to Atlantic Canada. Nearly 4,000 Canadians in 2017 and more than 8,000 since January 2016 have died of an accidental opioid overdose, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, with most of those deaths related to illicit fentanyl.
New numbers from the federal government released in September showed that more than 1,000 Canadians lost their lives to apparent opioid overdoses in the first three months of 2018 — or more than 11 people a day.
Now, the communities in Barrie and Orillia have started to fight back against the opioid scourge. Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy (SMOS) last June released a comprehensive plan to address opioid use, addiction and overdose in the region. The strategy is based upon five pillars: prevention, treatment/clinical practice, harm reduction, enforcement, and emergency management.
Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Progressive Conservative government was widely criticized for its review of prevention sites, which ultimately found they help reduce drug-related deaths and lower the rate of public drug use.
The PCs will spend just over $31 million a year to fund a maximum of 21 sites, now called “Consumption and Treatment” services sites. The new CTS model will focus on “connecting people who use drugs to primary care, treatment and rehabilitation, and other health and social services.”
“We know we don’t truly save a person’s life until we help them beat their addiction,” Elliott said in an email. “Our government’s overriding priority is to ensure that all efforts to combat opioid addiction are designed to introduce people into rehabilitation and that those struggling with addiction get the help they need.”
Barrie was one of several locations waiting for approval of an overdose site and is currently reviewing the changes.
“We’re currently awaiting for the province to provide more clarity on their hard cap of 21 sites province-wide,” said Matt Turner, a harm-reduction co-ordinator with the Gilbert Centre in Barrie. “If that cap were to not change, there would be no supervised consumption from north of Bloor Street in Toronto to Thunder Bay.”
Mothers like Hurst and Muir say they want to see stronger sentences for criminals who import fentanyl, more community resources, and an end to the stigma of people who struggle with addiction.
“It’s murder and we need to start with that — making the penalty for drug dealers stiffer — and longer and harder for them,” Hurst said. “They’re getting away with murder.”