Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation calls for action

MEMBERS OF THE Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation held a rally at the Will County Courthouse on June 16. The foundation members push for prosecution of individuals whose drug sales result in a death. Samantha Kile and her unborn son Jaxsen (poster at right) of Braidwood were killed from fentanyl poisoning in 2018. The man who sold drugs to Samantha pled to her death in Grundy County, resulting in an 8-year prison term. Photo by Marney Simon.

Marney Simon

When Kim Earling’s 22-year-old daughter Samantha Kile died of fentanyl poisoning in 2018, it was the start of a painful journey for Earling, who vowed to spend her life working toward change in both the judicial and the medical systems that she felt had failed her daughter.

Samantha was just a few weeks shy of her 23rd birthday and seven months pregnant with a boy she planned to name Jaxsen when she passed in their Braidwood home. Jaxsen did not survive.

In 2021, the man who sold the fentanyl to Samantha the night she died, Colin West of Gardner, pleaded guilty to drug induced homicide in Grundy County. West received an 8-year sentence.

On June 16, Earling took part in a rally on the steps of the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, along with other bereaved family members who make up just a small portion of the non-profit Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation.

The rally took place among a rash of fentanyl-related deaths that have occurred in Will County since June 1.

Since Samantha and Jaxsen died, Earling has been dedicated to public awareness and an effort to stop the stigma often attached to those who suffer with substance use disorder.

“Fentanyl is being used in every drug on the street, and killing an entire generation without prosecution,” Earling said. “We need to start seeing more prosecution, they need to be considered homicides not overdoses, they need to be considered poisoning not just fentanyl deaths.”

Terry Almanza is a retired Chicago police officer and the founder of the Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation. Her 18-year-old daughter Sydney Schergen passed away on May 31, 2015 from MDMA poisoning in Chicago.

“She got some MDMA from who she thought were friends, and it killed her,” Almanza said.

Shortly after Sydney died, the Chicago Police Department closed the case and classified it as non-criminal. But, Almanza’s research showed that Illinois has a drug-induced homicide statute, which was enacted in 1989. She pressed for her daughter’s case to be reopened, eventually leading to the conviction of two men for Sydney’s death.

“I thought, as a Chicago police officer and this was as difficult as it was for me to get just an investigation, how could these other mothers do this? So, I created Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation, which is now a nationwide organization,” she said.

Almanza said there’s no real rhyme or reason to why fentanyl is used to lace other drugs, other than it can be a moneymaker for drug dealers.

“Greed. Cheaper. They can increase the amount. And they don’t care. They don’t care,” Almanza said. “For every one that dies, 500 more are in line to try it the next day.”

The foundation invited Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow, all Will County mayors, members of local and county government, and members of Will County law enforcement to the rally. While Glasgow’s office messaged that they were unable to attend, Will County Coroner Laurie Summers as well as Deputy Chief Coroner Michael VanOver were on hand to talk about the issue to anyone who wanted to listen.

For VanOver, it’s personal.

“I’m out here today because we support this, and I lost my daughter,” he said.

VanOver’s 30-year-old daughter Jillian Hansen died on May 1, 2018 of fentanyl poisoning.

“They’re using it in heroin and cocaine to cut it,” VanOver said of the epidemic. “By doing that, it makes it cheaper... and it’s 10 times more deadly than morphine. It’s bad, and last week we just got slammed with it. There always seems to be one more who will pick up the slack after [someone dies].”

As a parent who lost a child as well as a coroner, VanOver said the message to the community is that the coroner’s office is committed to fighting the crisis.

“We understand we’re not going to stop, if we save one life by getting this out. The coroner decided that she wanted to get this out, let people know, and we’re going to continue to do this,” VanOver said. “We don’t want this to be a flash in the pan, yesterday’s news, we want to keep this in the media to make people aware of what’s going on. It’s got to stay out there, people have got to know not to trust what they’re buying or using.”

Part of the effort of the Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation is to change the culture around how the public perceives these deaths. The group works to refocus the conversation, tossing aside the idea that those who have died were somehow just drug addicts, and focusing on the lives they led, the people who loved them and who they loved, and their right to receive justice.

One part of that effort is to change the terminology.

“These are not overdoses, these are poisonings,” Almanza said. “An overdose is when you take too much of something that is prescribed to you. What is the recommended dosage of heroin, carfentanil, MDMA? There is none. These are poisonings. When a person dies from alcohol, we call it an alcohol poisoning, and that’s legal. So, why wouldn’t these be poisonings as well?”

When the group started seven years ago, Almanza said sometimes she was all alone in an effort like what took place last week in Joliet. But, since then, the group has grown to nationwide status, and was even invited to participate in an opioid summit with the DEA earlier this month.

“Were moving in the direction we need to, not fast enough, but it’s a bit disheartening to know that the State’s Attorney didn’t come down, that none of the sheriffs are here, that none of the media is here,” she said.

Under state law a person commits drug-induced homicide “by unlawfully delivering a controlled substance to another, and any person's death is caused by the injection, inhalation, absorption, or ingestion of any amount of that controlled substance.”

Drug-induced homicide is a Class X felony, and carries a term of imprisonment of up to 30 years or an extended term of not less than 30 years and not more than 60 years.

Almanza said the message of the foundation is above all else, education and action.

“When you’re struggling with substance use disorder or you’re just experimenting, one pill and you’re done, they paid with their lives,” she said. “Why wouldn’t we think that there should be accountability on the person who peddled that poison?”

As of Tuesday, June 21, the Will County Coroner’s Office had reported a total of 18 fentanyl-related deaths so far in the month of June.

“It is so important that the public understands that these drugs don’t discriminate,” Earling said.