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Nobody quite knew what compelled Zachary Didier, a floppy-haired, straight-A high school student from Placer County, to buy what he thought were opioid painkillers from a dealer over Snapchat.
But what was likely an impulsive decision, made during a pandemic lockdown, changed everything for the Didier family.
Seventeen-year-old Zachary died two days after Christmas in 2020 from intoxication by fentanyl, the cheap and supremely powerful drug often laced into illicit pills that traffickers peddle online. The Rocklin teenager's father found him sitting at a computer in his bedroom, one arm cradling his head while the other rested on a mouse.
Friends Zachary had kept since third grade served as pallbearers at his funeral. An acceptance letter from UCLA arrived three months later.
Amid the mourning, Zachary's death became part of a critical and controversial shift in the response to a fentanyl crisis that had spread beyond urban hot spots like San Francisco's Tenderloin to rural and suburban communities throughout California. Prosecutors decided to treat Zachary's overdose not as an accident but a homicide, filing manslaughter charges against a then-21-year-old Sacramento man who they accused of deliberately misleading the teen.
Defense attorneys said that Virgil Xavier Bordner, didn't know what was in his product and was simply unlucky to get caught up in a fatal case. But the government saw a chance to draw a line, and to make an example.
When the case wrapped up this month, with Bordner pleading no contest to involuntary manslaughter and other charges in exchange for a 17-year prison sentence, some observers viewed the outcome as a salvo in a much larger battle. As the drug epidemic widens — overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl rose to 71,000 last year, from 58,000 the year before, according to federal figures — it is provoking an aggressive reaction from law enforcement, largely in rural and suburban counties, and more recently in San Francisco.
Some prosecutors are now seeking convictions and prison sentences that recall the tough tactics of the drug wars of past decades. And many families of victims are supportive.
"This is a measurable amount of accountability," said Zachary's father, Chris Didier. "It's a long time for Virgil, but it sends a message to others about the risks of fentanyl poisoning."
District attorneys in some counties have even begun filing murder charges against people accused of being responsible for fentanyl deaths. That includes traffickers who may sell products without knowing they are laced with fentanyl, as well as parents who leave dangerous amounts of the drug lying around, in reach of small children.
San Francisco District Attorny Brooke Jenkins has warned that she, too, may seek to convict some alleged dealers with murder.
To prove second-degree murder, prosecutors must show a jury convincing evidence of malice or "implied malice," meaning that the perpetrator either intended to kill the victim or knowingly committed a dangerous act with a conscious disregard for the victim's life. This theory has become common in murder prosecutions of repeat drunk drivers who kill.
"This isn't the small dime bag of cocaine that (people) were selling in the 1980s or 1990s to somebody who wants to go to a party and get high," Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire said. "The deadliness of fentanyl is very different than we've ever seen before. This is new territory."
A spokesperson for Gire's office, which is currently prosecuting two accused dealers for allegedly causing fatal overdoses, offered an analogy — that selling fentanyl-tainted substances is different than selling other illicit drugs and more like distributing whiskey infused with cyanide.
Defense attorneys and many criminal justice reform advocates, though, view the hard-line response as a retreat from decades of work to reduce drug-related incarceration. They say it won't make people safer, and does little to address the underlying causes of opioid addiction.
"All of these deaths are really tragic," said Bordner's attorney, Jennifer Mouzis, who argued against framing the narratives around overdose deaths in stark terms of good and evil.
Zachary's case is "factually on the edge," Mouzis said, because Zachary and Bordner had both consumed pills from the same batch of what was supposed to be counterfeit oxycodone painkillers, and neither knew it was laced with fentanyl. According to Mouzis, Bordner had advised Zachary to take a smaller amount than the dose that killed him.
Underscoring the tension is the challenge faced by authorities who say they are overwhelmed as they try to stretch limited dollars to limit the damage from a substance that's spawned vast global markets and percolated into homes thanks to the ease and convenience of social media and online black markets.
"The number of people who are dying is almost beyond belief," said Stanford University psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys, who researches fentanyl. "And we don't know what to do. People are very desperate. (District attorneys) have people in their offices sobbing. Quite a few have buried people they love."
Fentanyl killed 6,000 people in California last year, according to the Department of Public Health. City data showed a surge of fatal fentanyl overdoses in San Francisco, perceived as an epicenter of the crisis, from 22 in 2016 to 474 last year. Yet the state department's records also reveal stunning increases in the suburbs.
Placer County saw a jump from two fentanyl overdose deaths in 2016 to 33 in 2021, while in Lake County, the tally more than quadrupled, from fewer than six to at least 26. Sonoma saw its count tick up from four to 105 in the same time period – a rise of more than 2,500%.
"Fentanyl is unique," Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar said.
His office has handled several wrenching cases in which toddlers died after ingesting fatal amounts of fentanyl. After one such episode, District Attorney Jill Ravitch charged two parents with murder ; police had found their 15 month-old daugher dead in May in a house allegedly littered with fentanyl packages and paraphernalia.
Police and prosecutors are also pursuing cases "upstream" in Sonoma County and elsewhere, trying to hold accountable users, street dealers, suppliers, transporters and even friends or acquaintances who help facilitate a transaction.
They used this strategy after the 2019 overdose death of 29-year-old Patrick O'Neill and his 13-month-old son, Liam, which led to prison sentences for three people who helped supply fentanyl to O'Neill. At least one was a good friend and fellow addict, whose attorney said he was trying to do O'Neill a favor.
Across the state, in San Bernardino County, an 18-year-old is now facing murder charges for the fentanyl overdose death of another teenager, the Los Angeles Times reported.
While the district attorneys who are charging dealers with murder or manslaughter view the aggressive prosecutions as a necessary deterrent to would-be traffickers, some who study the issue are skeptical. Low-level traffickers don't control what's in their product, and may be unaware when they are selling deadly amounts of fentanyl, Humphreys said.
"In theory, it's a way of trying to send a message, but it's a message that's going to fall on deaf ears when somebody's addicted to the point that they're giving up everything to just try and get this drug," said Sonoma County Deputy Public Defender Lynette Brown, who represents Evan Frostick, one of the Santa Rosa parents charged with murder.. "It's trying to punish the users instead of looking at the bigger problem and how we treat it."
Parents who expose their children to a highly toxic opioid may be addicted themselves, Brown said, and have difficulty changing their behavior even after attempts at treatment or interventions by social workers.
Policy experts noted that hard-line enforcement is more politically palatable in rural and suburban areas than in liberal cities like San Francisco, where drug laws are among the most divisive issues in criminal justice. Jenkins, the San Francisco district attorney, said that in August, her staff began admonishing suspected traffickers "in open court to to warn them that any death attributed to any drug they sold may result in a murder charge."
"We have to send a strong message in the community and in the courtroom that we will not stand by and allow dealers to kill innocent people and those suffering from addiction," Jenkins continued.
Many towns in the North Bay and the Sierra foothills are heavily white, so residents and their elected district attorneys may be less focused on the racial disparities in drug prosecutions that crystallized during the crack-cocaine-era drug wars of the 1980s, Humphreys said.
"Tough-on-crime policies, and to some extent incarceration, are shifting toward more rural areas," he said. "I'd be surprised if the DAs there are not popular. I doubt anyone is going to show up protesting."
Gire, the Placer County D.A., said he believes murder charges should be applied sparingly. In Bordner's case, he said, authorities reconstructed the sequence of events to prove his culpability.
Before that winter morning when Didier tried to wake his unconscious son, neither he nor Zachary's mother, Laura Didier, knew much about fentanyl or the online market for pills.
To the best of Chris Didier's knowledge, Zachary had not used recreational drugs. He was a track and soccer star with a leading role in Whitney High's production of "High School Musical. He loved Snoopy and taught himself to play "Fly Me to the Moon" on the guitar.
But the pandemic threw Zachary off course, canceling his soccer games, his junior prom and his driving test, his father said, possibly creating the sense of malaise that led him to buy pills online.
He was experimenting in a rapidly changing environment, with social media platforms making drug transactions nearly effortless. Now, dealers and customers can communicate over encrypted messages that automatically disappear, while geo-location features allow parties to find each other and arrange a sale.
"So a dealer can send a teenager a video of products, with the message, 'Hit me up, I'm here at the mall,'" Didier said. "And then the message vanishes."
Zachary's father didn't learn the mechanics of the contemporary drug trade until he found himself standing outside his house with perhaps 25 people inside — a mix of police, firefighters, paramedics and staff from the county coroner's office, all rifling through drawers, scouring closets and turning the hoods of sweatshirts inside out, searching for evidence of drug use. They found none.
According to Gire, Zachary's case was not extraordinary amid a wave of overdose deaths that struck all kinds of victims.
"We saw an extraordinarily high increase in deaths," Gire said. "The dynamics of the pandemic fueled that. You have isolation. You have these high school kids who are losing these monumental, defining moments of their youth, and some are coping in harmful ways."
When Zachary's girlfriend shared the passcode to unlock his phone, investigators found the dealer "within 90 seconds," Chris Didier said, and read his exchanges with Zachary. They later obtained security footage that showed the two briefly meeting at a mall. Prosecutors filed the charges within a few months.
Then, as the case moved through the courts, it happened again. Last December, a 20-year-old man collapsed in the bathroom of a Safeway in nearby Roseville; he was later pronounced dead from a counterfeit pain pill he had bought online. The victim was Kade Webb, a young snowboarder and cousin of San Francisco Giants pitcher Logan Webb.
This time, Gire charged the seller with murder. Prosecutors then signaled they would re-evaluate and possibly escalate the charges against Bordner, just as the case was proceeding to trial.
"It came out of the blue," Mouzis said. "I just got this message, and my stomach dropped."
In July, Bordner decided to take a plea. Mouzis said she and her client feared the climate around fentanyl and the public outcry over Zachary's death would taint a jury.
Chris Didier said members of his family could have weathered a murder trial, but decided in the end they were comfortable with the resolution.
Initially felled by grief, Chris and Laura Didier were swept into activism. Their son's case helped galvanize a "One Pill Can Kill" anti-drug campaign in Placer County, which prominently features the family.
Gire said he will continue to weigh murder charges in future cases. "And if people say, 'Don't go to Placer (County) to sell your fentanyl, because if somebody dies after they take it, they might charge you with murder' — I'm OK with that message," he said. "Because that's how serious this crisis is."
Around the same time Zachary graduated from high school, in June 2021, his school counselor unsealed a letter the boy had written at 14, addressed to his future self.
"Good luck on whatever project you are working on right now," it read. "Don't forget to smile."
His parents had the words etched on his tombstone.
Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @rachelswan
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