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Overdose deaths continue to rise; one Ellensburg family tells their story of loss and grief

Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

The family of Mateo Quintero, who died of a fentanyl overdose. From left are grandfather Fabio Castriallon, grandmother Irene Ortiz, 2-year-old niece Emma, mother Maria Magana, father Yeferson Quintero, sister Viri Magana and sister Gabby Quintero. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic

ELLENSBURG — Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is a silent killer. No one knows this better than the family of the late 16-year-old Mateo Quintero.

On a recent evening, Mateo’s family opened their home to a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter to share their story of loss in hopes of sparing other families the same grief.

“I know it can help someone else — that’s the point,” said Mateo’s mother, Maria Magana. “It’s just terrible to have this happen.”

On the morning of Aug. 16, Mateo’s younger sister, Gabby, tried to wake him and was ready to splash water on his face. But their father, Yeferson Quintero, said: “No, I’ll wake him.”

Quintero found his son face down in bed at their Ellensburg home. Quintero said he grabbed Mateo and saw his skin looked bruised.

Mateo’s mother immediately called 911. Medics arrived and pronounced him dead.

“They left us with what he was wearing and took his body,” said his older sister, Viri Magana.

An autopsy revealed he died of a fentanyl overdose.

Mateo Quintero was 16 when he died from a fentanyl overdose. His sister suspects it was the first time he had tried the drug. A display in his family’s Ellensburg home includes his favorite hat, a candle, flowers and ID tags. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic)

Mateo’s death highlights an alarming epoch in overdose deaths sweeping across the country and impacting all walks of life — including in the Yakima Valley.

Mateo is among 14 confirmed or suspected overdose deaths so far this year in Kittitas County, which is double what the county saw the previous two years.

More staggering statistics are in neighboring Yakima County, where this year’s 96 confirmed or suspected overdose deaths are nearly triple the 38 overdose deaths in 2018.

Nationwide, overdose deaths rose by nearly 30% in 2020, with more than 92,000 deaths compared to fewer than 72,000 the previous year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Fentanyl is a leading cause of the increases, authorities say.

“I think we’re going to have another record year just based on our local numbers,” said Theresa Adkison, chief strategy officer with Triumph, an organization that provides substance abuse and mental health treatment in the Yakima Valley. “We’re doing everything we can to try and get the word out on this. People are dying.”


It takes only a small amount of fentanyl to kill a person, and illegal drug makers are dangerously pushing pills into the streets without any quality control, Adkison said.

“It’s something that’s being made in someone’s basement or garage and you don’t know what’s in it,” she said.

Fentanyl is commonly found in counterfeit pills that resemble pharmaceutical Percocet 30s, authorities say.

Lab results have found some pills containing 10 times the amount of a lethal dose, said Yakima County Coroner Jim Curtice.

Kittitas County Coroner Nick Henderson said six of his county’s last 11 overdose deaths involved fentanyl, which is typically mixed with other substances.

“One little pill, if it’s the wrong cocktail — whoever cooked it up — it’s just crazy, just crazy,” Henderson said.

Unsuspecting victims

Fentanyl doesn’t discriminate, Yeferson Quintero said.

“It could happen to any family,” he said.

Mateo didn’t display any signs of drug use, never withdrew from family and was always responsible, Viri Magana said.

“We always had his friends over for dinner, he was always around us; he was a sweet kid,” she said.

Mateo held a restaurant job, helped his parents with their janitorial business and was excited about entering his junior year in high school when fentanyl claimed his life, Viri Magana said.

Mateo Quintero didn’t display any signs of drug use, never withdrew from family and was always responsible, his family says. He held a job, attended high school and helped with the family business. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic

She believes it was the first time her brother had tried the drug.

“For my brother, it took one pill to kill him,” she said.

Henderson agreed, saying victims fall across the demographic board.

“Mateo, he was a good kid, worked, did all the right stuff and still died,” Henderson said. “There just isn’t any one common denominator here. It’s just crazy. I just don’t know. It’s very frustrating to me.”

Some people struggle coming off prescribed pain killers and resort to street drugs, said Henderson, whose nephew died of a heroin overdose five years ago.

His nephew injured his back, was prescribed pain medications and eventually turned to heroin when the prescription expired.

Henderson said doctors are too quick to hand out pain medication with difficult withdrawals.

He still recalls his nephew’s son — 4 years old at the time — crying in the church.

“Poor little kids. The whole drug thing is just a big waste,” he said.

A cry for help

Viri Magana said drug dealers are targeting middle and high school students, and they need to be held accountable.

She said resources are available to help the community, pointing out the Kittitas County Recovery Community Organization in Ellensburg.

The organization provides a gathering place and activities for those in recovery and information for families about substance abuse.

Her family has kept close to the organization and supports public awareness.

“The community is screaming that it needs help,” Viri Magana said.

The organization has a Facebook page and a website providing information and support.

“It’s about shining the bright light on recovery,” said David Douglas of Ellensburg, who started the recovery organization in 2019. “What we don’t hear enough about is the power of people in recovery, and that’s what we’re all about.”

The prevalence of Fentanyl prompted state lawmakers to adopt a new law requiring hospital emergency rooms, substance abuse treatment centers and other service providers to hand out Narcan, the drug that reverses opioid overdoses. The law takes effect in January.

Triumph has been distributing Narcan for years, Adkison said.

“You just come in and get it,” she said. “The only question we ask is ‘Do you know how to use it?’ “

The crisis has even catapulted school officials into discussions about keeping Narcan on hand and how to educate students and parents about the dangers of fentanyl, Adkison said.

Some areas have Narcan vending machines that freely dispense the reversal drug.

“That’s something I definitely want to see in Yakima,” Adkison said.

But Narcan won’t help everyone, she said.

Yakima has seen fentanyl so potent that it kills people almost instantly, Adkison said.

“It’s so strong that it’s killing people before emergency responders can even get to them,” she said.

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