I-Team: Drug linked to 14 deaths in RI

Paul Desrochers was valedictorian of his high school class. He was a young man with a bright future, working full-time and living in Woonsocket.

Then suddenly, the 25-year-old was dead, the victim of a mysterious new drug.

"My kid is a good kid. He's not a kid on the streets. He worked. This drug killed him," said Debbie Parenteau, who got the call on Super Bowl Sunday.

Woonsocket police found her son's body inside his apartment and told her he died almost instantly.

"He's never going to have children. He's never going to have a wife. He's never going to have nothing everybody else has. I just want something done. I don't think this is right," Parenteau said.

"It was heroin, was what they told us, originally," said Paul Parenteau, Desrochers's step-father.

Desrochers's step-father and mother would later learn it wasn't heroin, but a new, never-before-seen designer drug implicated in 14 deaths in Rhode Island this year.

It's called acetyl fentanyl, a man-made version of a powerful opiate found in hospitals. Experts say it's created in underground labs by someone with chemistry knowledge.

In June, two Woonsocket men were charged with selling the designer drug, but they were not charged in connection with the deaths.

Victor Burgos was sentenced in November to three years in federal prison after he admitted to possessing and distributing acetyl fentanyl. Charges against co-defendant Joshua Rojas were later dropped.

"There's no way they could not know what they were selling. There's no way," Paul Parenteau said.

Burgos told investigators he thought he was selling heroin. Court documents show he apparently knew about the acetyl fentanyl deaths in June.

In an affidavit, a Drug Enforcement Administration officer said Burgos threatened an informant, saying, "I have nothing to lose and I'm going to spend the rest of my life in jail because of all those overdose deaths."

But the U.S. Attorney's Office told NBC 10 that there's no evidence Burgos was responsible for the overdose deaths.

Desrochers's family said they won't be satisfied until someone is prosecuted in their son's case, and the 13 others.

"And 14 people are dead? Fourteen people are dead. It's just not possible," Paul Parenteau said. "The people cooking this up ought to be getting close to a lifetime sentence because they're pretty much killing everybody they're selling it to."

While Burgos' case may be over, the I-Team learned acetyl fentanyl is still being sold on New England streets.

In October, the state Health Department warned that the designer drug is popping up in pill form -- tablets that look like Oxycodone, but are far more potent.

Those who've used the drug and survived say it's more powerful than heroin, and more deadly.

"I'd say it's a hundred times stronger than heroin. It's so potent that if you snort it, it could kill you. It will take you to your knees and make you tremble," said Jason Moore, a recovering addict.

He thought it was heroin.

"I did. And then, people were like, this is this new stuff. I'm like, 'What is it?'" Moore said.

Moore is now clean and sober, celebrating one year in recovery the day we interviewed him in October. But before that came a frightening experience with acetyl fentanyl.

"You're just totally out of it. You don't know where you are," Moore said. "You might as well just be in a coffin."

That's exactly where the 14 people who injected acetyl fentanyl ended up.

Investigators at the medical examiner's office in Providence realized something strange was happening when a cluster of the first 10 victims arrived, all from Woonsocket, and all within less than a month.

Rhode Island saw more than 200 deaths from drug overdoses last year. That means investigators here see four bodies each week -- deaths that could have been prevented. Many of them are young people.

"I don't want my son to die in vain. I don't," Debbie Parenteau said.

That's one reason Paul Desrochers's family hopes to find the 13 other families who also lost loved ones to acetyl fentanyl.

"I just want to see the other families come forward and put some pressure on the government to go and look into this more," Paul Parenteau said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said the investigation into the 14 deaths is still an open matter, with several federal agencies involved. But a spokesman said he couldn't comment on whether more arrests could be coming.