Pubdate: Thu, 21 Dec 2017
Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Charlie Fidelman
Series: Part 4
Page: A3


No one forced Junior Hernandez to swallow the fentanyl, his grieving
partner says, but did he understand it could kill him?

Part Four in a series of profiles about the escalating opioid crisis
in Quebec.

Before his partner Junior Hernandez died of a fentanyl-related overdose, 
Christophe Cote says he didn't know much about the drug.

Just before dawn, Junior Hernandez and his sky-is-the-limit friends
spilled out of a downtown bar.

They were heading to a friend's place to continue the revelry -
drinking, doing coke and ecstasy. Once the drugs ran out, they called
a dealer, hopping a taxi to his place. There, they found a stash of
tiny, unfamiliar pills called fentanyl. The party ended hours later
with Hernandez, 35, lying on a cold slab in a Montreal morgue.
Hernandez didn't see the end coming. Neither did his friends.

In 2005, six people died of fentanyl overdoses in Quebec. In 2015,
Hernandez was one of 38 fentanyl fatalities. That's an increase of
more than 500 per cent in a decade. At least 180 people were poisoned
by narcotics such as fentanyl since - but the numbers could be higher
since the Quebec coroner's reports for 2016-17 have yet to be released.

On Saturday, Dec. 16, police raided a suspected drug lab in
Chateauguay, confiscating fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that
has played a significant role in the drug epidemic sweeping North
America. The drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Just
two milligrams of the stuff can be lethal.

The Public Health Agency of Canada logged nearly 1,500 opioid-related
deaths in the first half of 2017, according to data released Monday,
which means we're on track to surpass 2016's 2,861 fatalities.

Hernandez's sudden death hit hard. His mother, flying back to
Guatemala after a visit to Canada, collapsed at the news when she got
off the plane. Condolences poured in via Facebook where he had more
than 1,400 friends; fresh flowers filled a chair he occupied in the
hair salon where he worked as a stylist, and his popularity soared on
YouTube, where music videos featuring his alter ego, Julia Coco Mango,
continue to perform.

At the time, his partner, Christophe Cote, could not accept that
Hernandez was a victim of the illicit fentanyl fuelling the local drug

Police and paramedics found Hernandez's body on Nov. 23, 2015, on the
sidewalk, naked.

For Cote, who wasn't with him that night, the abrupt death triggered
an avalanche of sorrow. They were together a decade and Hernandez's
joyous, spontaneous and impulsive nature - money flowed through his
fingers and he was always late - had taught Cote, a disciplined
planner and budgeter who is always punctual, the meaning of living in
the moment. He has since left his government agency job to pursue his
love of music as a DJ.

Even now, two years after Hernandez's death, Cote can't abide what he
says is a senseless death.

"My beautiful Jun," he said, his eyes tearing at the mention of his
body lying outside, defenceless, on that cold day. "He was the love of
my life."

But tears and regrets won't bring him back, said Cote, who set himself
a mission to find the truth. What happened that night? Who is
responsible? Could this death have been prevented?

It had been 48 hours since Hernandez died and no one knew where he
was. Cote called the Montreal police. That initial phone conversation
with a police officer, whose name didn't register in the tick of the
moment, was blunt. That's when Cote learned how Hernandez died.

The officer told Cote: "Consumers alternate stimulants with depressants 
and it creates a buzz. But we are currently experiencing a massacre. 
People are dying like flies with this drug."

Cote: "And what do you call that drug?"

Police: "Fentanyl. It was invented to care for terminally ill cancer 

Fentanyl was developed as a pain reliever and anesthetic for use in a
medical setting. When it's processed in a clandestine lab without
controls, it's hard to calibrate the dosage. At times, dealers spike
heroin and other substances with illicit fentanyl, often bought on the
cheap in China, to stretch their drug product and increase profits.

In the Kafkaesque days postmortem, Cote recalled the distress of
locating Hernandez's body. He called the police and the coroner. He
visited the hospital, then the morgue, and had to wait several days
until the coroner concluded his investigation into a death considered

He arranged funeral and cremation and memorial services, then sent a
portion of his beloved's ashes to his grieving mother in Guatemala.
Friends helped Cote empty Hernandez's apartment and pack his belongings.

Then, Cote went looking for the drug dealer.

"I wanted to kill him," he said. But once he found him - through
Facebook connections - the dealer turned out to be a blotchy-faced,
teary-eyed, 22-year-old called Greg, who swore he didn't sell
Hernandez the fentanyl. He told Cote those pills were intended for
another client who had put in a special order but never picked them
up. Devastated by the death, Greg pledged to never handle fentanyl

Here's what happened, according to Cote's recounting of the dealer's

It was one of Hernandez's friends who opened a box of the dealer's
private stash sometime around 9 a.m.

"What's this little pill?" she asked.

The dealer replied, "We don't touch that, it's dangerous."

Hernandez got out his cellphone and started a Google search of

"Let's go guys, f--- it," one of them said.

Hernandez put his phone away. Then they took the pills.

The dealer says he figured his clients knew what they were doing -
they were older and more experienced than he was. After taking the
drug, the dealer said he started to get sick and sweaty, feeling too
high, as if he was going to overdose. He went to lie down. Everyone
passed out for several hours. When they awoke in the afternoon, the
woman crawled over to where Hernandez had sprawled on the sofa and
started screaming. He wasn't breathing.

It's not clear why they took him outside.

"I was furious. Why move the body? The story is very vague at that
point," Cote said. "They don't exactly remember what happened but they
wanted (to find) someone who could help with CPR."

Maybe they panicked, too stoned and confused to resuscitate him, Cote
said. Maybe they dumped the body outside to clean up the apartment of
drugs and paraphernalia before police arrived.

First responders arrived at 2:30 p.m. and started chest compressions.
Resuscitation efforts continued at the Montreal General Hospital. But
it was too late. An emergency room doctor confirmed the death at 3:35

A cocktail of drugs killed Hernandez. According to a toxicology report
ordered by the coroner, his body contained high levels of cocaine,
alcohol, amphetamines and ecstasy. Fentanyl was the final nail, at
double the lethal dose.

"Technically, he died the most beautiful death you can imagine," Cote
said, because he didn't suffer. He didn't even have time to close his
eyes before his heart stopped beating.

No one forced him to swallow the fentanyl, Cote said, but did he
understand what he was taking could kill him?

Before Hernandez died, fentanyl was just something that was out there,
Cote said.

"I didn't know anyone who took it, and I never thought about it," he
said. "But now this wonderful person is dead because of fentanyl and
people need to know."

If his beloved Jun's life was snuffed out so easily, a victim of dirty
drugs circulating in the streets, the possibility of other potential
victims also exists, he said, convinced these recreational drug users
need to be warned of fentanyl's deadly claws.

Drug users are far from being criminals, Cote said. What's needed is
education, he said, on drug-abuse prevention and harm reduction,
including how to use the antidote naloxone.

"Junior didn't pay attention and that's what can happen," Cote said.
"All of them in the house that night overdosed, and they all nearly

Hernandez's life was celebrated by hundreds who loved him from Thunder
Bay and Toronto to Ottawa, Montreal and Guatemala, where his ashes
were buried by family. Cote has kept some of his ashes in a wooden
urn. Fresh flowers kept arriving at his hairdresser's chair for nearly
a year.

An estimated 4,000 Canadians are expected to die of fentanyl-related
overdoses in 2018.

But ultimately, Cote says, the numbers can't tell the story of a life
lost to an overdose.

Something needs to stem that sad tide.
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