By Jeff Lehr
Globe Staff Writer
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Stacy Krokroskia believes that some good may yet come from her son’s tragic death by drug overdose with the enactment of a new law in Kansas.
A bill signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday took seed in the Kansas Legislature after the death of 22-year-old Jordan Krokroskia on July 25 of last year at his home in Baxter Springs. The law metes out stiff new penalties for defendants convicted of distributing drugs that result in death or great bodily harm to others.
Jordan Krokroskia died of an overdose from a fentanyl patch that he obtained illegally from a former co-worker.
Fentanyl is a narcotic painkiller about 100 times as powerful as morphine. The co-worker, David Tirrell, 35, of Scammon, was sentenced in February to five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
Since resolution of the court case, the Krokroskia family has been working with local law enforcement and the state attorney general to garner support for a stronger legal response in such cases. Stacy Krokroskia said in a telephone interview this past week that blaming Tirrell for her son’s death has never figured into the family’s motives for urging passage of the law.
“I haven’t believed for one second that David Tirrell is totally responsible for Jordan’s death,” she said.
Jordan bears responsibility for his own death through the choices he made, she said. But he had been trying to address his addiction, and Tirrell had a hand in thwarting that, she said.
She has forgiven Tirrell for that, she said.
“But I feel if he was not held accountable, he would never make a change in his own life,” she said.
Closing a gap
Cherokee County Sheriff David Groves believes the new law fills a gap in the state’s criminal code. The lone option prosecutors have had in the past is to charge those who unlawfully sell drugs that result in someone else’s death with involuntary manslaughter. Even then, if the defendant had no criminal record, they often received probation instead of prison time under state sentencing guidelines, Groves said.
With the new law, a drug dealer could receive up to 12 years and three months for selling a controlled substance that results in a death, even if they have no criminal record. They can be assessed up to 54 years and six months if they have three felony convictions.
The law includes prescription drugs such as fentanyl, hydrocodone and oxycodone, as well as street drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. Groves said illegal use and distribution of prescription drugs is a growing problem directly responsible for almost doubling the number of overdose deaths in Cherokee County from 2011 to 2012. He also sees a clear need for public education on the issue.
“I think there’s a misconception that because doctors prescribe them and pharmacists dispense them, they’re not dangerous,” Groves said.
Stacy Krokroskia said Jordan’s introduction to prescription opiates came early in high school when a dentist prescribed hydrocodone for him after his wisdom teeth were removed. Several surgeries for sports injuries his senior year led to the drug again being prescribed by doctors. But it wasn’t until he was injured again during his freshman year in college — playing baseball at Neosho County Community College in Chanute — that hydrocodone became a problem for him, she said.
“That is where he got addicted,” she said. “He would take quite a few to get through practice.”
The hydrocodone was not being prescribed for him. He was apparently getting it illegally, although his family did not know that at the time, she said. When Stacy Krokroskia and her husband would see him, he wasn’t acting any different. He had not changed in any noticeable manner. She said part of the tragedy for families is that use of prescription opiates by a loved one is not that easy to detect.
The first time Jordan’s mother learned that he had been taking hydrocodone to deal with his injury was on Super Bowl weekend of 2009, but she still did not realize the extent of his addiction. During spring break, Jordan had surgery to repair his shoulder and painkillers were again prescribed, she said. That summer, he came clean to his family and admitted that he had a problem, she said.
Jordan went back to school that fall hoping to play baseball once again, but he soon learned he still had problems throwing. For a pitcher and center fielder, throwing without discomfort or restriction is a must. His mother thinks he may have become depressed when he learned he could not resume playing baseball.
She said her son dropped out of college in the middle of his sophomore year and returned home to Baxter Springs. He subsequently enrolled at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami, Okla., and took a job as a valet at Downstream Casino. He began training with a mixed martial arts club in Joplin and eventually enrolled in the emergency medical technician program at Missouri Southern State University.
In 2011, Jordan’s best friend talked him into working with him at a truck stop in Pittsburg where he came to know Tirrell. The truck stop closed down early in 2012, leaving Jordan unemployed while still going through EMT training.
Shortly before landing a job with Standard Transportation, Jordan told his family he needed to enter a drug rehab program and chose the Celebrate Recovery program at College Heights Christian Church in February 2012. He seemed determined to beat his habit, his mother said.
“He got rid of all his phone numbers,” she said.
Stacy Krokroskia said she saw a marked improvement in her son over the next several weeks and believes he was doing well until July. That’s when he apparently missed a support group meeting and suffered a relapse. She later learned that he had gotten back in touch with Tirrell through Facebook. A close friend of her son’s let her know after his death that Jordan slipped up and began using again just five days before he died.
Text messages between Jordan and Tirrell indicate Jordan did not even know what fentanyl was, his mother said. His addiction had been to hydrocodone. What Tirrell provided him was a 100-microgram patch of a more powerful opiate, the strongest patch the pharmaceutical company makes.
“If Jordan had still been taking drugs, the fentanyl might not have killed him,” his mother said. “But he had stopped. He had no tolerance anymore.”
Jordan died at home while the rest of the family was in Kansas City for a baseball tournament involving a brother. Just a week earlier, Jordan had played with his father, James Krokroskia, and younger brother in a Baxter Springs High School alumni baseball game. Jordan had been forced to change positions after his first throw due to the pain he felt, his mother said.
The narcotic fentanyl was first synthesized in 1959 and used initially as an intravenous anesthetic. The fentanyl patch was developed in the 1990s. Because fentanyl is more potent and can cause greater respiratory depression than heroin, it is generally considered to be more dangerous than the street drug.