The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lure of opioids claims life of a young mayor in small-town Pennsylvania

Janel Wentz and Tim Firestone hold a photo their son, Brandon Wentz, the former mayor of Mount Carbon, Pa. Wentz, who died in November 2017 at 24, was 22 when he became mayor of Mount Carbon, population 87. (Matt Rourke/AP)

MOUNT CARBON, Pa. — Brandon Wentz agonized over his resignation letter.

The 24-year-old mayor of Mount Carbon had just moved with his family to a nearby town, requiring him to give up the office. He felt like he was letting his constituents down.

“You could just see the stress and sadness in him,” recalled his mother, Janel Firestone.

Wentz finally sent a brief missive to the town secretary. Then he met up with a close friend, Ryan Fessler. They hung out in Wentz’s room for a while, and Fessler left.

Wentz was dead by morning. The cause: an overdose of heroin and fentanyl.

A police investigation was opened, and state troopers sought to question Fessler. But they would never get the opportunity. Fessler, too, would die of an overdose.

Two friends poisoned by the same deadly cocktail; two families left to suffer and to question who and how and why.

Wentz’s death on Nov. 9, 2017, came near the end of a year in which the United States had a record number of drug overdose deaths. Two weeks before Wentz died, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.

By that time, fentanyl had emerged as one of the biggest threats.

A synthetic opioid both cheap to produce and more powerful than heroin, fentanyl has flooded the illicit drug market in recent years. The drug was implicated in two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s 5,456 overdose deaths in 2017, a 150 percent increase in just two years in one of the nation’s hardest-hit states.

Wentz’s family never saw it coming.

But Wentz had another side. His closest companions were aware that he was dabbling in heroin. At some point, he befriended Fessler, whose own struggle with drugs started with the prescription painkiller Percocet and later shifted to heroin.

Wentz’s family, meanwhile, had no idea he was using opioids.

What they could see was that his life had taken a turn.

A few months after becoming mayor, he pleaded guilty to DUI and lost his driver’s license, which forced Wentz, a commuter student, to take a leave from Kutztown University.

His brush with the law affected him deeply. He was upset that his classmates were leaving him behind and disappointed that he let himself and his family down. Wentz had suffered anxiety and depression since high school, and now those symptoms grew worse.

Friends think his heroin use became more frequent in the months leading up to his death.

A distraught Fessler returned to Wentz’s house not long after his friend’s body was removed and promised Firestone he would “turn myself in.”

Despite his pledge, Fessler did not do so. He told his girlfriend that he’d supplied the drugs that killed Wentz.

Consumed by grief, Fessler’s addiction grew worse. His mother, Kim Kramer, begged him to move to Florida to be with his father, thinking he’d have a better chance at recovery there. He agreed. He spent the early part of 2018 in the Sunshine State, in treatment.

But Fessler also faced unrelated drug charges in Pennsylvania, and he had to return for a hearing.

Firestone heard about Fessler’s scheduled court appearance and alerted state police that he would be back in town. A trooper told her he planned to go to the hearing to ask him about Wentz’s death.

But Fessler never made it.

Early on the morning of April 16, he fatally overdosed on heroin and fentanyl, the same combination that killed Wentz. He’d been in Pennsylvania just over two days.

— Associated Press