Victim’s voice: EBR sees 6,000% increase in fentanyl deaths since 2015 | One mom is now using grief to raise awareness

BATON ROUGE — Pam Rivas is now a statistic.

She’s one of 269 families in East Baton Rouge Parish who lost a loved one to a fentanyl overdose in 2021. Her son Shawn Rivas died after allegedly being sold drugs by a known drug dealer.

But, she’s hoping her story is more than a mere stat. She’s now fighting for justice for her son, and fighting to bring awareness to a deadly problem that officials admit is out of control across the city-parish.

“It’s so hard to put into words what you go through

Hakeem Allen is the man accused of selling the drugs to Shawn. He was arrested during a drug bust in October 2022 — more than a year after Shawn died. But, authorities haven’t charged Allen in connection to Shawn Rivas’ death.

In April, a federal grand jury handed down a seven-count indictment charging Allen with distribution and possession with the intent to distribute fentanyl, heroin, clonazepam, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana. He was also indicted for possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

He pleaded guilty to the crime, and his sentencing is set for Nov. 28.

But for Pam Rivas, it isn’t enough. She says she is fighting to see Allen formally charged with her son’s death.

“We’ve gone to court, and it’s been postponed twice,” she said. “I’m hoping that on November 28th, he really will get sentenced. The first time I went to court was when he pleaded guilty to the federal drug and weapons charges, and as I sat there and looked at him, it’s so hard to put into words what you go through as a mom. I’m looking at this young man who was close to Shawn’s age, and I’m thinking, ‘My son’s dead and you’re sitting there.’ I see him looking over at his mom sitting in front of me. I look at her, and I realize how sad she is. I just wanted to say to her, ‘Your child is alive.’ He may be going to jail because that’s where he needs to be, but he’s alive. My son is gone.”

She said Allen’s sentencing is essential for many reasons outside of her son’s death.

“It’s not just about my son,” she said. “It’s about every other person who’s been murdered by a drug dealer in Baton Rouge. And that’s what this means to me.

“I want him to be charged with Shawn’s murder because that’s what he did,” she added. “My son had 120 milligrams of fentanyl in his system. Two is deadly. I want justice for him, and I won’t stop. I’ll be happy to see Hakeem locked away so he can’t poison anyone else.”

I never ever imagined that would be the last conversation I ever had with my son”

Pam says she lost saw her son the night before he went missing on July 22, 2021.

Shawn’s badly decomposed body was discovered more than three weeks after his death in a driveway of a home on Ford St. in Baton Rouge’s Zion City neighborhood near the airport. Pam says despite friends and police searching the same property repeatedly, it wasn’t until federal investigators got involved that her son’s body was found.

She tells UWK that she feels law enforcement dropped the ball on solving the case.

“There was a camera in that house, where Shawn disappeared from,” Pam said. “Had (BRPD) even listened to me and gone to that house, there would have been evidence, I believe, that would have shown Shawn with Hakeem. But because they chose to do nothing, almost a year went by before the sheriff’s department picked up the case. Within a few months, they had Hakeem behind bars.”

Rivas said the last time she saw her son, they talked in the kitchen, and he spoke with her about his plans.

“We were standing in the kitchen, and he was showing me a Bible that he had been given from a pastor at Bethany, and he said, ‘Mom, I’m going to go to Bible College, and I’m gonna tell people about Jesus’, and I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that, and we were crying, and it was a beautiful time,” she recalled. “I was in the middle of cooking, but I stopped cooking because he was like, ‘Mom, please, you gotta come see this,’ and I’m so glad I did. I never ever imagined that would be the last conversation I ever had with my son.”

She said the pain of losing her son stings every day

“I feel it every day,” she says. “Not once a week, every single day. You think about your children every single day. You wish you could turn back the clock and have one more hour or conversation with them. You go through it every single day.”

This is only potentially going to get worse

Shawn’s death was not an outlier. It has been part of a deadly trend in East Baton Rouge Parish. Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark said there have been 1,067 fentanyl-related overdose deaths since 2016.

“The numbers precipitously grow,” Clark said. “It all started back in 2012 with the emergence of heroin. What we’ve seen is that heroin has almost disappeared, and fentanyl has taken its place. The trend that we’ve seen over the last three years is that fentanyl is beginning to appear in other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. A person who normally doesn’t abuse opioids or fentanyl just abuses cocaine, they’re inadvertently dying as a result of purchasing cocaine and using it.”

Clark said his office has seen eight probable overdoses in a seven day span. That pace is putting the parish on a trajectory to eclipse 300 overdose deaths in a single year. It’s a number Baton Rouge has never seen before.

The numbers paint a startling picture: in 2013 there were no reported fentanyl overdose deaths in EBR. There were four OD deaths in 2015, and since then there has been a more than six thousand percent increase. There have already been 242 overdose deaths in EBR in 2023. Not all of those are from fentanyl as toxicology results are pending, but 180 are confirmed fentanyl overdose deaths in 2023 so far. In 2022, the number was 296, and 311 in 2021.

“The numbers are high now because, in the past, the only person who would die from an opioid overdose was an opioid addict,” Clark explained. “Now, you have people who are using their illicit drugs and are now encountering Fentanyl because it’s laced into the drug.

This isn’t going to go away. This is only potentially going to get worse unless we take some drastic efforts. That’s what’s alarming and should be alarming for everybody.”

Rivas said Shawn was not the only loved one she’d lost to fentanyl. Her daughter also died of a fentanyl overdose.

“I feel like I’m fighting for every single person in this city, in this state, and across this country who has lost a child at the hands of a drug dealer because fentanyl is poison,” she said. “And until the government and people in high places in government understand that this is a dangerous weapon of mass destruction. I am fighting for change not only to change laws but to save lives.”

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