Fentanyl killed the children of Acadiana mothers Casey Leleux, Denise Konow and Christy Couvillier. Their children died not knowing they were taking the synthetic opioid behind a spiraling national public health crisis.
Leleux’s daughter took what she thought was Xanax; Konow’s daughter: pain medication; and Couviller’s son: ecstasy.
“It’s bad, and we’re losing an entire generation,” Leleux says. “This drug crosses every financial [line], race, religion. It’s hitting everybody. It is not discriminating.”
Overdose deaths in Lafayette Parish have climbed 328% since 2015, according to data provided by the Lafayette Parish Coroner’s Office. Of 137 deaths in 2021, 73% came back positive for fentanyl.
As opioid and fentanyl-related deaths rise in Acadiana, these mothers are reframing their children’s deaths to bring awareness, promote safety and seek justice for those affected by substance abuse.
Leleux, Konow and Couvillier are leading a local chapter of Millie Mattered, an organization formed by Lilly Harvey in Alexandria after her daughter, Lillie “Millie” Harvey, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2017. Millie was not a drug user, Lilly says. She was taking what she believed to be another medication, and it happened to be laced with fentanyl.
Unexpected encounters are a common cause of death. Fentanyl is often found in other drugs; an estimated 4 out of every 10 pills bought on the street contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl, according to drug enforcement research.
Millie Mattered was instrumental in passing a new law establishing a second-degree murder charge for those who provide fatal doses of fentany-laced drugs. Members of the organization have used their platform to distribute doses of the life-saving overdose drug Narcan and to humanize victims of the epidemic.
Their advocacy isn’t just combating a crisis. It’s confronting a lethal stigma around addiction.
“I am under no illusions. I know my child was an addict,” Konow says, “but I also know my child would have never done fentanyl.”
Lyric “Bebop” Verrett April 9, 2001 – April 13, 2022
“Bebop” is what everyone called Leleux’s daughter Lyric. She was an in-demand tattoo artist, touring parlors in other states and publishing one of her designs in a magazine.
“Since she could hold a crayon, she was drawing flowers and suns and people,” Leleux says. “She always loved to be a little unique for Halloween; she would dress like Captain Jack Sparrow instead of like a princess.”
Bebop struggled with addiction since high school, attended rehab twice and relapsed both times. One night, she bought what she thought was a prescription anti-anxiety medication from a man in a pharmacy parking lot. It was laced with fentanyl.
“It was like another night,” Leleux says. “She took a Xanax, and she went to sleep. And she never woke up.”
Leleux wants her daughter to be remembered as a kind and sweet person. She struggled with her demons, but she was loving and generous.
“There are days where I go lay with her urn and photo album and fall asleep, as much as you snuggle with that urn,” she says. “It never warms up. It’s cold and it is final.”
Leleux’s story was one of many that brought Millie Mattered to Baton Rouge. The Legislature passed “Millie’s Law,” which the governor signed last month. Under the law, someone who provides a fatal dose of fentanyl can be charged with second-degree murder. The penalty is a minimum five-year sentence with no possibility of parole within the first five years.
A history of drug addiction is common among fentanyl overdose deaths. But as these mothers see it, their children were poisoned.
“I was one of the only ones and possibly the only one in the South that had ever gotten any conviction for their child’s poisoning,” Harvey says. “And that’s what I’m gonna call it [a poisoning], because she did not know what she was taking that day.”
Gabrielle Konow Dec. 24, 1996 – Sep. 16, 2021
Gabrielle Konow wasn’t the best rapper, but she could dominate a room. She had a giant personality with a laugh that could blow away gloom.
“When she walked into a room, you just knew you were going to start laughing,” her mother Denise Konow says.
Gabrielle confessed an addiction to heroin to her mother as Covid erupted in 2020. She went to rehab right away.
After completing her program, she moved to a sober living home. Plans to go back to school and become a real estate agent fell by the wayside as she bounced in and out of rehab a few more times. Her final relapse ended in her death.
“Running through the door, I expected to see Gabrielle with the ambulance and her crying. … I run in and there’s a cop there and he says, ‘You don’t want to see her like this,’” Denise says.
“You’re telling me she’s gone?” Denise recalls asking the officer. “It just seems like time stopped.”
Gabrielle’s room is still untouched from the day she left it. Her urn sits atop Denise’s bedroom wardrobe. She decorates it to match the seasons and holidays.
Millie Mattered has made awareness and visibility priorities.
At a walk in Girard Park in March, the organization showed banners of victims’ faces and shared memories of those Louisiana has lost to opioids. It held a moonlight memorial in July to remember family members. In August, Downtown’s Lafayette sign was painted purple and white in honor of Millie Mattered.
Members use the visibility to demand accountability and attention from authorities, and to teach locals about basic intervention strategies like using Narcan, the brand name of overdose treatment drug naloxone. Although naloxone is effective and widely available, ready access to it when it’s needed can be challenging.
Opioid deaths are often sudden, out-of-sight, catching families completely by surprise.
Hunter Clemons Jan. 26, 2000 – Feb. 10, 2022
As a child, Hunter Clemons couldn’t bear the thought of hurting animals. When his father found moles in their backyard, Hunter grabbed a bucket and sat outside for hours waiting to catch them.
“He was funny, kind, compassionate. He had like a super abnormal love for animals and nature,” says his mother Christy Couvillier.
Hunter graduated early and hoped to join the military, Couvillier says. Too young to enlist, he had difficulty finding work and eventually fell into drug use. An overdose in 2019 was a wake-up call.
He moved to Florida and got sober. He later relapsed, taking what he thought was a just hit of the party drug ecstasy. It was laced with fentanyl.
“I just did not see it coming the second time. No signs. No signs through his job, his checking account, and like everything was paid in advance,” Couvillier says.
A former addict herself, Couvillier believes that drugs have been so deadly that people don’t get the chance to seek recovery anymore. In a sense, she had the luxury of taking risks with drugs for a decade and surviving. Victims of the ongoing fentanyl epidemic are younger and dying much faster.
“I am a dying generation of long-term addicts,” Couvillier says. “First time I ever picked up was 13 to 35, I could probably tell of three people that died during that time.”
She hopes her efforts and Hunter’s story can save just one person’s life.
Passing “Millie’s Law” was a start. But the women believe more can be done. Intervention strategies are available. And the mothers have made a point of using their platform to make those tools widely known. Narcan is effective. Fentanyl test strips, while flawed, can help flag potentially deadly drugs.
They are also working on getting low- to no-cost vending machines set up throughout Lafayette that contain safety kits with Narcan, test strips and resources for those who are ready to seek treatment.
Millie Mattered continues to apply political pressure, urging legislators to ban pill press machines, which dealers use to manufacture fentanyl-laced pills. They’ve asked Amazon to remove the product from the retail giant’s site.
They’ve demanded the Biden administration do more to stop the flow of fentanyl from Mexican cartels. LeLeux, Couvillier and Konow are planning a trip to Washington, D.C., soon to bring awareness to their cause with another group, Lost Voices of Fentanyl.
At every level, awareness is the core of their advocacy. And that starts with their own stories.
“I pray that people take my story as a slap in the face before they have to deal with their own kid’s funeral,” Leleux says. “Learn from our pain. No parent wants to be in our club; we’re in a club that no one ever wanted to be in.”