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Fentanyl's lethal toll felt by local family

A Greene County man learned last Monday that trafficking fentanyl meant that he was getting a 20-year prison sentence. But one Greene County mother says she would gladly trade places with the man. The drug he trafficked killed her son.

“He’s getting 20 years, but do you know what I would do to be able to see or hear my son’s voice just one more time? I don’t sleep; I don’t eat,” said Tonya Shifflett. “They say time heals, but it doesn’t.”

Her son Austin Wayne Harlow died a year ago at age 21.

His death was one of the 38 fatal fentanyl overdoses in the first three quarters of 2022 in the Blue Ridge Health District. These numbers, the latest data points for Charlottesville and five surrounding counties, show a toll that matches the grim record for all of 2021.

“Any loss of life due to an overdose is one too many,” Kathryn Goodman, the district’s communications director, told The Daily Progress.

For Shifflett, there are steps she’s taking to try to improve the world after her son’s death. She recently donated a photograph of Austin for a billboard placed along a Lynchburg highway by a non-profit group called 4ThemWeFight. The group notes that fentanyl poisoning is now the leading cause of death for people age 18-45.

A synthetic opioid, fentanyl can be a legal component of prescription pain-relief medications, but drug dealers have found they can add it to heroin to bolster the intoxicating effects. Fentanyl is so toxic that as little as two thousandths of a gram can be lethal.

The man convicted of providing the fentanyl to Austin, 41-year-old Michael Watkins Hayer, seemed aware of the hazards.

In recorded phone calls that buttressed the federal case against him, Hayer would warn his girlfriend and his son, both of whom he enlisted as pushers while jailed. The calls show that Hayer told them not to use fentanyl or even touch the packaging without wearing gloves.

“Fentanyl… dope… methamphetamine ain’t nothing to f**k with,” Hayer instructed his son in one phone call, according to court records.

“You’re telling your own child not to use it, but you go ahead and sell it to people,” said Shifflett. “You’re killing your customers.”

Shifflett says that addiction runs in her family and that she’s not immune. She says she successfully beat a cocaine addiction and asserts that her son might have beaten his habit— if Hayer hadn’t been so relentless.

“Just get to f***ing Carolina,” an FBI agent’s affidavit indicates Hayer instructed his girlfriend in another recorded call, “and get me some ***damn drugs.”

In January of 2022, six weeks before his death, Shifflett says that her son came into her apartment to say he was off the drugs.

“I’ll never forget, he walked through the door right there and said, ‘Mom, I feel so good; I feel like me again,’” she recalls.

A few weeks later, her son was slated to have a job interview with a food distribution company in the Shenandoah Valley, but a snowfall rendered the trip impossible.

“He just got really down, really frustrated,” said Shifflett. “Recovering addicts get really frustrated.”

His mother says the aborted job interview helped launch her son’s final downward spiral.

Just after midnight on the morning of Feb. 19, Harlow’s girlfriend found him cold and blue on the floor of his father’s apartment, says Shifflett, who says that emergency responders performed heroic measures. But the damage was done. By the time Shifflett was called to the University of Virginia Hospital later that morning, she says her son’s body was broken beyond repair.

Her sister took a photograph of her embracing her intubated and dying son.

“I think kids and parents need to see this so they realize what is going on in the world,” said Shifflett. “That was the hardest day.”

Sitting in her bright Ruckersville apartment, Shifflett recalls a young man who never forgot a birthday or holiday, and made sure to send her gifts. She won’t touch the most recent bottle of Coach perfume.

“Every holiday I got flowers,” said Shifflett. “He made sure he brought everyone presents.”

When her son was at his father’s house, Shifflett says he would call his mother every day and regale her with tales about deer hunting, about fishing at nearby Twin Lakes or helping his father with masonry projects.

“I can’t hardly leave this house,” said Shifflett. “I feel like I have Austin right here.”

Zach Shifflett, Austin’s older brother by nine years, says he took pride in his little brother getting picked for the little league baseball all-star team. Eventually, Austin grew tall— 6’4”— and played football for William Monroe High School. The brothers would sometimes work side-by-side at their uncle’s carpet cleaning business and then play the Call of Duty video game.

“We were really close growing up,” says Zach. “He had an old soul.”

On Wednesday, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, told a U.S. Senate panel that deaths from fentanyl constitute the “single greatest challenge we face as a country.” That same day the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Narcan, a spray version of naloxone, for distribution without a prescription. This compound, which the Blue Ridge Health District provides for free, has been credited with saving thousands of lives from opioid overdoses.

Shifflett says that Narcan wasn’t an option for Austin because he was alone when he overdosed. She hopes to save lives by getting the word out about fentanyl with a billboard of her own.

She says that donations from local businesses and groups will result this summer in a billboard about Austin along U.S. Route 29 in Greene.

“If it just saves one life, that’s a big deal,” said Shifflett.

On Monday at the federal courthouse Shifflett says she told Hayer during his sentencing that she forgave him, and three others— Austin’s girlfriend, brother Zach, and his father— read their impact statements.

“He showed no remorse,” said Shifflett. “He was yawning while we were talking.”

Hayer’s lawyer, Donald R. Pender, did not return messages left with his office.

By his own admission, Hayer sold Austin Harlow a “half-brick,” 25 packages, of fentanyl. The drug had been packaged in small, waxed envelopes stamped with a decoration such as the logo of the Walt Disney movie “Toy Story.” Harlow had been told to sell them for $8 per envelope. However, he first sampled the product and died, according to the court record, of acute fentanyl toxicity.

“He just got down and he didn’t get a chance to get back up,” said Shifflett.


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