Editor’s Note: This column was originally published on March 7, 2022.
I wish I had met Danielle Hertzler.
She had a contagious smile and a pretty face, based on the videos and photos I’ve seen. She was a tomboy, she loved motorcycles and cars, but she also loved makeup and clothes. She easily won friends with her big personality, but when she had a steak, she let it go mercilessly. She was so fearless that she once clocked a man for teasing her that she didn’t have the strength to knock him off his chair. He found out: she did.
She fell into the world so quickly that her parents barely got through the hospital doors before she was born.
She also slipped from the world too quickly, at just 19 years old.
Everything I know about Danielle comes from her family. She died two years before I met and started dating her father, Marty; he and his daughter, Stephanie, are like family to me now.
I have written many stories about death and grief, but this one is close to my heart. They bear a relentless pain of losing Danielle, and it is heightened by the disturbing void of justice before her death.
“How did we not see it?”
It was a Friday night in May 2019 when Marty came home from work and called Danielle, thinking she was upstairs in her room. The two lived alone in a two-story duplex in the southern hills of Pittsburgh.
The pickup Danielle was driving was next to the house, so Marty thought she might be asleep. As he went up the stairs, he found her on the floor. The heroin needle lay next to her and she felt cold.
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Marty knew grief. He had walked that path after the death in 2008 of his wife, Kimmy, the mother of his two daughters. The following year, he quit his job as a truck driver to stay home with his children and deal with their devastation. Danielle was just 9 years old at the time. Marty took her to counseling and changed jobs to create stability for her and 17-year-old Stephanie.
Grief does not end at the funeral or at an anniversary. As long as life goes on, the soldier of grief marches next to it, and so it is for them. They have continued, but Kimmy was and will always be the empty seat, a piece of their heart is missing.
Stephanie went to prom and finished high school. Danielle joined the cross-country team in high school and worked in a clothing store. She smoked a little marijuana, but Marty and Steph didn’t know she’d tried heroin until she overdosed when she was 16. Narcan, delivered by rescuers, then saved her life.
Marty thinks the painkillers she took for a running injury led to harder drugs. The night of the first overdose, when she was released from the hospital, Danielle sat on a couch in their living room so Marty could watch her. He spent the night calling every rehab he could find.
Call after call led him to believe that no one would hire her. Most did not have beds for young people. When he finally found a facility the next morning, the woman asked when he could get Danielle there. It would take him 25 minutes to get there, and that was his answer. They would immediately get in the car.
After 28 days in rehab, the institution sent her home saying that insurance would no longer cover her stay. It was one of many times in Marty’s life when he felt the burden of injustice. If he was rich or powerful, this wouldn’t have happened. She would have stayed in rehab for as long as needed, or the rehab would have made sure she found shelter.
However, she had gone clean and Marty believed she was on the mend. Less than two years later, she was gone, lying on her bedroom floor, an overdose that probably happened hours earlier.
That evening, Marty began asking herself questions that had haunted him and Steph for three years: What happened? What have we done wrong? How did we not see it?
The night Danielle died, the Cecil Township Police Department in Washington County took her cell phone. Marty and Steph had already seen the text messages between her and a man who sold her the drugs and, they believe, stayed with her while she took them and died. They knew his name and phone number.
What they know from the reports is that she bought heroin, but they also think that the dealer added the fentanyl that killed her.
Overdose deaths in Pennsylvania are on the rise, especially fentanyl-related overdoses. Law enforcement officials believe that most fentanyl is a cheap additive to other drugs—mainly heroin and cocaine—from dealers looking to increase the high for their customers. If it doesn’t kill them, it cuts them deeper, but the users are often unaware that it is there.
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The issue is so critical that the state legislature is considering a bill that would give free test strips to drug users to check for the presence of fentanyl.
The man Marty believes gave the drugs to Danielle is in federal prison today, but not for Danielle’s death. He pleaded guilty in federal court to distributing a mixture of heroin and fentanyl in the death of someone else.
Marty heard this man in a bar bragged about the deadly fentanyl-laced heroin he was distributing.
I’m not going to share that drug dealer’s name here because he was never charged with Danielle’s death. In fact, no one has been charged.
Not only has no one been arrested, no one has called the family to explain why there has been no arrest. Four times I called the Cecil Township Police, the department that would investigate Danielle’s case, and the chief has not responded to my calls.
In Pennsylvania, some counties — including York and Bucks — have successfully prosecuted many people on charges of drug-death death. My question to the chief would be: are you going to continue that charge in Danielle’s death? If not, why not?
The federal prosecution of the drug dealer in Danielle’s case arose from the death of a man in western Pennsylvania. I reached out to the police chief where the drug dealer was arrested to ask about that charge and why this particular man was being federally prosecuted and not charged with drug delivery death.
He said this: “It’s the hardest business to do because of course your best witness is dead. Working backwards to someone who actually delivered those drugs and that those drugs caused death, it’s a mountain to get up, but we treat every drug death or suspected overdose, we treat it like a murder case, and we work on it until we can’t work with it any further. Not very many end up in persecution, but we have been very successful in persecution.”
One of his investigators works in the DEA’s drug task force and assists in prosecuting those cases. The investigator was unable to comment on this case and referred me to the US Attorney’s office.
Margaret Philbin, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s office, said her department is not commenting on why certain charges are chosen over others. She sent me the plea to the drug dealer, but she didn’t comment further.
A York County mother of two sons who died of drug overdoses — one of them from fentanyl — belongs to a Facebook group called “Lost voices of fentanyl.” These are loved ones – usually parents – of people who have overdosed on fentanyl. Some of them believe that adults and teens should wake up as the risk of fentanyl overdose increases, but not much attention is paid to it.
Like those other parents, Marty feels helpless.
If he were rich or powerful, he believes he would get justice for Danielle’s death. Marty calls it a murder, like that drug dealer who points a gun at his daughter’s head and pulls the trigger. He is angry that there is no solution to Danielle’s life, and he believes that if he were a judge or a politician, the man who sold her a lethal dose of fentanyl would be in a Pennsylvania prison with a maximum sentence of 40 years. .
Instead, that man is in federal prison for seven years for supplying drugs to someone else.
And Danielle Hertzler is gone.
What that means for Marty and Steph is another piece of their hearts that will never fit out of place again. It means a lifetime of partying and beautiful sunny days without her by their side. An empty seat that no one can ever fill. They believe in heaven. They believe that one day they will see her, hear her laugh and touch her beautiful face again.
I hope I do too.
Kim Strong can be reached at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Fentanyl Overdose Deaths Not Equally Prosecuted in Pennsylvania