Of flowers and fentanyl: A Northwest Colorado couple’s journey to find answers to their daughter’s death
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Alden and Susan Globe will never know exactly what happened to their daughter Madeline on the night of Aug. 10, 2017.
What they do know are the basics. It was a Thursday. Clouds blanketed the sky for most of the morning and afternoon. Susan was worried.
Madeline hadn’t been answering her phone calls. She was about to start her senior year at University of Colorado Boulder, where she was majoring in communications. She was working in the city until classes started but had been complaining of homesickness.
Susan called again and again that night to no avail. She had a 4:30 a.m. shift at the Steamboat Springs Airport the next morning but hardly slept. Around 6 a.m., she got a call from an old neighbor, a woman who had heard through her daughter, also a student in Boulder, that Madeline was in the hospital.
All Susan can remember is screaming at the woman over the phone, upset that she had found out before Madeline’s own mother. She called every hospital in Boulder, trying to find her daughter. Alden, who was visiting family in Iowa, called the Boulder Police Department to see if they knew anything.
“We got no information at all,” Susan said.
By the time an officer finally told them that Madeline had died of what appeared to be an overdose, their only child was already in the coroner’s office.
“I didn’t want it to be true,” Alden said. “I still don’t.”
A new, deadlier epidemic
Finding the truth about what happened to Madeline over the months following her death was like filling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. More than two years later, some pieces still remain missing.
An autopsy found that her body contained traces of fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Originally used to relieve pain during intense medical procedures, such as open-heart surgery or for end-of-life care, fentanyl has since been synthesized in illicit labs, most of them in China.
Amid the U.S. opioid epidemic, in which an estimated 27 million people are hooked on painkillers or cheaper alternatives, an even darker crisis has emerged in the past three years.
In his new book, “Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating The Deadliest Wave Of The Opioid Epidemic,” journalist Ben Westhoff explores the recent scourge of the deadly drug.
According to his book, fentanyl was not a prevalent substance on the black market until about three years ago. Even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency did not expect it would ever be a problem. But because of its potency, drug dealers have since found that cutting fentanyl into substances like prescription pills, heroin and cocaine can increase profits.
Since then, overdoses from fentanyl have skyrocketed — almost 30,000 people died from the substance in 2017, according to the CDC — even as death rates from prescription pills and heroin have declined in recent years.
“It started out as an opioid epidemic, then heroin, but now it’s a fentanyl epidemic,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey told The New York Times in 2016.
Recent celebrity deaths, including the singers Prince and Mac Miller, have been attributed to fentanyl overdoses. In both cases, the men unwittingly took the substance, which was laced into pills.
“Most people do not want fentanyl,” Westhoff told NPR host Terry Gross during a recent episode of Fresh Air. “They don’t realize that it’s in their heroin or it’s in these fake prescription pills.”
A poet’s heart
In the two years since Madeline’s death, Alden Globe has pored over articles about the opioid and fentanyl crises. Most of the victims he reads about are people who suffered from substance abuse or addiction.
“That wasn’t my daughter’s story,” he said.
Like any parent, Alden and Susan have countless photos of Madeline. She had long hair so blonde it appeared snow-white in the sun. A confident smile was indicative of her academic prowess and amicability.
Born and raised in Steamboat Springs, except for a few years when her family moved to Parker, she lived the typical, ski-obsessed lifestyle of her peers but with a flair all her own.
“She was one of the most elegant people I’ve ever met,” said Baylee Bell, one of Madeline’s best friends in high school. “I would see her in the library. I would be in sweatpants and exhausted, and she looked like a million bucks.”
Bell, who now works for an education technology company in Denver, remembers having sleepover movie nights with Madeline. They were rarely the stereotypical, Mean Girls-esque gossip parties.
“She always wanted to watch environmental documentary trailers,” Bell said.
Madeline cared deeply about the world and spent her too-few years in an ever-curious quest to explore it, according to her father.
When she was in fourth grade, Madeline wrote a poem that still hangs on her parents’ refrigerator. It is an ode of hope to a polluted planet. The opening lines read, “I am a tree hugger who loves the ocean. I wonder if there will ever be world peace. I hear fish talking to each other when I snorkel.”
Those close to Madeline have been left to wonder how such a bright, motivated person could make a decision that cost her life.
One bad pill
Boulder Police Detective Andrew Kirshbaum was one of the principal investigators looking into Madeline’s death. He also was the first law enforcement officer to meet with her parents to try to explain what happened.
“That is the worst kind of conversation for a police officer or detective,” he said.
A specialist in financial crimes, Kirshbaum was able to piece together many of the events leading up to Madeline’s death. Messages from Madeline’s phone and social media showed she purchased what she thought was Xanax pills from a fellow student, 22-year-old Benjamin Schwartz.
Xanax is a controlled sedative used to treat anxiety disorder, Kirshbaum explained, but it is sometimes used recreationally, with similar effects to alcohol.
The night of her death, Madeline went out to dinner with some friends and had a few drinks. Then they went back to her place, according to Kirshbaum. She and at least one other person took the pills. One of the pills was legitimate Xanax. The other pill, unbeknownst to Madeline, contained fentanyl.
The initial effects of the opioid would slow her heart rate and breathing, which typically brings a sense of calm, according to medical descriptions of the drug. But in two to three hours, the body experiences the precursors of what Kirshbaum called “imminent catastrophic failure.”
“Unless there is something to stop it, such as Narcan, nothing is going to stop that train,” Kirshbaum said, referring to the brand name of naloxone used to save overdose victims.
Madeline eventually ended up in her bed. Her breathing slowed until she drifted into a heavy sleep. Then her heart stopped altogether.
Because of the unprecedented nature of Madeline’s death — Kirshbaum and his colleagues had yet to see fentanyl overdoses among local college students — and the digital footprint tracing the sale of the contaminated pill to a dealer, a grand jury was convened to indict Schwartz.
“A grand jury is really good at forcing people to be transparent and be honest in a way that a casual interview with a detective can’t elicit,” Kirshbaum explained.
Using the jury’s subpoena power to summon witnesses who may have been uncooperative and to obtain documents that may not otherwise have been available to police, investigators were able to trace a financial transaction between Madeline Globe and Benjamin Schwartz around the time of her death.
On June 5, 2018, Schwartz pleaded guilty to three counts of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, according to court documents obtained from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. He received a jail sentence of 60 days, plus two years of probation.
The unanswered question that still haunts Susan and Alden Globe is why Madeline took an illicit substance that night. While they will never know for certain, they have spent the subsequent years trying to turn their suffering into compassion.
This spring, and with the help of thousands of dollars in donations from friends, they planted a memorial garden in the Yampa River Botanic Park. A celestial-themed plot depicting the phases of the moon with granite stones, the garden includes 70 varieties of white flowers with names like “snow angel” and “immortality.”
“It’s a great place of serenity,” said Susan, who volunteers at the garden.
She and Alden visited the plot in late September. Many of the plants were still in bloom, with hummingbirds enjoying the dwindling nectar before migrating for winter.
Tending to the plot, called “Maddy’s Garden of Life,” has been a sort of therapy for Susan. She sees it as a way for her daughter to continue bringing beauty to the world.
As colleges across the country become more cognizant of the opioid epidemic affecting young adults and find ways to help students stay safe, Alden hopes other parents will not have to suffer a similar loss.
He has continued to track the opioid crisis in the hopes he can find a way to help others, though reading news articles brings painful memories back to the surface.
“I draw tremendous strength from my daughter’s life,” he said. “She was my entire world. She still is.”
Madeline’s wisdom, even at a young age, seemed to outpace her years. The fourth-grade poem on her parent’s refrigerator now seems more like poignant insight than a child’s imaginative wonderings.
“I worry that global warming won’t stop even if we try,” she wrote in the second stanza. “I cry when people die that I love. I am a tree hugger who loves the ocean.”