Authorities say more counterfeit pills appearing on the street in the Twin Cities

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Josh Chilton is a perc30 survivor.

"You know, I probably should have died," he says. "It’s a miracle I’m still here."

Still here, Chilton declares, after five years of addiction.

"You’re playing Russian roulette with every pill you take," he says.

Chilton, 35, is celebrating nearly four years of staying clean from the little pill he says almost killed him.

"Because you don’t know," he says quietly. "Ten pills on one day might have a totally different concentration of drugs those same pills have the next day. You’re really playing with fire."

At his St. Paul apartment, Chilton spoke with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS about his difficult addiction path to recovery. A journey that began nearly two decades ago.

"The star athlete, kind of like the big man on campus," Chilton said. "My whole identity revolved around like what I would do physically, and who that meant about who I was."

He was a 17-year old senior at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a star linebacker on the football team.

"It’s easy to have that invincible mentality," Chilton said. "This is happening all over the country to young kids who might be the same as I was when I was 17, who thought he could never get hurt, driving in the car, speeding in the rain."

DEA: ‘Garage manufacturers’ flooding underground drug market with fake pills

On a rainy afternoon in November 2003, just after Thanksgiving, he was driving on the way to visit his girlfriend before a semi-final game. His car hydroplaned and smashed into a tree.

It changed everything.

"He was one of the best football players in the state of North Carolina," Chilton’s father Floyd remembers. "He was in an automobile accident, paralyzed."

"I just couldn’t grasp how this could have happened," Chilton adds. "After the accident, the loss of that identity was almost bigger than the loss of walking or anything like that."

Spinal cord injuries left the teenager paralyzed from the waist down. During the next thirteen years, he underwent seven back surgeries. He started with prescription pills for the pain, but by 2012, he was using counterfeit pills, and at times, heroin, sold on the streets of his hometown.

"I’m buying pills that look like the pills the doctors used to give me," Chilton explains. "But in reality, I don’t know what’s in them."

He says the dealers he knew gave those pills a name.

"They can use the perc 30 brand as a means to set a price for a drug that might be completely different," Chilton said.

For U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Minneapolis, it’s an all too familiar story.

"They go by many different names," says Assistant Special Agent-In-Charge Angela von Trytek, who works in the DEA’s Minneapolis-St. Paul district office. "They go by oxy, they go by blues, they go by perc 30s, they go by M’s. It’s a very significant problem here."

The DEA says many of these so-called garage pills come from drug traffickers in Mexico. A 5 INVESTIGATES report last year found thousands are being made by dealers in the Twin Cities, according to interviews with federal investigators and state court records.

The DEA says the price can reach up to $100 per pill, but authorities say there’s a huge problem.

"You have no idea what you’re going to get," von Trytek says. "There could be meth in it. There could be fentanyl, you just don’t know. There’s all kinds of chemicals that are being pressed into these pills the person is unaware of."

The numbers of illegal pills and pill ingredients seized in Minnesota are growing rapidly, authorities say.

In 2020 alone, the DEA says it pulled more than six kilos of fentanyl, enough to make more than three-million potentially lethal doses, off the streets. Agents say included in those seizures are more than 55,000 counterfeit pills, many laced with potentially lethal doses of fentanyl. That’s more than four times the number of pills from the year before. Since late January, the DEA says it’s seized 24,000 pills—- in just two months.

The agency says with COVID-19 restrictions easing, people are going back out again and moving around more freely. With that, they say, comes an increase in trafficking.

According to von Trytek, for dealers operating a drug pipeline, including using tableting machines to make illegal pills, there’s thousands of dollars at stake.

"They can take basically $3,000 to $5,000 worth of fentanyl product that they usually receive from China. A lot of times it’s being ordered up, being shipped directly to Mexico," she says. "So a $3,000 to $5,000 investment that they’ve made in Mexico turns into almost a million dollar investment, once those pills have been sold and that money flows back south to the organization."

At the DEA’s Omaha, Nebraska field division office — KSTP got an inside look at the risks.

Assistant Special Agent-In-Charge Steve Bell used salt and pepper to show 5 INVESTIGATES reporter Ryan Raiche how difficult it is to properly mix dangerous drugs like fentanyl.

The pepper represented a small amount of fentanyl, and the salt, a binding agent. Bell mixed them together in a bowl.

"You take a little bit of fentanyl, which isn’t a whole lot, and you mix it all around," he explained. "And then you take it out and put it in contrast. You can see no uniformity to what I did."

Some parts of the mixture had a higher concentration of pepper, representing fentanyl than others. Experts say in real life that an inexact cocktail is poured into a pill press. The DEA says all of the counterfeit pills seized in Minnesota contain some form of fentanyl.

Agents say more than a quarter of them contain two or more milligrams — enough to kill a person. The circulation of these pills is proving tragic in the metro.

"The fact that some of these pills are targeting our youth, our children, is absolutely horrifying," says Roseville Deputy Police Chief Joe Adams. "Simply one pill could be lethal, and if you’re not around somebody, you could overdose or ultimately die if no-one is there to save you or call on your behalf."

Roseville police shared with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS photos of perc 30 pills seized in early March after officers there responded to four overdose calls within 48 hours. Two cases were fatal, one involving a 16-year-old boy and the other, a 20-year-old girl.

"The pills were exactly the same," Adams says. "But oftentimes, people will think they’re getting oxycodone or something to that effect. But these pills are actually containing fentanyl, which is proving to be 50 to 100 times more potent than even morphine."

The Minnesota Department of Health’s latest numbers show that 309 people died in 2019 from synthetic opioid overdoses. MDH says those synthetic drugs include fentanyl, carfentanyl, and tramadol. The health department says 106 people died from heroin overdoses and 143 from commonly prescribed opioids.

"There’s been, I think, like a 30% increase in overdose deaths associated with opioids," says Dr. Cedric Skillon, a Hazelden-Betty Ford Clinic Physician. "Some people in their addiction, they’re thinking, ‘If I just cut it to a small amount, it should be okay for me to get high, but not overdose.’ And the thing is, you don’t know, you can’t take that risk."

For his part, Chilton says he was lucky. He recalls taking up to fifteen pills a day, coming very close, he says, to overdosing multiple times.

"It’s just the loneliest feeling in the world, when you’ve done so many of these perc 30s," he says. "Trying to reach someplace where you think you need to go, and your addiction is so out of control, that you can’t stop taking them."

Chilton never had to go to the hospital. But by April 2017, he was living in a minivan and sleeping in parking lots.

He says his father, Floyd, and his mother, Susan Walker, gave him an ultimatum: they wouldn’t help support him unless he got treatment.

"We were playing games, he was stealing money… and he would be out on the streets and he would be back in the house, and it was the game," Floyd Chilton says. "A person who was in his twelve-step group approached me and said, you know, get prepared for your son’s funeral."

Chilton’s parents sent him to the Hazelden-Betty Ford Clinic in St. Paul. He stayed there for a year, getting drug counseling and mental health care. Chilton calls his arrival there, on April 20, 2017, his ‘sober date.’

He’s been drug-free ever since.

Chilton calls himself an addict in recovery. He’s now working as a media specialist for Washington County Schools. His other job is to counsel others about addiction and treatment.

"Now he’s an inspirational speaker in your community, going from center to center to center, to let people know they can beat this," Floyd says. "That brings tears to my eyes, I mean, yes, I could not be more proud of a son."

"I just want to be the best example I can of a story of hope," Chilton says. "Because a lot of times we hear about the stories of devastation and tragedy."

Chilton has come full circle. His life, he says, is in Minnesota now. One idea he’s considering is going to law school, so he can represent addicts in court. Helping them, he says, to get treatment, instead of going to jail.

Amid at the growing perc 30 threat, he’s trying to pay it forward by helping others.

"Everything that happened, and all of the darkness and all of the bad experiences I’ve had, those are the things that gave me the perspective that I have today," Chilton says. "And it gave me the humility to try to understand how precious life is."