American Idol Semi-Finalist Tiffany Robertson's Mom on Fentanyl Risks | PEOPLE.com – PEOPLE
In her teens, Tiffany Robertson dreamed her soulful singing voice would carry her to stardom — she won dozens of talent competitions and twice made it to the semi-final auditions of American Idol, says her mother, Virginia Krieger.
But Robertson's life was cut short when the talented vocalist from northeastern Ohio took a pill mixed with the lethal opioid fentanyl. She died at the age of 26 on Feb. 2, 2015.
"She was a young mother and the light of my life," Krieger tells PEOPLE of her late daughter. "To lose her that way was a shock and we're still suffering from her loss."
More than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year — the majority of them caused by fentanyl, a lethal synthetic opioid that is commonly mixed with street drugs like heroin and cocaine and also found in counterfeit medications sold on social media, experts say.
As co-president of Lost Voices of Fentanyl, Krieger, 56, now spends her days doing anti-drug advocacy work, supporting parents bereaved by fentanyl deaths and raising awareness about the proliferation of the cheap and readily available synthetic opioid.
"The contamination with fentanyl of commonly used party drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy has moved the opioid crisis into a whole new population of young people," says Krieger.
Drug dealers and manufacturers now secretly mix in fentanyl, which is cheaper than other drugs and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
"It's the new paradigm," says Krieger.
For more about the faces of America's fentanyl epidemic and the fight to end it, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
This new form of drug use entangles people from all walks of life and all types of drugs, including addicts as well as people of all age groups who use drugs casually or recreationally.
"Parents need to warn their children that any recreational drug use puts them at high risk of exposing themselves to fentanyl," she says. "A large number of victims are not even aware they were consuming fentanyl."
Speaking from personal experience, Krieger says the impact of the sudden death of a child can be overwhelming for families.
"The parents need help," she says, adding that nine mothers from drug-death discussion groups she belongs to have been lost to suicide. "They couldn't live with the pain of burying their children."
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Tammy Leslie says her daughter, Christina Gribbin, had no idea she was taking the fentanyl that caused her death in 2020. The 25-year-old Pennsylvania native was hanging out with a couple of men who purchased some cocaine and offered it to her.
"You don't think you're going to die from a line of coke," says Leslie. "My daughter Christina didn't have a death wish. She wouldn't have left her young sons."
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But the coke contained fentanyl, and Christina died shortly after ingesting it. The men she was with folded her lifeless body into a suitcase and left it on a public-transportation platform in an area of Philadelphia known as open-air drug market, Leslie says.
"I couldn't get those images out of my brain for a very long time, just the whole idea of what happened," says Leslie, who is now raising her daughter's children.
"Anyone can die, whether they're a first-time user or an addict, if they're not aware a drug has fentanyl in it," she adds.
Retired San Bernardino police officer Steve Filson says he never thought that he, of all people, could lose a family member to drug use. But in 2020, his daughter, Jessica, 29, and her boyfriend were found dead in their San Bernardino County home. They had snorted some cocaine while celebrating her boyfriend's birthday; it contained a lethal dose of fentanyl.
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Filson says that no one can safely use recreational drugs anymore: "People have to understand that the introduction of this synthetic opiate into our society, and into recreational narcotics such as cocaine, changes the narrative. You can't trust anything, because it's everywhere now. The best thing is: Just don't even use it."
If you are struggling with addiction, the Partnership to End Addiction can provide support. Parents concerned about fentanyl and their kids can find information at Song for Charlie. Those who have lost a loved one to fentanyl or other drugs can reach out to GRASP.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.