Lives Of Fentanyl 'Testers' Highlighted After Man's Overdose Death

By Paul Gaita 09/07/17

The death of an Ohio drug tester is shining a spotlight on those who test the potency of drug mixes for dealers.

two hooded men in the midst of a drug deal

A harrowing feature on details the circumstances surrounding the death of Ohio native, Bryan Stalnaker, who died from an overdose of fentanyl in 2015.

Stalnaker had a history of alcohol and drug dependency, but his death was not entirely accidental; police say that Stalnaker had been a human guinea pig, or "tester," for Leroy Steele, who was reportedly an Akron-based dealer who procured fentanyl from labs in China and then employed individuals like Stalnaker and his wife, Rose Dugger-Stalnaker, to determine the product's level of purity and readiness for street sale.

Stalnaker's death led to Steele's arrest and in turn a federal investigation into the Chinese manufacturers—but this offered little resolution for his family, which includes six children.

As the story noted, testers are crucial to dealers' operations, especially in regard to fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Even the slightest error in mixing the drug can result in fatalities: "It is very easy to get the dosage wrong," said Martin Raithelhuber, a researcher on synthetic drugs with the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime. "We're talking about the milligram level here. You would need a high-tech lab to get it right."

Lacking such facilities, dealers can turn to individuals to determine the efficacy of their mixes. The dangers are immediate and inherent to the job, but for some users, the risk is worth the immediate and constant availability of drugs. "You don't have to worry about getting drugs," said Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. 

Stalnaker's wife, Rose Dugger-Stalnaker, echoes that desperate frame of mind when recalling her experiences as a tester. "You can't think of anything else [except the drugs]," she said. "We never had to pay for it. We were there when they would mix it up. We would scrape the mixers and the plates. Heck, they would throw it at us." 

According to police, Stalnaker, who began using heroin after successfully battling an alcohol addiction, became a tester for Steele and his girlfriend, Sabrina Robinson, when he did maintenance work on their property. Both he and Dugger-Stalnaker reportedly worked as testers for years; though the role severely impacted his health, he was alleged to have told his mother Diane Bailey that if he were to die, he would do so a happy man.

Bailey found her son dead from an overdose at his grandmother's house on March 24, 2015. A coroner's report revealed that he had both fentanyl and cocaine in his system; Duggar-Stalnaker said she was not sure if he knew exactly what he was using at the time of the overdose.

Police would later find information in Stalnaker's phone that would connect him with Steele and Robinson; his death—along with that of Thomas Rauh, an Akron resident who died from a fentanyl overdose three days before Stalnaker—would contribute to an investigation and eventually, to the arrests of Steele and Robinson, who are currently serving 20- and 10-year sentences in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession and distribution of fentanyl. 

The feature stated that Steele would in turn lead federal investigators to wholesale drug sellers in China, which he alleged would provide him with synthetic opioids for sale.The investigation led to the arrest of a Boston-based chemist, who according to federal records was receiving drugs from Chinese chemical companies.

These actions, however, do little to alleviate the misery of Stalnaker's family, or those of other testers. "[The dealers] took advantage of him and capitalized on his addiction," said Dugger-Stalnaker. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.