Young Mayor’s Overdose Death Captures National Epidemic

By Kelly Burch 12/12/18

“I never would’ve thought he had an issue. Brandon made a mistake and paid the ultimate price,” the former mayor's mother said after his fatal overdose. 

parents of former Mayor Brandon Wentz holding his picture after his overdose death
Photo via YouTube

The story of a small-town Pennsylvania mayor and his friend who both fatally overdosed on opioids is highlighting the dangers of the national drug epidemic and the heartbreak of families left behind. 

Brandon Wentz was 24 when he overdosed last year. He had recently resigned as mayor of Mount Carbon, population 87, because his family had moved to a nearby town. The resignation hit Wentz hard, said his mother, Janel Firestone.

“You could just see the stress and sadness in him,” she told the Associated Press.

After struggling to write his resignation letter, which ended up being just 180 words, Wentz’s friend Ryan Fessler came over. The pair had been spending more time together, according to Fessler’s childhood friend. 

“They were the same person,” she said. “They both wrote, they both drew, they would make up funny raps together. They really did want the best for each other.”

However, this worried some of Wentz’s friends, who knew that Fessler struggled with substance abuse. 

“He wasn’t a bad person, he was nice, but he had his own demons, too, and demons will invite more demons,” said Brandon Radziewicz, Wentz’s longtime friend. “I think they were good at fueling each other’s habits.”

The day of the resignation letter, the two men went to Wentz’s room until Fessler left. That afternoon, Firestone tried to wake her son for his overnight shift, but he wouldn’t rouse. She suspected he had a migraine, and since he had always been a heavy sleeper she wasn’t concerned. However, the next morning Wentz was dead of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl, something that shocked Firestone.

“I never would’ve thought he had an issue,” she said. “Brandon made a mistake and paid the ultimate price.” 

While Wentz’s family was blindsided, Fessler’s family knew of his addiction and did everything possible to protect him from overdose until he died just six months after Wentz, even sending him to treatment in Florida. However, Fessler’s grief over losing his best friend just made his addiction worse. A few weeks after Wentz died, Fessler’s girlfriend found him in bed crying, saying, “I killed my best friend. I gave it to him.” 

Firestone, who was always skeptical of her son’s relationship with Fessler, blamed him for Wentz’s overdose. Fessler’s mother, Kim Kramer, said she understands completely.

“I get it, I truly do,” she said. “You wake up, you think about it all day, it’s forever there. You want to find out who gave it to them. ... You want to hate the one who handed your son the bag.”

Firestone says she wishes Wentz’s friends had brought his drug abuse to her attention, something Radziewicz says he should have done, in hindsight. 

“I was thinking, foolishly, that I would lose my best friend, and he wouldn’t talk to me again,” he said. “Guess what? I lost my best friend.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.