Ronni Baker was a good mother.
Her father Matt, a 30-year veteran of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department in Maine, speaks earnestly of his youngest daughter. A tomboy but also a girly girl. A child he took fishing, hunting and camping.
Ronni’s three-year-old daughter Claire is similar to her in many ways. She is cheerful, friendly, and smart. She loves animals, especially her chickens, and enjoys playing on the 45 acres of land owned by her grandparents, where she now lives.
Claire’s grandparents Matt and Cheryl now grapple with the looming knowledge that they will soon have to tell their blond-haired and blue-eyed grandchild the truth about her mother: that she died of a heroin and fentanyl overdose in their bathroom in 2015 when Claire was nine months old.
Two years after her mother’s death, Claire is too young to understand fully – but her grandparents say she knows something went wrong.
In the days following Ronni’s death, she cried out for her mother in her sleep. On another occasion she tried to share her sandwich with a nearby photograph of her mother. It was a touching moment that broke her grandparents’ hearts.
‘She definitely knows that she did have a mom and now her mom’s not here,’ Matt Baker told DailyMail.com.
Cheryl and Matt Baker, right and left, are now the primary caregivers for their three-year-old granddaughter Claire, after their own daughter died of a fentanyl and heroin overdose in the family’s bathroom in 2015
Claire was just nine months old when her mother passed away. Matt Baker, a 30-year veteran county sheriff, described his daughter as a loving, smart young woman with the world ahead of her before heroin intervened
The Bakers describe Claire as being very similar to her mother: she loves the outdoors and is tall, friendly, and smart
The Bakers’ story is one they unfortunately share with thousands across the nation.
Last year, the DEA referred to the abuse of fentanyl, often called heroin’s synthetic cousin, as a ‘crisis of historic proportions’ and declared it the largest drug threat to the nation. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and on the streets it’s mixed into drugs such as heroin or cocaine to increase their potency.
States across the nation have seen a huge rise in overdoses, both fatal and otherwise, over the past few years. Maine, where Ronni Baker lived, is one of those states. In 2014, there were 57 deaths involving heroin and morphine – a 530 percent increase since 2011. Deaths caused by fentanyl increased by 377 percent (from nine to 43) from 2013 to 2014, figures released by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services show.
The most recent national figures are only available through 2014 due to the complicated nature of classifying overdose deaths. There is often confusion when declaring the source of an overdose due to differing standards by medical practitioners. The DEA believes this contributes to heroin deaths being widely undercounted.
Many states that have been hit hardest have been decimated by the highly addictive drug which is often bought as a cheaper alternative to prescription pain medication.
CDC Medical Officer Dr John Halpin said: ‘In terms of heroin users, I think they say now that 75% of those became addicted to prescription opioids prior to moving to heroin.
‘It becomes a cheap and readily accessible option as you move through this cycle of addiction where you need more and more potent opioids to get the effect that you’re looking for.’
Ronni’s death was a result of the same pattern, her parents believe. After she had Claire, she was prescribed pain medication to help cope with the aftereffects of childbirth.
The Bakers believe this is what derailed her from her shaky sobriety at the time – ‘lighting the fire’ of her drug addiction.
Ronni, right, was prescribed painkillers for postpartum pain after she gave birth to her daughter, which her parents Matt and Cheryl, also pictured, believe may have lit the fire in provoking her to become addicted to opiates
Ronni was one of the 272 people in Maine who died of drug overdoses that year. That number rose again to record highs in 2016, at 376 fatal overdoses in the state, data by the University of Maryland researcher Dr Marcella Sorg shows.
‘It’s turning retirees and grandparents into parents again because it’s taking out all of these people,’ Matt said. ‘It’s tearing our community apart. It’s destroying families – it’s basically wiping out a generation.’
The influence of fentanyl into heroin and prescription opioids has been particularly damaging in the Midwest and Northeast. In 2015, the five states charting the highest rates of overdose deaths were West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, and Rhode Island.
Dr Halpin told DailyMail.com that this is because fentanyl is primarily cut into white powder heroin, which is typically trafficked the most in these areas.
‘She definitely knows that she did have a mom and now her mom’s not here,’ Matt Baker told DailyMail.com
Matt and Cheryl are pillars of the community in their small town of Stow, Maine. He is a County Sheriff and she is a special education teacher
Cheryl Baker believes that the over prescription of opioid medications is what has led to the vast levels of drug overdoses in her state – a sentiment that Dr Halpin confirmed.
He said: ‘Fundamental changes in the ways opioids were prescribed beginning in the early 2000s has coincided fairly closely with the rise in opioid deaths – making the close relationship very clear.’
Matt and Cheryl are pillars of the community in their small town of Stow, Maine. He is a County Sheriff and she is a special education teacher. Both had their suspicions, but neither knew about the severity of their daughter’s addiction until it was too late.
Ronni was one of the 272 people in Maine who died of drug overdoses that year. That number rose again to record highs in 2016, at 376 fatal overdoses in the state
Both Matt and Cheryl had their suspicions, but neither knew about the severity of their daughter’s addiction until it was too late
It was Matt who found his daughter overdosing on the bathroom floor of their family home in February 2015. And when he speaks of it, his voice is heavy and betrays the guilt he feels.
‘We never even knew Ronni had even thought about heroin until the day she died. Until that afternoon after she died. We never knew,’ he said.
‘I kick myself for not… not seeing things, you know?’
Ronni had just turned 23 when she overdosed. In high school and shortly afterwards, she was always very successful. At Fryeburg Academy she enrolled in Odyssey of the Mind, AP classes, and had lots of friends. She spent her free time riding horses and enjoying the outdoors with her father. Once, Matt says, she enrolled in a beauty pageant, but she didn’t like it.
After graduating from high school she spent some time at a local community college, but later dropped out. She took a course to become a certified nursing assistant, and went on to work with the elderly.
Despite her apparent happiness on the exterior, she was battling a crippling affliction.
In the years after her death, her mother and father have begun to piece together how she went from being the bright, promising daughter they knew into a young woman trapped in the confines of addiction.
It was Matt who found his daughter overdosing on the bathroom floor of their family home. And when he speaks of it, his voice is heavy and betrays the guilt he feels
‘We knew she started hanging out with a wilder crowd than she ever had,’ says Cheryl Baker, 52.
They theorize that she started experimenting then with drugs and alcohol, which accelerated after she graduated.
After high school, she met another much older man, about ten years her senior.
As a veteran law enforcement officer Matt knew that her then-boyfriend was involved with drugs and they began to get suspicious about their daughter’s activities.
‘That’s when it kind of escalated,’ he says. ‘We knew she did pills here and there. There were indications of it, you know. She stole some money from us at one point in time, and when she borrowed money it would be in 20 dollar increments which is indicative of pills or something along that line.’
At Fryeburg Academy Ronni enrolled in Odyssey of the Mind, AP classes, and had lots of friends. She spent her free time riding horses and enjoying the outdoors with her father
At Fryeburg Academy she enrolled in Odyssey of the Mind, AP classes, and had lots of friends. She spent her free time riding horses and enjoying the outdoors with her father
But there was never an indication that she was experimenting with anything harder.
Eventually, Ronni moved in with her older boyfriend. They didn’t stay anywhere for longer than about two months at most and at one time they lived in New Hampshire, which has the second highest rate of heroin overdose deaths in the nation. The state of their homes, Matt says that in hindsight this was another clue to the fact that his daughter’s life had begun to spiral.
With a pained laugh, he said: ‘It was just trashed. When you’re in the throes of addiction, you don’t worry about housework or doing the dishes, you know?
‘You eat fast food, you grab a hamburger here and there and that’s it.’
During her time in New Hampshire, around 2012, Ronni would also be unreachable for long periods of time.
‘She would just disappear off the face of the earth. You could call her over and over and over – text her over and over and she wouldn’t get back to you. She wouldn’t respond, she wouldn’t come to the house, stuff like that.’
After suffering abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, Ronni moved home.
‘It was during this time that we realized there was something major going on.’ Matt said.
Evidently, something major was going on across the nation as well.
After suffering abuse at the hands of an older boyfriend, who was not Claire’s father, Ronni moved home. ‘It was during this time that we realized there was something major going on.’ Matt said
THE RISE OF FENTANYL: WHY IS SYNTHETIC DRUG SO DEADLY?
Fentanyl was originally developed in Belgium in the 1950s to aid cancer patients with their pain management. Given its extreme potency it has become popular among recreational drug users.
Between late 2013 and early 2015, over 700 deaths were attributed to fentanyl and related substances.
It is often added to heroin because it creates the same high as the drug – the effects are biologically identical – but at a much stronger potency.
Fentanyl is classified as a schedule II drug – indicating it has a strong potential to be abused and can create psychological and physical dependence.
Other Schedule II drugs include Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, Adderall, Ritalin and oxcodone.
Drug overdose rates have been steadily on the rise for the last 15 years, and opioid overdose deaths have been among the highest increases.
In the United States in 2014, there were an average of 129 fatal drug overdoses every day. More than 60 percent of those deaths were related to heroin and opioids.
The introduction of fentanyl has been an undoubted catalyst in sharp increase of heroin overdose deaths. Fentanyl is often administered as a mild pain reliever, but has been introduced in the recreational drug market when it was realized that it produced a high 40 times stronger than heroin.
Now, it is illegally smuggled into the United States from China, typically through Mexico and Canada, and is cut into heroin supply without the knowledge of many users.
According to a 2016 CDC report, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between illegally manufactured fentanyl and that of a medical grade. Once it is metabolized in the system it becomes indistinguishable.
And once it’s ingested, its effects make overdose a very quick reality.
Dr Halpin continued: ‘Fentanyl acts very quickly so it becomes even more difficult to react in time.’
‘This is something that can easily kill you and can do it at a very rapid rate.’
Narcan was introduced in 2015 as an antidote to heroin, and can be administered to those who have overdosed on opiates to revive them. It can be obtained and delivered by anyone without a prescription, and some doctors even offer classes to concerned friends or family members of addicts to teach them how to purchase and administer the drug in the case of an emergency.
In some cases, however, it’s too late.
When Matt Baker broke into the bathroom of his own home to find his daughter suffering from an overdose, he attempted to provide CPR until emergency service could arrive with Narcan.
They delivered her four doses of the life-saving drug – to no avail.
When Matt Baker broke into the bathroom of his own home to find his daughter suffering from an overdose, he attempted to provide CPR until emergency service could arrive with Narcan. They delivered her four doses of the life-saving drug to no avail
Claire frequently looks at photos of her mother as her grandparents hope to keep her memory alive
Though Matt has shared the story of that day many times, it’s evident that it never gets any easier.
‘It was the worst experience you can ever, ever imagine. Obviously I’ve dealt with a lot of dead people, and I’ve done CPR on people. I’ve dealt with people dying, I’ve been with people when they died. This was just – it was terrible.
‘I wasn’t just seeing it as a father, I was seeing it as a cop too.
‘I’m trying to keep the cop face on but at the same time I’m being a dad too. It’s very hard to explain – but I did CPR on her and I was able to feel her heartbeat, which I’m very glad for. I will never ever forget what that felt like.’
He sighed deeply before reflecting on Ronni’s final moments.
‘I believe she passed away before help got here. But they tried working on her for a long time, they gave her multiple doses of Narcan and it was just too late.’
Ronni’s boyfriend at the time, Claire’s biological father, was there too. They had all been living under the Bakers’ roof. Claire’s father was also addicted to opiates, and gave the Bakers the harrowing details of the months leading up to Ronni’s death.
Though Matt has shared the story the day his daughter died many times, it’s evident that it never gets any easier
Matt said: ‘I’m trying to keep the cop face on but at the same time I’m being a dad too. It’s very hard to explain – but I did CPR on her and I was able to feel her heartbeat, which I’m very glad for. I will never ever forget what that felt like.’
She had stayed clean throughout the nine months she was pregnant with Claire – though he did not.
Matt said: ‘I would frequently ask her “Are you still clean? Are you still clean? Have you done it again?” or whatever, which would really make her mad because you know, she probably hadn’t.’
Although they had some indication that Ronni had an accelerating problem with drugs, there wasn’t a medical documentation of her addiction at that time.
About six months after Claire was born, something happened to make the Bakers suspect that something was awry yet again.
‘The first six months of Claire being alive Ronni breastfed, which was something she always wanted to do. But then all of the sudden she stopped.
‘And as soon as she stopped I knew something was wrong. And unfortunately we were right.’
Three months later, their daughter was dead.
At that time the Bakers noticed a number of similar stories appearing in the news – young people, often parents, with promising futures who lost their lives to heroin addiction.
‘It was like right after her death – bam! – a landslide of deaths. It just blew up,’ Cheryl said.
‘It’s on our local news almost every night. Maine was really targeted by a lot of drug dealers in other states because of our high pain pill problem. Doctors have overprescribed for years in the area, people got hooked and it became a big illegal market – people selling their grandma’s meds or whatever.
‘When doctors had to start cracking down on prescriptions that led to the heroin being a replacement and the market just went wide open.’
The Bakers noticed that Ronni had stopped breastfeeding about six months after Claire was born, which they found suspicious. Three months later, their daughter overdosed
Claire’s father, who is now sober and is now allowed unsupervised visits with his young daughter, later confirmed their suspicions that after Ronni’s prescription pills ran out the two turned to heroin. The Bakers emphasize that they hope to be able to co-parent with Claire’s father in the future, who ‘has made wonderful progress so far and is very involved in her life.’
Matt says: ‘It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a big town, a little town, a big county or a little county – it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s just here, and it’s here with a vengeance. More than 1 person a day is dying of an overdose in the state of Maine – an opiate, usually heroin or fentanyl.’
In recent years, there has been a nationwide push to increase awareness of opioids. A CDC briefing in 2016 read: ‘There is a need for continued action to prevent opioid abuse, dependence, and death, improve treatment capacity for opioid use disorders, and reduce the supply of illicit opioids, particularly heroin and illicit fentanyl.’
Matt Baker is fed up – and has decided to take the matter in Maine into his own hands.
The Bakers emphasize that they hope to be able to co-parent with Claire’s father in the future, who ‘has made wonderful progress so far and is very involved in her life’
Claire munches on rhubarb from the family’s garden, which sits on their 45 acre home in Maine that they built in 2003 so that Ronni could have more space to ride horses
Matt Baker now does speaking engagements across the state to raise awareness about the stigma of addiction
He now travels to high schools across the state telling his story – pleading with young students to not go down the same path as Ronni. He also does presentations to fellow police officers to advise them on lessening the stigma of addiction – something he feels played a role in Ronni’s denial of her opioid problem. At first, sharing the brutal details of his daughter’s death was so raw that it would often bring him to tears.
‘Every time I speak at a high school or something I usually break down a little bit. It’s getting better now, but that was one of the big things for me. One of the things I do is go and speak to police officers about stigma and stuff, and at the time when I did that it was very hard, because I would start to cry – and these are my peers.
‘Then I finally made up my mind and said: “You know what, I’ve been doing this longer than most of the people I talk to.” So to hell with them – I don’t care anymore, you know? It is what it is,’ he said.
Matt also helped pioneer a program in Oxford County called Project Save Me, in which addicts can approach any police officer for help – who will then take them to the hospital.
‘At times there’s not a lot of hope for these people who suffer from substance abuse disorder,’ he said. ‘It’s very hard to get them help because a lot of them don’t have insurance. It’s even harder to get them detoxed because there’s only a couple places in the state of Maine that do it.’
He speaks animatedly about the opportunity to follow-up on the progress, and more often than not, lack thereof, of the drug users who reach out to Oxford County Police.
Matt also helped pioneer a program in Oxford County called Project Save Me, in which addicts can approach any police officer for help – who will then take them to the hospital
One such client is a 54-year-old man whose addiction drove his wife to leave him and his children to become estranged.
Matt has taken it upon himself to frequently check in with the man, and encourage him to receive treatment. ‘He just needs somebody to say hello and make sure he’s still alive,’ he said.
On top of helping the afflicted population in his county and beyond, Matt and Cheryl have their hands full raising Claire.
Cheryl is a special education teacher, and Matt often works night and weekend shifts at the police station – though they’ve lessened his night shifts since the couple took on guardianship of Claire.
While Matt takes on public speaking and activism in his free time, though he’s never been a lover of crowds, he says it still does little to dull the pain of losing his daughter.
Cheryl channels her energy into Claire, which she says gives her peace and motivation to take on each day. She usually wakes at 5am – an hour and a half before her granddaughter – so she can get everything prepared for the day. Once Claire is up they eat breakfast, feed the dogs and chickens, and head to daycare.
Cheryl channels her energy into Claire, which she says gives her peace and motivation to take on each day. She usually wakes at 5am – an hour and a half before her granddaughter – so she can get everything prepared for the day. Once Claire is up they eat breakfast, feed the dogs and chickens, and head to daycare
Cheryl said she hopes that this tragedy will help Claire become a more empathetic person as she grows older
‘I think it’s something she [Claire] will always carry with her – maybe it’ll make her more of an empathetic person. I hope so. I think it’s a positive,’ Cheryl said.
‘If she’s taught enough about love and compassion and empathy that gift is something that will be able to blossom in her.’
They now look to the future with optimism – cherishing the time they spend with their granddaughter, though still in disbelief with the events that placed her in their care.
And when they miss Ronni the most, Matt will take Claire outside to look at the full moon.
‘When my dad died, my mom taught me that the constellation Orion was my dad.’ Matt said. ‘So what I did with Claire was – the full moon was her mom. And ever since Ronni died, whenever there’s been a full moon, Claire and I sit on the end of the deck and we look at the moon and talk to the moon.’
During a recent chat with the moon, Claire asked Matt if she could look at pictures of her mother on her grandfather’s phone – something she’d never done before.
He continued: ‘We talk to her about her mom – about her mom being in heaven and stuff like that – and show her a lot of pictures and we talk about it a lot.
‘But I want her to know the truth. Obviously, where there’s addiction in her family, that’s something she needs to be cognizant of as she gets older.
‘I think it’s important for her to know what happened. It’s important for her to know that her mom loved her, no matter what happened.’
FENTANYL IN THE NEWS: HIGH PROFILE OVERDOSES
An autopsy for Daniel, 32, and Heather Kelsey, 30, shows they died of an accidental fentanyl overdose after they were found near their SUV with their three children in the back in January
Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of death among young Americans – killing more in a year than were ever killed annually by HIV, gun violence or car crashes.
Preliminary CDC data published by the New York Times shows US drug overdose deaths surged 19 percent to at least 59,000 in 2016. That means that for the first time drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old.
Shocking photos posted on various social media sites have documented the real-world implications of what the overdose epidemic looks like.
On New Years Eve in Florida, a couple were found dead next to their SUV with their three children inside watching a movie. The vehicle was still running and had pulled over on the side of Interstate 4 with its hazard lights flashing. An autopsy revealed last week that the two parents, Daniel and Heather Kelsey, died of a fentanyl overdose.
Ohio police sparked controversy by posting a photo of two parents passed out from an opioid overdose while driving with their child in the back seat.
They defended their actions by expressing hope that it would raise awareness to the overwhelming prevalence of opioids in the country.
The horrific trend continued in Indiana when a 25-year-old mother was found unconscious with a syringe still in her hand while driving with her daughter in the back seat.
Ohio police sparked controversy by posting a photo of two parents passed out from an opioid overdose while driving with their child in the back seat (pictured left). The horrific trend continued in Indiana when a 25-year-old mother was found unconscious with a syringe still in her hand while driving with her daughter in the back seat
The DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment published its most recent data in December, stating that an average of 129 deaths per day in 2014 were caused by drug overdoses.
The emergence of the synthetic opioid has increased the frequency of fatal drug abuse, as its incredible potency makes it up to 40 times stronger than heroin.
The report found that controlled prescription drugs were responsible for more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined.
‘Sadly, this report reconfirms that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl – and diverted prescription pain pills – are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate,’ said Acting Administrator Rosenberg.
‘We face a public health crisis of historic proportions. Countering it requires a comprehensive approach that includes law enforcement, education, and treatment.’
Pop icon Prince reportedly died of a fentanyl overdose in April this year. Police found pills in his home containing the lethal substance – suggesting he obtained the pills illegally.
Pop icon Prince reportedly died of a fentanyl overdose in April this year. Police found pills in his home containing the lethal substance – suggesting he obtained the pills illegally