One critical hour. In that narrow time frame, Miami police believe 10-year-old Alton Banks somehow ingested the potent painkiller fentanyl, an illegal drug that along with heroin has been killing addicts in South Florida and across the country. It likely killed the fifth-grader, too.
The police chief on Thursday asked for help in tracking down anyone who may know something about how the boy spent the hour between leaving the Gibson Park pool in Overtown at 5 p.m. June 23 and arriving home in the 100 block of Northwest 13th Court, just a few blocks away.
Detectives believe Alton may have unwittingly ingested the drug — but exactly how remains a mystery.
“If someone was in the area on June 23, between 5 and 6 p.m., and saw Alton Banks and who he came into contact with, we need that information,” Chief Rodolfo Llanes said Thursday at a news conference.
The police chief joined leaders from Miami Fire-Rescue and the city to plead for help from the public, days after the boy’s death became worldwide news. As first reported by the Miami Herald, a preliminary toxicology report completed last week showed that a mix of fentanyl and heroin may have killed the boy, making him among the youngest victims of Florida’s opioid crisis.
His death comes amid a staggering opioid crisis that has wreaked havoc across the country, with hundreds of South Florida drug users fatally overdosing in recent years. Illegal fentanyl and some of its synthetic cousins can be so powerful that just a speck — breathed in, snorted or injected — can kill.
Alton attended Frederick Douglass Elementary, wanted to be an engineer and loved the Carolina Panthers football team.
Police say Alton didn’t appear to be sick at the pool, located at 401 NW 12th St. He may have walked down Northwest 12th Street before heading north on Northwest First Court to get home.
Detectives don’t have evidence to suggest that Alton came into contact with drugs at his home, authorities said. The boy vomited shortly after he arrived at home, and was later found unconscious. Just after 9 p.m., the family called Miami Fire-Rescue and he was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
He walked home in poverty-stricken Overtown, which is known across Florida as a hot zone for heroin and fentanyl sales, and has seen the most drug overdoses on the streets.
“He was out playing, like we want all our children to do. It’s unclear whether [the exposure to drugs] was at the pool or on the walk home,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told the Miami Herald earlier this week. “We’re anxiously hoping that someone comes forward to help us solve this horrific death.”
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office is doing more testing, with a final toxicology report still to come.
The effects of fentanyl and its variants have been widely chronicled, devastating communities across the nation and in Florida, where a crackdown on prescription painkillers like Oxycodone is believed to have led to the spike in heroin and opioid abuse.
Fentanyl, which can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin, is a prescription painkiller but law enforcement investigators have found illicit varieties from Mexico and China flooding the streets. The Miami Herald chronicled the rise of synthetic drugs, including fentanyl, in its China Pipeline series in 2015.
Last year in Miami-Dade, opioids contributed to the deaths of over 500 people, according to newly released medical examiner statistics. Of those, 280 involved illegal fentanyl or similar synthetic versions.
The rate of the deaths appears to be slowing a bit. In the first half of 2017, about 100 people in Miami-Dade died with fentanyl or its analogs in their bodies; most of those cases will wind up being overdoses.
Chinese authorities banned the manufacturing and exporting of synthetic fentanyl and its variants last fall after the U.S. State Department and Justice Department put pressure on authorities in Beijing.
The drug is powerful enough that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and police departments have warned officers about even touching it. Last fall, three Broward police dogs got sick after sniffing the drug during a federal raid.
But it’s unlikely Alton might have died from simply touching the drug. Fentanyl can take up to 24 hours to fully absorb through the skin, said Miami Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief Craig Radelman. “Absorption through the skin is a very, very slow method,” he told reporters.
The boy could have had it on his skin and he accidentally breathed it through his mouth or nose.
“Just even opening a baggie can spread it through the air in fine particles, which if inhaled, can be deadly,” said Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University who studies drug trends.
Hall said someone as young as Alton would be more susceptible to an opioid like fentanyl because they likely have no built-up tolerance, unlike adults who may have spent years abusing drugs.
Even if Miami homicide detectives can prove the source of the fentanyl, holding someone responsible for his death may be tough.
The Florida Legislature passed a law this year to make it possible to charge dealers with murder if they provide a fatal dose of fentanyl or drugs mixed with fentanyl. But the new law doesn’t go into effect until Oct. 1.
Anyone with information on the death of Alton Banks is asked to Miami-Dade CrimeStoppers at 305-471-TIPS.