New Brighton family seeks answers 4 years after 22-year-old died from a fentanyl overdose
Tuesday, May 2, marks four years since a New Brighton family lost their son and brother to a fentanyl overdose.
Sam Starcher was 22 at the time of his death in 2019. Despite his death being investigated as a homicide, with intent to prosecute the drug dealer involved, the family told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 they have no answers.
“When you lose one, you still have four children,” Sam’s mother, Kathy Starcher said. “I have three girls, and Sam, who is in heaven now, all through adoption. It’s wonderful.”
The Starcher family continues to grieve Sam’s death.
“It’s something that you go to bed with and that you wake up with,” Kathy Starcher said.
Sam was found dead of an overdose in a home in New Brighton.
“One of his friends had mentioned that he may have acquired some pills. I think it was probably something that was supposed to be Percocet or something else like that,” Sam’s father, Randy Starcher, said.
Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier said toxicology found only fentanyl in Sam's system. He said in cases where several drugs are found in the system, linking that overdose to a drug dealer becomes much more difficult.
“He might’ve been thinking he was taking an Ativan, or Percocet, or an oxycontin,” Lozier said. “They usually disguise fentanyl into other forms to disguise them.”
Lozier said the bulk of fentanyl-laced pills are designed to look like other pills, and without a built-up tolerance to opiates, the first fentanyl-laced pill can be deadly.
“Somebody poisoned our son, and there has been nothing, as far as I know, done with this investigation,” Kathy Starcher said. “It’s four years that we are waiting for an answer.”
Lozier said all suspicious drug-related deaths in Beaver County are investigated as a homicide.
“We prosecute about 5% because we’ve got to have all those pieces. Every year we get an average of 60 families that wonder why we haven’t charged the DDRD, the drug deliverer resulting in death, in their victim’s case, because, like Sam Starcher, we think we know who the dealer was, but unless we have evidence we can take to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt we can’t file charges,” Lozier said.
He said there was no residue of the drug Sam took left behind at the scene for investigators to link to a drug dealer and no way to access possible communications between Sam and a dealer.
“My office worked with the FBI and several other federal agencies for two years to break the app that he used to communicate with his drug dealer. We were unable to get access to the communications after two years,” Lozier said.
As for a witness, Lozier said someone else overdosed with Sam, likely from the same product, but that person survived. Lozier said there’s no evidence that the person provided the drug to Sam.
Sam’s parents said they want that person and others who were close to Sam to be questioned again.
"Why aren’t you pulling this kid? Why not?” Kathy Starcher questioned.
Lozier said the person was cooperative in the investigation, but the person’s extensive history of drug and alcohol abuse causes periods of memory loss.
“There’s some brain damage there, so it’s unreliable testimony if he was the defendant,” Lozier said.
“In the average year, let’s say we have between 60 and 66 overdose deaths a year, what we do is we end up with about a dozen of those that we know who the dealer was, and sometimes we charge them with something else, such as selling drugs, just the drug transaction, but we can’t connect them causally to the death,” Lozier said.
Sam’s parents haven’t given up hope that his case will be prosecuted.
“I would absolutely beg anybody in Sam’s circle of friends who has any information. I know, being a snitch, people think they are going to be a snitch, but if this is your brother, it’s time to speak up,” Randy Starcher said.
The Starcher family now hosts a grief group for others who are living with the pain of losing a loved one.
“To any of the families out there, I’d like to reach out and tell them we are here for you. We know what you are going through. We feel it every single day,” Kathy Starcher said.
“The circumstances of a young person’s death really don’t matter to me anymore. If they got themselves into trouble, and that was the result of their death, if they took one pill, and that was the result of their death, they are somebody’s child. They are somebody’s brother. They are somebody’s sister,” Randy Starcher said.
Lozier said in the past few years, Beaver County has started more treatment and drug diversion programs and has gotten 14,000 pounds of pills off the streets.
He said since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, overdose deaths in Beaver County have not increased but stayed consistent.