Here is the friend. Arms cradling the boy he has known since fifth grade. The boy, 17, is on the ground, foaming at the mouth. Moaning, twitching, tongue bleeding—bitten from the convulsions.
"Pull through!" shouts the friend, holding Timmy Castaneda in his lap. "Timmy, pull through!"
"Turn him on his side," instructs the 911 dispatcher.
"Come on, help me get him on his side!"
It's around 1 a.m. on Oct. 6, 2012. Several teenagers have been hanging out deep in an Apex woods, requiring a 15-minute trek: walk down the hill from the Beaver Creek Cinema, enter the forest, veer right at the log, then go up the path, across the tarp, over the creek, through the small pines, down the ditch, over the gully. When you arrive at the V-shaped trees, you are there.
This is their special place. A makeshift fort is erected with nails between trees, its wooden planks wrapped in chicken wire, draped by tarps and crusty posters that advertise automotive products. Sap from a pine tree burns, keeping the area warm.
The teens, mostly from Apex High School, congregate here many nights. They smoke weed and drink beers on plastic chairs. Some ride dirt bikes, others wave glow sticks. On this night, dubstep music whirs over the speakers. A carefree start to the weekend.
The group is like a family, and Timmy is the lynchpin. Timmy, the guy with the wide smile and Charlie Brown baby face who loved the band Insane Clown Posse. Timmy, the husky boy known for helping others, among the first to befriend a new transfer student one year. He was a prankster who once plotted to suspend a friend's bicycle high atop a tree. A boy with a shy side, whose future girlfriend once pinned him to a chair at Office Max until he asked her on a date.
But now, Timmy is on the dirt, convulsing. The dubstep is cut off, allowing his moans to fill the forest. Hours earlier, during the walk from his house in a tidy Apex subdivision, he had taken the first of two hits of what he believed was LSD, purchased for $10 each from a fellow student that week. They were packaged as square tabs of blotter paper with a purple-pink design.
Other kids at the fort had taken a hit, too. For some reason it tasted funny—a weird, metallic flavor. Midway through the party, Timmy's best friend, Drew Darden, saw a small piece of tinfoil on the ground. He realized it was Timmy's second dose.
By midnight Timmy is tripping hard, cackling uncontrollably and manhandling a glow ball.
"Are you all right?" asks Darden. No response.
Minutes later Timmy is freaking out, tossing chairs and picking fights. "It's trippy!" he yells. "It's a lizard! It's the cops!"
Darden tries to mellow his friend, but it's like his brain was gone. It's not Timmy, Darden thinks.
Soon Timmy is walking in circles. He unleashes a wail and drops to the ground. When Darden calls 911, many teenagers bolt home. Three of them remain, waiting for paramedics to arrive.
For the next several minutes Darden cradles his best friend, holding his torso up, hoping he could hear him. But Timmy's face is turning gray.
"He's not breathing!" Darden cries to the dispatcher. "He's not breathing!"
Here is the forensics expert. Since 1999 Ruth Winecker has served as chief toxicologist for the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and in the past several years she has seen a surge in synthetic drugs in dead people's systems. In early 2012 she observed a new one: 25I-NBOMe, a chemical compound designed to mimic the hallucinogenic effects of LSD.
Winecker had long been familiar with NBOMe, developed by chemists 10 years ago. It targets the brain's pleasure-seeking serotonin receptors. The drug had recently hit party scenes in Europe and America, used recreationally by young people under the street name "N-bomb," or "smiles."
The drug is manufactured almost exclusively in China, marketed as a safe, legal alternative to LSD. It comes in various forms: powders, liquid solutions, soaked onto blotter paper and laced in food. From June 2011 to June 2013 federal investigators analyzed 1,044 law enforcement reports nationwide for N-bomb, linking the drug to the deaths of at least 19 people ages 15 to 29 since 2012.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers synthetics like N-bomb and Molly to be the new frontier of drug abuse. Because manufacturers can tweak chemical compounds to create a cornucopia of variants, legislators struggle to keep up with them. Enacting new statutes becomes a macabre game of chicken-and-egg: in order to create laws preventing abuse, bad things have to happen.
Last November, in an emergency edict effective for two years, the DEA declared three N-bomb variants—25I-NBOMe, 25C-NBOMe and 25B-NBOMe—to be illegal Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. The drug has been banned in at least three states, including Virginia, Florida and Louisiana.
In her laboratory in Raleigh, Winecker's screens can detect for more than 300 drugs. But in the era of perpetually mutating synthetics, she constantly has to analyze new samples hitting underground markets, either seized by law enforcement or purchased from a certified manufacturer.
With potent designer drugs like N-bomb, the concentration in a dead person's bodily fluids can be so low, a standard screen can sometimes miss it. And without a physical specimen to serve as confirmation, her job can feel like a fishing expedition. "You don't know what you're looking for. Not until someone gets physical evidence."
Since 2012 Winecker has seen four N-bomb cases. One wouldn't be confirmed until last summer, after several months of analysis.
Here is the father. For minutes, but what seemed like hours, Tito Castaneda watches the hospital ventilator pumping oxygen into his son. This is Tito, the UNC respiratory therapist who spends his days in Intensive Care Units. Tito, whose profession requires him to remove patients from life support, who is now staring at his own son, intubated.
When the paramedics arrived at the Apex woods, Timmy was still seizing. He was unresponsive and pale, hot to the touch, with pupils dilated to the point where the irises weren't visible.
Drew Darden had led the emergency workers back through the woods to a friend's house, where an ambulance waited. Just before they lifted him off the ground, Timmy blinked his eyes once. Hope.
At 2 a.m., Tito is awakened by a call. The caller ID flashes "Timmy," but it is the police: "He overdosed on bath salt," says a voice. "Rex Hospital. Critical condition."
Tito springs from bed. He could be dead. Ninety miles per hour he races up Interstate 440. Tito's wife, Karen, a UNC oncology nurse working a night shift, had already received a call from the Apex Fire Department. "We've got Timmy here. He overdosed on acid. Does he have any allergies?"
Tito and Karen arrive at the hospital at the same time. They're escorted to a private room. A chaplain arrives.
From across the hall, Tito listens to the beep-beep-beep of the ventilator in his son's room. He knows the beeps are too fast. He's struggling to breathe.
A doctor enters. "We're doing everything possible."
"Be sincere!" says Tito. "Don't hide anything."
"He has seized for 45 minutes, and the Ph in his blood gas is less than 7.0"—a sign of high acidity in the blood.
That's not good, thinks Tito. He begins to weep. "That's not good!"
When Tito and Karen enter their son's room he is comatose, his chest still quivering. Nurses draw blood and urine for a toxicology analysis. The hospital workers cannot control the seizing, and they rush Timmy to Wake Medical Center. The following day his kidneys fail.
Tito and Timmy were close. They'd bond during annual family cruises, where Tito once offered his son one of his first beers. "Don't tell your mother," he whispered. Timmy liked to poke fun at his father, mimicking his Colombian-American accent, skewering him for spending so many hours at the gym. "Dad, you gonna use those guns as weapons?"
For nearly a week at Wake Med, Tito and Karen keep vigil next to their easy-going middle son, the one they called their miracle child, hoping he will snap back. Karen, who works with terminally ill patients, remembers the puppy-dog faces Timmy made. "C'mon, mom," he'd say with a smirk, cocking his head when he wanted something. She recalls Timmy's enthusiasm—the way he bounded down the stairs one Christmas morning at age 3, tearing into each family member's presents before anyone else was awake.
By 8, Timmy was begging to go on the Six Flags adult rides, even though he was too short. "One day," he announced, "I'll join the Air Force and ride planes."
As the Castanedas watch over their son in the hospital, flowers and cards pour in from admirers and classmates. Four days later, a neurologist says Timmy's brain is severely damaged. Recovery unlikely.
That night Tito drops to his knees, asking God to bring Timmy back the way he once was. But please, not like this. The next day, Timmy's brain herniates, cutting off its blood supply. His pulse slows. His pupils fix.
Timmy's relatives from New Jersey drive down Interstate 95 through the darkness that night. On Oct. 13, the doctors withdraw the tubes. At 12:42 p.m. Timothy Justin Castaneda dies. But the doctors aren't yet sure why.
Here is the prosecutor. It's late 2012 and Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Wilson studies an arrest warrant based on police interviews with teenagers. It charges an Apex High School student with selling LSD, causing Timmy's death.
But Wilson has concerns. In nearly a decade with the DA's office, he has led Wake County drug prosecutions for three years. He has never seen anyone die or seize from LSD. He knows obscure synthetics have permeated the market and wonders if Timmy died from bath salts.
Wilson emails Winecker, the chief toxicologist, whose response flummoxes him more; Timmy had tested negative for bath salts, amphetamines, cocaine, PCP and about 250 other drugs. When Winecker sends Timmy's fluids to a national lab for a hallucinogens screen, those results also come back negative.
Apex and Cary police continue their investigation. They had searched the home of their main suspect, 17-year-old Ryan Laches, a small-time dealer and down-on-his-luck opiate addict, but found no drugs or evidence on his computer.
Wilson knows he lacks evidence to prosecute an LSD charge. He realizes it's easier for Winecker to verify a substance than it is to pluck one out of obscurity. "We are trying some other tests but we have to develop the method so it will take a while," Winecker tells Wilson in an email.
Last March, a breakthrough: A Cary police informant purchases purported LSD from a local dealer who, when confronted, cites Laches as her source. Police test the drug and determine it isn't acid. The dealer tells investigators that Laches called the drugs "in bone." A sample is sent to the Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification, whose chemists suggest the substance is 25I-NBOMe.
But Winecker is not yet sold. She had already used an older 25I screen to test Timmy, and the results were negative. But her office had recently purchased new equipment, and she is procuring a pure sample of the drug from a manufacturer.
"We plan to conduct a more sensitive test," she assures Wilson.
By late summer 2013, nearly a year had gone by since Timmy's death. Tito has called Wilson each month for updates. Wilson studies up on N-bomb and consults a DEA chemist. My heart goes out to the family, Wilson thinks to himself. Timmy did a very human, experimental thing for a 17-year-old boy.
Finally, last August, new results come through Winecker's lab: 25I-NBOMe detected in Timmy's urine.
Wilson now faces a dilemma. He considers charging Laches with murder. But swaying a jury would be difficult since N-bomb, unlike other synthetics, is not yet banned by the DEA. He could try to prove malice, but Laches and Timmy were casual friends, and it's possible that Laches didn't know he was peddling N-bomb at the time of sale. N-bomb hadn't made news headlines back then. Wilson mulls his alternatives.
Here is the dealer. Inside a courtroom a week before Christmas, Ryan Laches slumps over a microphone. He has a mop haircut, hair draped over the ears. Sunken cheeks and a touch of acne. His slight frame seems slighter still, with baggy pants and an oversized jacked hanging from his shoulders. A loose tie knot droops over the unbuttoned collar of a drab olive shirt.
For years Laches had struggled with depression and addiction. At his peak he was using up to 15 opiates per day. After dropping out of Apex High School he obtained his diploma in a treatment program. He found work at a local restaurant and performed some computer and electronic repairs.
After initial inconsistencies during police interviews, Laches confessed to selling what he thought was LSD to Timmy and other teens. He claimed he obtained the drugs from a Cary dealer, who in turn purchased the drugs from Silk Road, an illicit Internet drug bazaar that has since shut down.
After weighing his options, Wilson decided not to charge Laches with murder. Instead, he went with a slam dunk charge: sale of a counterfeit controlled substance, a low-level felony that doesn't result in prison for defendants without criminal records. Laches agreed to a plea deal on three counts.
Inside the courtroom Lahces' voice is faint. Judge Eric Chasse asks the 18-year-old to speak up as his parents carry harrowed expressions toward the back of the room.
Tito is sitting in the front row. He has written a statement for the judge. He stands up, opens the sheet of paper. But his eyes well with tears. He passes the note to Wilson.
"We love him more than life itself," Wilson reads. "We know that something good will come out of our tragedy."
Asked to speak, Laches leans over the microphone. "I'm just really sorry," he says. Then he murmurs something too quiet to hear.
Judge Chasse says he can't improve upon Tito's words. "It's unfathomable what people can create in a laboratory," he says. "One of the problems with the criminal justice system is that sometimes there is no remedy." He imposes two six-to-17 month sentences, but suspends them in lieu of three years of probation. He wishes Laches good luck.
Laches does not make eye contact with Tito afterward. But Tito says he carries no grudge. Timmy would not want Laches to go to prison, Tito says.
Before the hearing Laches had fired off a fusillade of meandering tweets. They were by turn mournful, self-indulgent, juvenile, introspective: "Life is hard, and I'm not the only one who deals with it" ... "Life-altering consequences are sometimes worth the risk, but the risk will never be worth being ripped from the one you love."
Hours after he is sentenced, he posts a new one: "at least its all finally over... can sleep now."
But the next day there is this: "getting a bad feeling ... what small window of opportunity we had is closing."
Here is the memorial. Deep in the Apex woods, a cross adorned with multicolored flowers. It sprouts from the small patch of soil where Timmy spent his last conscious moments. Gone are the wooden planks and chicken wire, the crusty car-product posters, the cooler and chairs, the dirt bikes. The few remaining glowballs are piled at the base of Timmy's cross. Several trees lay quiet on the ground. A few strands of police evidence tape linger. The fort died with Timmy.
Timmy was buried in his Insane Clown Posse T-shirt. The funeral at St. Andrew the Apostle Roman Catholic Church was packed with friends, teachers and counselors, along with many students Timmy didn't know. In a memorial video, the Apex High School principal sentimentally recalled Timmy as the guy he caught several times making out with his girlfriend in the courtyard during lunch.
Tito took three months off from work. He no longer likes working with intubated patients in the hospital ICU, so his manager assigned him to floor rounds.
It's hard for him to shake the emptiness. How am I going to live without him? There is guilt, anger, second-guessing. He reads more, cries more, lost several friends. His body is now inked with a collection of tattoos memorializing Timmy. He has changed his cell phone number to Timmy's old one. On the family's first cruise since their middle son's death, Tito and Karen opted for destinations Timmy had already visited, so that he wouldn't feel as if he were missing out.
Tito says he wants Timmy's story to be told so that people learn about N-bomb. "My son died for $20," he says.
When Timmy was 16 he discussed with his girlfriend the idea of dying early. "I'd be OK to die today because I've lived a good long life," he said. His point was simply that he was happy. He could never have known he was foreshadowing anything.
Laches' Twitter bio now reads: "RIP TJC I dont know anything at all." Shortly after his final court hearing he disappeared from home. Eleven days ago, Wake County sheriff's investigators arrested him, alleging he sold drugs to an informant. He is in jail on $500,000 bail.
He is charged with LSD trafficking.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A time bomb."