In January 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Western Colorado Drug Task Force, and other agencies launched an investigation after a noticeable rise in the number of fentanyl-related deaths on the Western Slope. They hoped to discover who was supplying the lethal drugs.
Their investigation eventually led them to 56-year-old Bruce Holder who, according to an arrest warrant application, purchased the drugs in Mexico for cash and brought them back across the border into the United States and back to Colorado.
He would become the first person in the state to be federally convicted for distributing fentanyl resulting in death for the death of 30-year-old Jonathan Ellington. He was also charged in the death of 32-year-old Ashley Romero.
Investigators suspected at least two other deaths were linked to drugs supplied by Holder but lacked evidence to prove that in court, records show.
A Western Colorado drug ring: Bruce Holder involved his family and friends in a drug operation
In the summer of 2018, 30-year-old Christopher Huggett of Grand Junction was indicted on charges of distribution of fentanyl resulting in death. Investigators determined Huggett sold counterfeit pills that appeared to be oxycodone but were laced with fentanyl. Huggett's supplier was identified as Bruce Holder, whom he said he referred to as his uncle even though they were not related by blood.
Huggett was convicted after a plea agreement and is now serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison.
Between 2017 and 2018, investigators said Holder imported thousands of 30mg Oxycodone pills from Mexico to Western Colorado that were laced with fentanyl. Holder worked with multiple co-conspirators that included his wife, children, other family members, and friends, court records show.
Mesa County health officials said it was difficult to separate fentanyl deaths from other drug-related deaths, but noted that opioid-related deaths spiked in the county in 2017, before dropping notably in 2018.
They're now rising again, and according to the county, opioid-related deaths for Mesa County residents under the age of 35 more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. Statewide, more than 80% of opioid overdoses involve fentanyl, the country said.
An arrest warrant application details Holder's operation which included trips to Mexico where drugs were picked up and then brought back into the United States and ultimately Colorado.
Holder was federally convicted by a jury in April 2021 on the following charges:
- Conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and counterfeit substances
- Distribution of fentanyl resulting in death
- Distribution of fentanyl, and a counterfeit substance
He is set to be sentenced on June 23 and faces 20 years to life.
Holder was found responsible for the death of Jonathan Ellington, but not Ashley Romero who also died. Their families said their loved ones were "poisoned" when both unknowingly became victims of Holder.
Jonathan Ellington: Sports injury led to pain killer addiction
"The whole thing was it was a family business, and it's really gross. It's unimaginable," said Dave and Cheryl Ellington, whose son Jonathan died.
That’s how they describe what Holder and his family did in Colorado.
"Bruce Holder is not a drug dealer. He's a poison dealer. There are drugs and people do deal drugs.” said Dave and Cheryl Ellington. "But this is far beyond that."
The couple lives in Fort Peirce, Florida more than a thousand miles away from where they said their youngest son was poisoned by Holder at the age of 30.
"Whenever Jon walked into a room, he lit it up with his smile, so he had a great smile,” Dave said.
Jonathan was fun, loving, and had a knack for sports, his family said.
"He did the T-ball thing, the baseball thing, the basketball thing, the soccer thing,” Dave said.
It was sports that left him with an injury at the age of 16. His family said after that injury, he turned to painkillers and got hooked. After years of struggling, they said it was finally time for a fresh start.
"He moved to Colorado, just as a sort of a do-over a start over when he was getting his life back together," his dad said. "He seemed to have been clean at that point.”
Dave and Cheryl said Jonathan was thriving and found success at Hotel Jerome in Aspen where he worked for several years and even became an employee of the month.
Then another sports injury led him back to painkillers.
"There was a point where those medications aren't available any longer from a doctor. He apparently got medications that turned out not to be true oxycodone, not an oxy pill, but that amount of fentanyl pill or a poison pill,” Dave said.
On Dec. 28, 2017, Jonathan didn't show up for work.
"And they somehow got one of the housemates and found out that he had expired there at the house in his room,” his dad said.
Investigators found Jonathan in his Carbondale apartment sitting in his room with a syringe, a belt between his legs, and a spoon with blue residue. They initially thought he overdosed on heroin until the blue pills were found in his room.
"It was something that happened very quickly, but it's a difficult thing,” his dad said.
Later that day, the person who bought the pills from Huggett and gave them to Ellington overdosed at Tumbleweed Dispensary in Carbondale where he worked.
He was revived with Narcan and ultimately led investigators to the source of the drugs.
For the Ellington family, the hardest part is looking back on the last times they saw their son around Thanksgiving 2017. But those final moments of laughter and happiness continue to replay in their minds.
Dave and Cheryl said they've chosen to lean on faith, which is why they leave Holder's fate to higher powers.
“I don't think Bruce Holder has in any way in any part of his life earned any sort of mercy to not spend the rest of his life in jail or prison,” Dave said.
Ashley Romero: 'It's too late for us': Family wants to spare others the pain
“It’s too late for us. We’ve lost our daughter," said Andrea Thomas, the mother of Ashley Romero. "But we are so desperate to tell other people to spare them from this experience.”
Holder was charged in connection with Ashley's 2018 death.
These days her family is busy with their business and operating two fentanyl-related foundations. They're also raising Ashley's 12-year-old son Daniel, whose days may begin with homeschooling or feeding their three donkeys.
"We wake up every morning and kind of wing it. That's what our days look like," said Thomas. "We don't do school every day no. We do multiple lessons usually sitting down.”
This has been the new routine of normalcy for the past three years.
"We just make sure that we do the best that we can for Daniel and make things as normal for him as we possibly can,” Thomas said.
Trying to keep things normal lies at the forefront since Ashley’s death.
"She was the light of everyone's life because she was the first grandchild, she was our first child," her mom said while looking through old photos.
It's the first time she's looked at the photos in nearly four years.
"That was a good day for us when Daniel came. I see these and I can hear what she would've been saying or remember how we felt on that day what we were doing,” Thomas said.
Memories of Ashley as a big sister to three, a daughter, and a loving mother keep her light alive.
"I have her there and I have parts of her everywhere around my house. I see her in my mind. All-day long,” Thomas said.
Along with Ashley’s light came her pain. Prescription pills were her way of managing it, her mother said.
"Ashley had pancreatitis, acute pain came with that," said Thomas.
She said her daughter never had a problem with substance abuse.
“It was usual for them to give her two or three pain pills. And Ashley didn't like them because they made her feel sick, they made her feel worse. So, if she did use one of those pills she'd use half a pill,” Thomas said.
So, when Thomas was called and told that Ashley died after taking half a pill it was hard for her to comprehend.
It was June 11, 2018, after midnight.
"911 gets this call that there's a potential overdose here,” Thomas said.
Ashley's front door was open, her car was running, and she was in the passenger seat.
“She was in the house. She was cooking. The food was on the stove. There were eggs in a bowl on the counter. She had just spoken with her neighbor moments before,” Thomas said.
The video below contains the 911 call. The audio may not be suitable for everyone. Viewer direction is advised.
The call and compressions continued for eight minutes until medics arrived.
“I believe my daughter had been taken out of the car at that point. They tried to revive her, but it was too late,” Thomas said.
Fentanyl killed Ashley at her own home.
"This used to be a happy place for us to come for my grandson to be. Now we're hesitant to drive down this street. That's just how things affect you,” Thomas said.
Ashley’s boyfriend gave her the half pill that they both thought was oxycodone. Neither knew it was laced with fentanyl.
"Something so small, something so minute. That's shocking, that your world can change so fast,” Thomas said.
Ashley's boyfriend was revived at the scene while in the driver's seat of their car. Thomas believes he was trying to get Ashley to the hospital.
“The person that gave her this pill had no idea that it would take her life. And within the next hours, he took his own life," Thomas said. "Every hour of that is painful because you are so desperate to know how this happened."
The days turned into weeks before Thomas learned who sold her daughter the pill.
"It was shocking because here is a man that has involved his entire family in what he was doing,” Thomas said about Holder.
While she wants to know why instead she instead chooses to focus on prevention and awareness.
"People think when you die from taking a drug that it is because you have a substance use problem," Thomas said. "People think that it can't happen to their families, and it can, there are unsuspected people dying every day from taking these drugs,” Thomas said.
Now she's raising her voice at the Colorado State Capitol to support stronger fentanyl penalties in Colorado to stop the number of fentanyl deaths from climbing.
"These numbers we talk about these are faces, these are people that are loved, and mothers, and fathers and children, they're not just numbers. We need to wake up,” Thomas said.
While she still has Daniel, nothing can replace the joy and love stolen from the family.
"You lose one child and you watch the rest go down, it’s like a domino effect. Because over time you realize this is really the way that it is, it's not going to change, she's not coming back," said Thomas.
"So, it takes you a long time to recognize this is what your life is moving forward."
She has since founded Facing Fentanyl and Voice for Awareness, the foundation aims to educate and raise awareness about the fentanyl crisis. Thomas has also been a big part of the push to strengthen fentanyl penalties through House Bill 1326.
In that, she supports the bill, share’s her daughter story, and assists other families prepare statements about their loved ones' poisoning.
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