SAN DIEGO – Each morning when Dave Palet wakes up, he thinks of his son Jake. And even three years since losing him to an accidental opioid overdose, that thought is enough to move him to tears.
“I cry every day,” Palet said, seated to the right of his wife Rita, who herself feels “quite numb” to the loss.
“You have to be numb to live with this,” she said.
The nation’s opioid crisis is inflicting extraordinary damage on ordinary people and it’s taking an alarming new direction. More than 100,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in the 12-month period ending in April, data published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
It marked a startling 28.5% increase in overdose deaths from the previous year, with deaths attributed to opioids making up the lion’s share in the provisional data.
Those deaths ultimately leave scars on impacted families. Three years later, the grief over the sudden death of their 20-year-old is still palpable in Dave and Rita Palet’s South Bay home. It was just upstairs in the home where Rita found her youngest son lifeless after taking what he thought was Xanax.
Instead, it was a counterfeit prescription pill laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“One speck which is the equivalent of one speck of salt on a pill is enough to kill a human being,” Dave said.
“(He was) 6-foot-3, 280 (pounds) and a pill took his life,” Rita added.
Happier times aren’t hard to find in the family’s home. A gallery of photos from the family shows a talented ballplayer who shared a love of the game with his father and his brother, Josh. It was that passion for baseball and coaching young players that helped Jake battle through years of depression and addiction.
He sought out that pill that fateful night for anxiety, making the connection over social media.
The day after he was found, Jake was supposed to have been coaching baseball at Bonita Vista High School with his father the next day. He didn’t get to see the team he helped hand-pick take the field.
But his presence is still felt there. His jersey and hat hang in the team’s dugout for every home game — not just as a reminder of how he died, but how he lived.
Nobody knows that more than Hunter Kaul, a junior in high school in El Cajon who pays tribute to Jake every time he steps up to the plate.
“I wear 25 for my high school team for him,” Kaul said. “I put ‘JP 25’ in the dirt before every at-bat.”
San Diego State baseball commit David Whittle said losing Jake was like losing a family member. It’s a sentiment he still wears on his sleeve.
“I have a catcher’s glove that I had custom made and it’s got ‘JP’ on it,” Whittle said. “My batting helmet’s got ‘JP’ on it. My catcher’s gear, my catcher’s helmet has ‘JP’ on it. Everything I can put ‘JP’ on or his number on, I do it.”
Whittle dreams of playing in the big leagues someday, a goal he won’t chase alone.
“No matter where I am, no matter who I play with, I always have Jake with me some way, somehow,” he said.
For those who knew Jake, it’s not just about honoring his memory but making sure he isn’t lost among the alarming statistics of fentanyl deaths. In San Diego County alone between 2019 and 2020, they more than tripled.
“We 100% don’t want anybody else to go through this,” Dave Palet said. “This has to stop. It seems like it’s only gotten worse since Jake passed a few years ago and we see more and more stories, over and over again, it feels like. We’re going the wrong direction.”
And it is. The Drug Enforcement Administration this fall issued a rare public health warning to launch the One Pill Can Kill campaign. While it comes too late for the Palet family, they hope it’s not for others.
“Share with other parents and families and kids of what this can do,” Rita said.
Not even putting the drug dealer behind bars who were selling the fake pills on social media changes their life sentence.
“I don’t have closure,” she said. “I don’t have peace. It doesn’t resolve anything for me. He could get 50 years and that really doesn’t matter to me.”
What does matter to the Palets is making people aware of the dangers and holding onto Jake, the same way they remember him holding onto them.
“Jake gave the best hugs,” Kaul said. “Jake gave the best hugs ever.”
More information on the One Pill Can Kill campaign, including parental resources and information about treatment options, is available online at dea.gov/onepill.