SALT LAKE CITY – Police are investigated the deaths of two 13-year-old boys in the Utah ski-resort town of Park City that may be connected to a new synthetic drug found at entertainer Prince's estate as law enforcement around the country struggles with a national epidemic of opioid drugs.
The deaths of best friends Grant Seaver and Ryan Ainsworth, found by their parents within days of each other, were initially a mystery. There were no clues as to what killed the otherwise healthy kids, one of whom was a talented skier, said Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter.
But on other social media, investigators found conversations about a drug called U-47700, sometimes known as "pink," Carpenter said. Though they're waiting on toxicology results to confirm how the two boys died, police have since found evidence of other local kids ordering the drug online, according to search warrants.
It's among the new drugs being synthesized in clandestine labs and is too new as a recreational drug to be listed among illegal substances in the U.S.
Nearly eight times stronger than morphine, U-47700 has been connected with at least 50 deaths nationwide. It was found in pills at Prince's estate after the entertainer overdosed on another synthetic opioid, the painkiller fentanyl.
U-47700 was developed by a pharmaceutical manufacturer in the 1970s as a possible alternative to morphine. It's among the drugs chemists in places like China and Eastern Europe can make with recipes published in online patent records and old scientific journals.
In Park City, two other teens connected with the deceased 13-year-olds ordered the drug online from China and had it shipped to a friend's house, according to search warrants.
"It's pretty easy, Carpenter said. "They go online, unfortunately, and $37 and a credit card and a cellphone and they can order it up, which is what makes it so scary."
In the weeks since the mid-September deaths, have begun investigating a web of about 15 kids as school searches have turned up methamphetamine residue in a locker and parents have turned in containers with U-47700 residue they've found in their kids' stuff, Carpenter said.
Like many synthetic opioids, the exact effects of U-47700 are little-understood and a small amount could be fatal, especially if it's laced with another drug.
"The consumer, they don't know what they're putting into their body," said Russ Baer, a spokesman for the DEA.
The deaths have left a grieving student body and a reeling administration at Park City schools. A picturesque mountain town that hosts Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, Park City is the kind of place where people move to raise their families, creating a close-knit community, said schools superintendent Ember Conley.
Synthetic drugs like this weren't on the official radar before the junior high students' deaths, and the newness makes it harder to enforce school rules written for illegal substances. Locker-sniffing dogs are trained to recognize it and typically drug tests can't detect it, Conley said.
The DEA has filed to have U-47700 listed as a banned substance, much as it did when drugs like the synthetic marijuana spice and hallucinogenic bath salts arrived on the scene.
That's expected to go into effect early next week. The change will make school administrators' jobs easier and streamline prosecutions, but it's not a panacea.
"There are 200 drugs that can take its place," Carpenter said. "The problem is so massive, and it's throughout the country."