By Pat Cooper
It’s been just over a year since 16 year-old Chase Burnett died after smoking a synthetic marijuana packaged as “Mojo Diamond” and it’s only now that his parents have lost the haunted look in their eyes. It’s been replaced with a determination to keep other kids from their son’s fate and to find justice for Chase.
It’s become their personal crusade, in interviews from newspapers to CNN, and talks with students and parents over the past year. They were instrumental in getting Governor Nathan Deal to pass “Chase’s Law,” an all-encompassing legislation outlawing all forms of synthetic marijuana in the state of Georgia.
But they’re not ready to stop there. Before he’s done, David Burnett says he is going to hold “everyone who had a finger in Chase’s death – the drug dealers who import deadly chemicals and spray them on herbs, the distributors who place them in convenience stores, the managers and owners of the stores who sell these drugs to minors, and the national chains and franchisors who until recently allowed these drugs to be sold in their franchises.” The battle to stop the sale of synthetic marijuana is raging across international, national and state lines with the ferocity of a world war.
To the unknowing, they’re the typical charming, attractive, comfortably middle-class family that makes up Fayette County. Up until last year, they were a happy family of five, with two boys- Bruce and Chase- attending Fayette County schools and a third – Tyler- ensconced in the U.S. Naval Academy in Newport News, Va. David Burnett is an outgoing, tenacious man who obviously loves his family; Yvette is a charming, nearly serene, beauty with many friends. All that changed on March 4, 2012 when they discovered their middle son dead in the hot tub of their family home. It was a devastating blow – a parent’s worst nightmare – but, in many ways, it drew the family closer together.
When Yvette talks about her son’s final day, she smiles with the memories, concentrating on the best part of that weekend.
“It was a beautiful day. He got up, saw his friends, rode around on his dirt bike – he just loved that dirt bike.”
“He was very versatile with his talents, his passions,” adds David. “Very athletic.”
He was an honor student and junior varsity soccer player at McIntosh High School who loved sports, was an avid snowboarder and dedicated himself to becoming a better soccer player and the kind of teen who drew others into his orbit with an easy smile and the charm he inherited from his parents.
When the couple got home that night from a dinner out with friends they went to bed early, hearing Chase moving around upstairs. David got up around 5:45 and headed for the family hot tub.
“I noticed the tub was halfway open and the light was left on,” he said. That wasn’t like the ultra-responsible Chase, who always took care to shut it down. Near the tub’s side, David found a bottle cap, a lighter and a packet of synthetic marijuana labeled \'Mojo Diamond Extreme 100x Potpourri.
“I went up and woke [Yvette] up and showed her what I found. We talked about it and prayed about it.” Splitting up, Yvette went up to look in Chase’s room and David went back and got into the hot tub.
He didn’t see his son’s body, floating in the tub, tucked away beneath the cover.
“I’m in the tub, and my eyes are adjusting to the light and I thought I saw something that looked like a towel or a pair of underwear.”
David pulled Chase out, yelling to his wife to call 9-1-1 and began CPR.
“I did mouth-to- mouth for what seemed like 10 to 15 minutes, then the paramedics arrived.”
After a few minutes, they told the couple their son had died.
“I got down on my knees and cried and hugged him, and then she did. We cried and prayed.”
But Chase had one more communication for his parents, according to Yvette.
“His left eye opened. It had been closed, then it opened –it was obviously a muscular movement, but… it was as though he winked at me. It was like he was saying ‘Mom, I’m okay.’”
The shock of losing their son was compounded by the shock of what killed him.
“We had no idea he was smoking synthetic marijuana, that he’d tried it a handful of times. I knew what it was, but I didn’t know Chase had experimented with it.”
They found out in the days following Chase’s death, when a dozen of his friends came to the house.
“I asked them to ‘fess up’ and they did; they told me where they got it (a BP station on Highway 54 near Westpark Walk) and who was doing it.”
It was almost two months before a coroner’s report confirmed the cause of the teen’s death.
Georgia State Medical Examiner Kris Sperry officially announced Chase had died from acute synthetic cannabinoid poisoning, the first confirmed case of a death by cannabinoid poisoning recorded. It made national headlines, placing Georgia- and Fayette County on the nation’s radar.
“His lungs had shut down and he suffocated. There was minimal fluid in his lungs.”
What the medical examiner did find was a drug called AM2201, a research chemical, that can cause severe injury, altered mental and emotional states, illness and death. There have been reports of individuals experiencing panic attacks and vomiting at doses as small as two milligrams. As the dosage is much smaller than most other synthetic cannabinoids, users may accidentally dose too much and comvulsions have been reported.
“The bottom line is that these synthetic drugs mimic real marijuana and it’s gotten into the wrong hands. To rogue scientists who are drug dealers masquerading as scientists and selling this poison to bad people and killing people.
“When we saw it, we knew we had to say something, instead of hiding it and flushing it away like nothing happened. We gave it to the Sheriff’s office,” David said. “We knew it was wrong.”
What the medical examiner didn’t find was any other drugs or alcohol in Chase’s system.
“They killed the wrong boy. I said that from day one,” said Burnett. “You don’t walk into a convenience store, buy something, smoke it and you die.”
AM2201 was banned and outlawed in 2010, when then Governor Sonny Purdue passed legislation against it but “drug dealers changed the molecular composition, adding another poison to it to avoid the law.”
A beefed-up revision came about just after Chase’s death in 2012. In July of the same year, the federal government – the DEA and FBI- linked up with local jurisdictions using agents from sheriffs’ offices and state troopers in a nationwide bust labeled Operation Log Jam, raiding nearly one hundred businesses and resulting in scores of arrests and drug confiscations.
In what may be a first-of-its-kind attempt to bring the manufacturers of a drug to justice, the Burnetts have filed a wrongful death suit against the company and person they believe distributed the drug that killed their son- Peyton Palaiok, Omerta Labs, LLC, WG Distribution, LLC, and Lunar Labs, LLC. Palaiok, 25, is believed to be the man connected to the distribution of the drug commonly referred to as “K2” or “Spice” to the Peachtree City convenience store where it was purchased.
“You can be liable in a civil suit for selling an inherently dangerous product and for failing to warn consumers of the risks of using your product. The product is clearly made and sold with only one intended use. Why else would you spray cannabinoid compounds on dried weeds?” said the family’s Atlanta-based attorney Kristofer R. Schleicher of Joyce Thrasher Kaiser & Liss, LLC.
Just last week, Louisiana authorities handed down an indictment against Harold Bourgeois Jr., charging him with possession with intent to distribute a Schedule I controlled dangerous substance, the exact brand of drug the Burnetts found near the hot tub. According to Schleicher, Chase Burnett’s name is specifically listed in the indictment. Bourgeois allegedly had a website where he took orders and shipped across the country. Schieicher said law enforcement is still sifting through the common connections and it’s possible more indictments will follow.
“Those people who killed our son and other human beings will be accountable. We forgive, but to forgive is not to throw justice away. You cannot kill a child and act like you’re not responsible. It doesn’t work that way in this country – we are going to drive it home. ”
The Burnetts are equally upset over the fact that authorities at BP didn’t tell their franchisees to remove synthetic marijuana from the shelves until after Chase’s autopsy report made national headlines. Similar letters came from Marathon Oil and Citgo Oil to their franchisees, in February and April, respectively, demanding the product be removed from the shelves.
“We feel without a doubt, we know he made a mistake smoking it. He was like any other 16 year-old kid. He didn’t know it was going to kill him. If you smoke a cigarette, you don’t die. You drink one beer, you don’t die. They are going to be held accountable and they are going to jail,” said David emphatically.
“His death had a purpose,” says Yvette. “We miss him, but we get it. That’s how we can deal with it.”
The Burnetts have set up the Chase Burnett Center for Education and Awareness (chaseburnettcenter.org) website –a 501c-3 corporation- where they list articles, resources, and interviews to inform families about the synthetic marijuana problem.
“We’re trying to get his foundation up and going. We talk to schools and colleges. We’ve lived it, we’re the face of it and they listen to us. Our main goal is to help people. The only way to help people is to stand your ground and tell the truth. Until you do that, you’ve got nothing.”
“God has made him a very driven man. We’re not going to put our heads in the sand- we will protect these kids,” says Yevette.