Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
As the sun set on May 26, 2018, Season Frost was outside a midtown hotel tending to a friend who had too much to drink at the annual Albuquerque Wine Festival.
Frost’s last cellphone text to her mother at about 7:30 p.m. gave no hint of the grave danger to come.
“She said she thought everything was going to be OK. She had it all under control,” Frost’s mother, Valerie Johnson, told the Journal.
In less than an hour, Frost was dead.
The shock of her sudden death in an SUV in the parking lot of the Wyndham hotel was compounded by the state Office of Medical Investigator’s conclusion three weeks later as to the cause.
Frost’s death at age 29 was ruled an accident, caused by a combination of alcohol and a “fatal concentration of fentanyl.”
The news stunned her mother and the rest of Frost’s close-knit family, who insist the woman they knew as “CeCe” had never used drugs, and never would.
“I didn’t even know what fentanyl was,” Johnson said. “When my sister read the OMI report to me, I said, ‘What is that (fentanyl)?’ They told me that’s what Prince died from.”
Unlike with superstar musician Prince, there was no known law enforcement investigation of Frost’s overdose death after that night. Two years after Prince’s 2016 death, prosecutors concluded he died after taking what he thought was the painkiller Vicodin but was actually a counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl.
On the anniversary of her death, how Frost came into contact with the lethal drug is still a mystery.
“CeCe was a responsible and educated young adult,” said cousin Hayley Trever of Colorado. “She was not a drug user. She wasn’t reckless. She didn’t hang out in dangerous places or with people she didn’t trust. She didn’t put herself in risky situations. Despite all of these truths, she succumbed to fentanyl poisoning.
“As her family and close friends who knew her, we feel very confident that she did not know what she was taking, as she never would have taken it if she did, assuming she took it willingly.”
No public data
OMI has no public data available on how many other people in New Mexico died in 2018 of fentanyl overdoses and could not say whether Frost’s case was isolated.
The most recent OMI count provided to the Journal – for 2017 – showed that only two fatal drug overdose deaths that year involved the combination that killed Frost – fentanyl mixed with alcohol.
In all, the state Department of Health put the number of fentanyl deaths in New Mexico for 2017 at 55.
Nationally, The Washington Post reported recently, a record 28,869 people died from synthetic-opioid-related overdoses, a 46.4% increase from the year before. Most of those deaths were from fentanyl.
Dr. Kurt Nolte, the state’s chief medical investigator, told the Journal he believes the deadly fentanyl found in Frost’s system “was illicitly masquerading as oxycodone. And that’s concerning, because people have no idea what they’re getting into. They think they’re ingesting something they ingested before.”
In New Mexico, federal, state and local law enforcement officials report that seizures of light blue counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl, typically produced in Mexico, are on the rise.
“At the street level, counterfeit oxys are extremely prevalent,” said one APD undercover officer. “Now more than ever.”
For instance, earlier this year, the FBI and State Police seized about 2,000 pills laced with fentanyl that were trafficked in southeast Albuquerque by a group from Arizona. The pills were the same color and had the same M30 marking as prescription oxycodone tablets.
Frost, who was single and living with her mother at the time of her death, graduated from Manzano High School in 2007. She was athletic, playing volleyball and basketball competitively in high school. She worked her way up to general manager at 5 Star Burger on Wyoming, and a t the time of her death was a bartender/manager while also working as an esthetician, her family said.
The day Frost died, Johnson drove her daughter and Frost’s friend Carisa Ball to the festival at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque so they wouldn’t drive home after drinking wine.
Johnson was driving on the freeway to pick them up after the festival ended at 6 p.m. when her daughter texted her that they had met up with a group, which included Frost’s ex-boyfriend. The group was headed to the Wyndham near I-40 and Carlisle for a couple of drinks, the text said.
Once there, Frost sent another text saying she was trying to help her friend Ball sober up.
Meanwhile, according to police reports, the three men in the group went inside to the hotel bar, after Ball had become “extremely sick” in the back seat of one of the men’s vehicles, a Toyota Sequoia. So Ball, Frost and a third woman they had just met at the festival walked to a nearby drug store to buy water and crackers.
Back with the food and water, Frost slipped into the Toyota’s passenger seat. She was talking with the others when her eyes began to close, one of the women told Albuquerque police. Her head fell back against the seat and her neck went limp.
She couldn’t be revived.
OMI’s Nolte discounted the idea that Frost could have come into contact with fentanyl by touching something in the Toyota, such as a door handle, or by someone spiking a drink.
The OMI report concluded Frost had been drinking heavily that day and “at one point was offered oxycodone.”
That is an apparent reference to the police report, which stated that the third woman in the Toyota asked if they wanted to take oxycodone.
However, according to the police report, no one saw Frost take oxycodone.
The report states that APD officers who responded to the “unattended death” call requested that a crime scene specialist come to the scene “due to the suspicious nature of Frost’s death.” An APD sergeant also responded.
The owner of the Toyota stated that he and the other two men in his group were drinking in the hotel when the third woman texted him to come outside because Frost wasn’t breathing and wasn’t responsive.
Paramedics were called and police summoned.
Nolte couldn’t say how long it would have taken for Frost to succumb to the drug’s effect, except to say it wouldn’t have been immediate.
Attempts to arrange an interview with Ball for this story were unsuccessful. Others in the group either could not be reached or didn’t want to talk about it.
Investigation dead end
After Prince’s death, prosecutors said they couldn’t charge anyone criminally because they didn’t know how he acquired the fentanyl.
Albuquerque police interviewed all five people present that night and came away with inconclusive accounts and, to some extent, raised eyebrows. But they ruled out “foul play” and the case was closed.
The third woman in the Toyota told police she and Frost were focused on Ball because she was so sick, and said she had no idea how Frost went from “being coherent and helpful to unresponsive.”
The police report stated that Frost’s friend, Ball, “was so drunk she could not recall much of what happened prior to the paramedics arrival.”
Ball did recall the third woman asking her and Frost “if they wanted to do a line of Oxy to help them sober up,” the police report stated. Ball told police she declined the offer, but was too sick at the time to know whether Frost took anything.
The police report said the former boyfriend (Frost’s family said she is the one who ended the relationship four years ago) did not provide any crucial information but added, “it should be noted he continued to drink after Frost died.”
The police officers at the scene believed that was “abnormal” behavior.
Sometime after notifying Frost’s mother of her death, police discovered the ex-boyfriend and the Toyota’s owner drinking at another bar and advised them they probably ought not to be drinking given what occurred that night. Officers had contacted the men because Frost’s purse and cellphone were still in the Toyota and police needed to retrieve the items.
Johnson recalled one of the police officers suggesting “it was probably a brain aneurysm” that killed her daughter.
Police reported that the APD crime scene officers and OMI official who responded to the scene found no visible injuries to Frost and “had no reason to believe foul play was a factor in her death.”
Police reports show no trace of any drugs were found in the SUV, only an empty, medium size plastic baggie. Nothing was found of interest in Frost’s purse.
Johnson said the family has tried to investigate further, but so far have been unable to access her daughter’s cellphone to find clues.
“CeCe is gone,” said her aunt, Cindi Moran, of Albuquerque. “But fentanyl continues to plague our lives. She was not a drug user, but somehow ingested what has been compared in size to four grains of salt. …
“What about the other CeCes out there?”