Ohio University student Aaron Freund was attending a small party celebrating the start of his final year of college on Saturday night, Aug. 25, just a few days before the beginning of OU’s fall semester this year.
Like many other students that weekend, Freund, a business major and a member of the Lamdba Chi Alpha fraternity, spent that Saturday “pre-gaming,” drinking beer with friends and acquaintances at his apartment in Athens before planning to head uptown.
But unlike those hundreds of other students, things went horribly awry for Freund. According to police records, the night ended with police responding to Freund’s apartment just before 10 p.m. after receiving a call about an “unresponsive” male.
It was Freund.
He was transported to OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital in Athens, where he was pronounced dead roughly 30 minutes later.
Autopsy records completed a month later concluded that Freund, 23, had overdosed on a combination of alcohol and cocaine laced with the highly powerful synthetic drug fentanyl (which is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin). It lists the death as “accidental.”
Freund’s parents, Sally and Richard, of Cincinnati, spoke at length with The Athens NEWS Tuesday about the impact Aaron’s death has had on their family and their community.
“Aaron didn’t get his shot,” his father said. “He didn’t get a chance to make his mark. He would have made an imprint. He wanted to do something really positive with his life… and he got cut short.”
Aaron was the only child of Sally, 64, and
Richard, 62. They described him as a “bright light,” a smart young man – an honors student in high school with a high GPA at OU – who was genuinely interested in engaging with people in his life and helping those around him. Sally said he was in charge of his fraternity’s pledges, and specifically worked to teach them how to “not be jerks around women,” she recalled.
“He had a way of really reaching into people and connecting with them,” Richard said.
Sally and Richard will continue to deal with the impact of a parent’s worst nightmare, losing a child, for the rest of their lives. The two said they try to cope as best they can.
“Something that’s helped me is I write to Aaron every day,” Sally said. “It’s painful to do but it’s also a release, getting it out of my brain and onto paper.”
Richard said that it’s difficult not to feel guilty as a parent of a child who has died of an overdose. But he and Sally said they want to make sure Aaron’s death wasn’t in vain.
“And you don’t want to talk about it, but that doesn’t do anything for anybody else,” Richard said. “…They (family of overdose victims) can talk to their friends about their kids and say, ‘hey, this happened to my child; it can happen to yours.’”
As of Wednesday morning, Athens Police Department’s investigation into Aaron Freund’s death remains open and ongoing, as is the case with another, separate investigation into the Nov. 12 death of another OU student at a rooming house on Mill Street in Athens.
The NEWS previously reported that OU is investigating a different fraternity, the Epsilon chapter of Sigma Pi fraternity, after Collin L. Wiant, 18, was found unresponsive at an alleged unofficial annex of that fraternity and later died at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital. According to 911 call records, a friend of Wiant’s said he thought he “drank too much,” and kept “passing out.”
OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said Tuesday that OU is still cooperating with the APD’s investigation into Wiant’s death, and continues to investigate the Sigma Pi fraternity. The NEWS is not aware of any university investigation into Aaron Freund’s death.
RICHARD FREUND explained the events that led to Aaron’s death as best as he and his wife have been able to piece together from the autopsy report, what police have told them, and what they’ve gleaned from people present during the night in question.
Richard explained that Aaron, like many other students at OU, “liked to party,” but said that from what he could tell, he did not struggle with addiction. He called him a “dabbler” with drugs, not a regular user.
Richard said that the day started off innocently enough for Aaron.
“They were having a good day,” he said. “I think it was several of his roommates and a couple of their friends and (a visiting friend) and maybe another buddy. They weren’t having a big party or anything.”
Richard said the group was having a good time throughout the day – drinking, playing cornhole and talking.
As the day turned into the evening and as his friends got ready to go to some bars uptown, Aaron apparently dozed off on his couch after smoking marijuana for the first time in a long while, his father said.
Then, somebody at the party, or Aaron himself, it’s not clear, brought out cocaine, possibly in an attempt to help him wake up.
“All I know is hearsay, I don’t know where it came from,” Richard said.
Aaron apparently snorted a small amount.
“Which was strange to me because I don’t know anything about him ever doing cocaine; he was usually pretty forthcoming with me, because I didn’t beat him up over that kind of stuff,” Richard said.
He explained that after Aaron snorted the drug, it didn’t “perk him up.”
“He just immediately passed out,” Richard said. “…His friend told me that; I don’t know if it was once or twice, but he basically came to a couple of times, with his eyes wide open, and then he just went back down. They didn’t realize that he was dying.”
It’s not clear how much time elapsed between Aaron taking the cocaine and the police being called. But what’s clear is that the cocaine was laced with fentanyl, according to autopsy results. He had marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and fentanyl in his bloodstream.
THE FEDERAL CENTERS FOR Disease Control and Prevention reported in a news release on Oct. 27 that fentanyl was found in more than half of all opioid overdose deaths in 10 states, including Ohio, from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2016. The Ohio Department of Health reported this year that Ohio had 4,854 fatal drug overdose deaths in 2017, up 20 percent from the year prior; fentanyl accounted for more than three-fourths of those deaths in 2017. Cocaine-related deaths accounted for 1,540 deaths in 2017, up from 1,109 in 2016.
Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn confirmed Tuesday that fentanyl-laced drugs are a problem in the area.
“We’ve too many times found people in Athens County ordering drugs off the ‘dark web’ (on the Internet),” Blackburn said. “Those drugs do not come from a licensed factory; they do not have a safety label; they’re not USDA-approved. They’re generally made in factories in China, and we have found on multiple occasions what people believed to be Xanax was laced either with heroin or fentanyl.”
Blackburn said that there’s a danger anytime “you do an illegal drug,” especially when the drugs are bought off the street or from the Internet from “somebody you don’t know.”
The NEWS reported in January that Athens County as of that point had seen 66 overdose deaths over the last seven years, many of them due to intoxication from multiple drugs at one time, especially opioids such as heroin in combination with alcohol.
Aaron’s father, Richard, said he doesn’t harbor any blame toward his son or other students for experimenting with drugs. He said he told Aaron’s fellow fraternity members, who showed up in droves to Aaron’s funeral in Cincinnati on Sept. 1, that he wasn’t going to “preach” to them.
“I’m not going to preach to people about, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t try that,’” Richard said. “It’s just that you don’t realize that basically there’s people that are sprinkling this crap, fentanyl… into (drugs), and it takes very little to kill you, volume-wise. They’re putting it in all kinds of drugs.”
Richard said that the fentanyl dose Aaron received isn’t typically considered a lethal dose (it was about a fourth of the level usually seen in overdoses), but the fact that he was drinking in combination with the cocaine may have been what caused his death (the autopsy stated that Aaron died of pulmonary congestion and edema, i.e. his lungs filling up with fluid, and atherosclerosis, with a narrowing of his right coronary artery).
REGARDLESS OF how Aaron Freund died, Richard and Sally said they’re hoping to continue a public conversation about the danger of fentanyl lacing drugs that college students and others use frequently. They said they hope Aaron’s death serves as a wake-up call for students to be careful about what they put in their bodies.
Beyond that, Sally said she wants people to remember Freund and follow the example he set for others. Sally and Richard said Aaron had seen adversity in his life, including suffering multiple concussions from playing football in high school, but focused his time on helping others, sometimes to his own detriment. The Freunds recalled a time when, as a freshman at Michigan State University, he stopped an attempted rape late in the evening on Halloween night.
“Basically he ran into the woods, and he still had his phone on; I hear the scuffling… and basically he broke up this gang rape. The girl got away, but he got the sh** kicked out of him. He got a major concussion from it,” Richard said.
Despite struggles with chronic pain because of those injuries, Richard repeated that he doesn’t think Aaron used opioid drugs regularly as a coping mechanism, aside from being on some prescription medication like Valium at some points in his life.
Aaron’s best friend, Mitch Hodge, 24, also of Cincinnati, who recently graduated from OU, said that his friend’s death is the toughest thing he’s ever had to deal with. He recalled Aaron as a kind person who could talk for hours with anybody, even people he just met.
“He was a really smart dude; I lived with him and he wasn’t going out a lot. He almost had a 4.0 (GPA) when I was there,” Hodge said.
He said that Aaron’s death could have happened to “anyone.”
“If the smartest kid I’ve ever met in my life… can go out for a random night… have a couple drinks and then someone offers him a bump of cocaine and that’s how your life ends, (that can happen to anyone).”
Hodge also railed against a culture he said persists at OU and elsewhere that discourages calling the police when somebody passes out due to drug or alcohol use.
“He could have been saved, but instead they laid him down and this and that; if they had just been like, this guy took a serious narcotic, he’s not okay, he needs to go to the hospital, he could have been saved,” Hodge said.
OU spokesperson Leatherwood noted that OU offers multiple services for students who are struggling with drug addiction, mental-health issues, or just need somebody to talk to when times get tough, including Counseling and Psychological Services and the Campus Involvement Center’s Collegiate Recovery Community (which offers regular support meetings for students in recovery).
“Substance misuse is an issue that affects people across the United States and around the globe, and unfortunately, students at Ohio University are not immune,” she said. “The university takes this issue very seriously, and we offer a variety of services and resources for students who need help overcoming these obstacles related to issues with substance misuse.”
Richard Freund added that he's hoping to work with the university on a project in Aaron's memory, and he also said that he's willing to speak with student or other groups at OU about Aaron (he can be reached at email@example.com).