On a sunny spring afternoon, Annie Fouche flips through printed photo collages and scrolls through pictures on her phone, images that captured special moments she’s shared with her sister and mom.
One shows Fouche’s sister as a teen, smiling at Santa Rosa City Hall while receiving an award for being at the top of her class.
In another photo, taken when Fouche was a child, the three pose for a formal portrait. Fouche’s mother has her hair neatly combed back and wears an elegant flower print dress. Her two daughters stand in front of her.
Fouche looked back on those memories while at the Santa Rosa Memorial Park cemetery during one of her regular visits.
A granite niche that held their cremated remains was surrounded by flowers and metallic butterflies, and was adorned with an oval photograph of the pair, Alexia Fouche Gillam, 37, and Annette Fouche, 58, smiling and hugging one another.
Alexia, a former longtime employee of the Sole Desire shoe retailer, was known for her bubbly personality, Fouche said. The two had teamed up to raise Fouche’s daughters.
The women’s mother, Annette, had juggled several jobs as a single mom and struggled with alcohol and drug addiction throughout her life, Fouche said. But she showed her love through small gestures, such as doing Fouche’s laundry or teaching her how to make waffles.
On April 2, 2020, the bodies of Fouche’s mom and sister would be found apart at their Sonoma Avenue apartment in Santa Rosa. Alexia had lived at the apartment complex, a cluster of gray and white homes near Howarth Park, for several years.
Fouche’s older sister by five years, Alexia was found in her front yard. Her body lay curled in the fetal position, a cup of red Jell-O near her body.
Hours later after police had left, Fouche went to her sister’s apartment. Unaware that her mother had also died, she would enter the home alone and discover her mother had died in the kitchen under a pile of appliances and trash.
Nearby was a pan of red Jell-O that had only a small portion scooped out. Next to it sat a bag filled with a white powdery substance authorities warned Fouche was fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine.
The Sonoma County Coroner’s Office ruled a mix of drugs caused their death. Toxicology reports provided by Fouche for both her mother and sister showed that fentanyl had been in their system, as was methamphetamine and amphetamine.
Their deaths were part of a larger spike in fatal fentanyl-driven overdoses recorded by the coroner’s office in 2020, when such deaths more than doubled compared to the year prior and have steadily increased since 2017. From a statewide perspective, Sonoma County had among the highest rates of fentanyl-related overdose deaths per capita just two years ago.
Fouche said she was unsure exactly when or how her mother and sister were exposed to the drugs. She had stopped talking to the pair after her mother relapsed in February of that year and her sister continued to let their mother live with her.
“It sucks,” Fouche said. “(My sister) is going to miss out on my daughter’s graduation. She’s going to miss out on all these things we live for.”
Fatal overdoses on the rise
Though it’s hard to say how many people are using fentanyl in Sonoma County, data from the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office shows local fentanyl-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the past five years.
Public reporting of those cases show the drug is killing people of all ages throughout Sonoma County.
Those deaths include Yadhira Carrillo Mendoza, a 14-year-old girl from Guerneville whose body was found in the back of a car after a minor crash in Santa Rosa in December. A mix of fentanyl and alcohol intoxication caused her death, the coroner’s office said.