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'Our baby is gone'; Family wrestles with son's fentanyl death

PIX Now 12:43

 (CNN) -- It was every parent's worst nightmare.

Two days after Christmas 2020, Chris Didier went into his son Zach's bedroom in their home near Sacramento. The accomplished student, school theater actor and athlete was unresponsive at his desk -- his head lying on his arm.

"I could feel before I even touched him that something was horribly wrong," said Chris.

Chris, who is retired from the Air Force, said his first aid training kicked in and he immediately began CPR, instructing another of his sons to call 911.

"I will never forget the shock on our son Sam's face when he came to bring the phone in, seeing his lifeless brother on the floor," said Chris.

Chris's eyes filled with tears as he sat next to Zach's mother, Laura, inside their son's former high school theater classroom, recounting to CNN the tragic day that shattered their lives.

Medics arrived at the home and began trying to resuscitate Zach, but they stopped after mere minutes.

"They looked at me and said, 'I'm sorry,' and I refused to accept that," said Chris. "It was something that I adamantly could not accept."

He grabbed a medic's defibrillator and resumed CPR, desperately trying to revive his son, and begged the medical personnel in the room to help.

"And when they didn't," said Chris, "I started trying to talk to Zach and begged him: Don't go. Come back. Please come back. Do not go."

One of the first responders eventually pulled Chris away, gently telling him it was time to let go.

"And that was my all-time low in my life," he said. "I lost it there and I cried inconsolably."

The couple's daughter called Laura and told her to get to the house as Zach was in trouble.

But when she arrived, seeing the family in the driveway and no ambulance at the home, Laura feared the worst.

"I walked up," Laura recounted, "and Chris said, 'Our baby is gone.'"

The Placer County coroner soon arrived and spent several hours looking around the home and examining Zach's room.

They eventually came downstairs and told Chris and Laura the cause of death was a mystery, but they were ruling out suicide. The medical examiner said they had two initial theories: an undetected medical condition, or poisoning from fentanyl.

Chris and Laura said the possibility of Zach dying from fentanyl spiraled them into "debilitating confusion" as they tried to process the theory.

Chris said he knew fentanyl was some kind of powerful synthetic opioid, but that he "would have never imagined it would be in our home, (let) alone be in Zach's body."

Laura said it felt like someone was speaking a foreign language to her.

"Why would they even speculate that?" she said. "Zach doesn't use drugs. Zach's a great kid. How would he even get ahold of it?"

After examining Zach's phone, investigators found their answer.

In December 2020, following months of pandemic lockdowns, remote learning and severe disruption and stress placed upon on children, Chris said, a local shopping mall had finally reopened.

Using the popular social media app Snapchat, Zach and a friend made contact with a drug dealer who was advertising various products he was selling near the mall's food court. The teens purchased what they were told was the prescription pain reliever Percocet.

"But they were duped," Chris said. "They were not sold that. They were instead sold a counterfeit pill."

Investigators determined the pill, in fact, contained fentanyl.

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