Mom says Lawrence woman who died of fentanyl poisoning at age 23 ‘was a person, not another number’
photo by: Contributed
Mary Cowdin stood outside a Douglas County courtroom in mid-December, waiting to learn the fate of a man who had been charged in connection with the death of her daughter Angelyca.
Angelyca was the 23-year-old’s real name, but, as her best friend, Raven Wilson, noted, no one ever called her that.
“Because to us she was Angel,” Wilson said, even though they often joked about how she was no real angel, being “fiery and filled with energy.”
Just as Mary, with Wilson by her side, was about to enter the courtroom, focused on what she might tell the judge about the pain of losing her only daughter, Mary discovered that the sentencing of William Martin Byrd had been delayed. She was told a new hearing would be scheduled after the holidays, to come back then. And so she went home to face her first Christmas without her child and the sliver of closure the sentencing might have afforded.
This is what her life has been like the past eight months. Tears, frustration, loneliness — but mostly incomprehension: How does a vibrant 23-year-old leave the world in the blink of an eye, and what does justice even mean?
It’s a question that persists even though Mary knows the answer all too well: Angel died because she consumed a pill that she bought for $20 from someone she trusted, and no amount of “justice” will change that.
According to her autopsy report, Angel died of acute fentanyl intoxication — a cause of death that has been written on tens of thousands of autopsy reports as the synthetic opioid has ravaged communities across the country. In Kansas alone, opioid deaths shot up 74% from 239 in 2020 to 416 in 2021, according to the state’s just-released Annual Summary of Vital Statistics.
But Mary, like many who have lost loved ones, bristles at the mention of Angel as a fentanyl statistic.
“She was a person, not another number. She was a daughter, she was a friend, she was a confidant,” Mary said. “She had many friends. She was a sister … I mean, (she wasn’t) just a number among fentanyl deaths.”
photo by: Kim Callahan
The last day Mary saw her daughter alive was April 14. Angel had come over to Mary’s house in eastern Lawrence.
“We talked about everything,” Mary said of their daily visits, when Angel would “come by just to hang out.” “She told me everything.”
On that particular day, Angel said she hadn’t been feeling well.
“She had pancreatitis, and she had other problems that were going on with her,” Mary said. “And she had asked Martin to go get her a pain pill … Well, that’s what she thought she was getting.”
“Martin” is how the family referred to Byrd, whom Angel had known for around 10 years and had at one point dated for about a year, Mary said, though she was now in a serious relationship with another man whom she was hoping to marry.
According to Wilson, who had been best friends with Angel since the two attended Kennedy Elementary together, Angel met Byrd when she was about 14 and he was in his late 20s.
“I never really liked him from the beginning,” Wilson said, “and I felt that he was very manipulative.”
Byrd came to Mary’s house that evening in early spring, quickly dropped off a pill and left, Mary said. She did not see him but heard him and Angel talking in the front room. According to home surveillance video, which was provided to police, Byrd arrived at 6:51 p.m. and stayed just a little over two minutes before returning to the back seat of a white car and leaving. A few minutes later, at 6:55, Mary ordered an Uber to take Angel back to her apartment. Angel went outside at 7:02 to wait for the ride.
“She hugged and kissed me and told me ‘I love you,'” as she usually did, Mary said.
Seven minutes later, as the surveillance video showed, Angel collapsed by the curb.
Mary, who was back in the house, said she got an Uber alert on her phone, so she looked outside, and that’s when — just 12 minutes after she had left the house — she saw her daughter on the ground. Mary called 911, and paramedics arrived.
“They tried to resuscitate her, but she was just too far … she was gone,” Mary said.
Mary is still haunted by how quickly her daughter died. Angel, like many young people, was no stranger to drug and alcohol use, Wilson and Mary both noted, but she could not have suspected the lethality of the pill she took to ease her abdominal pain, not the least because it came from someone she trusted.
“About three to five grains of table salt — that’s the potential fatal dose of fentanyl for an adult,” authorities, including the Lawrence police, have warned.
In Angel’s case, as in so many others, the pill was allegedly made to look like OxyContin.
According to a police affidavit, Byrd said he gave Angel a round blue pill with “M/30” printed on it in exchange for $20. He said he got the pill from Mason Robinson, who would also later be charged in Angel’s death.
The LPD detective investigating the case, Charles Cottengim, wrote in the affidavit that the pills in question were fashioned to look like the more legitimate prescription painkillers. He indicated that he had personally investigated numerous incidents of fentanyl overdoses in Lawrence involving the blue M/30 counterfeits containing deadly fentanyl.
photo by: Kansas Department of Corrections
Two months after Angel died, Byrd, now 37, and Robinson, 27, were arrested in connection with her death. Both men were charged with one count of distribution of a controlled substance leading to death, a level-one felony.
Mary was somewhat comforted by the charges, she said, but to her dismay, Byrd was allowed, just four months later, to enter a no contest plea to the lesser crime of possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute — and the distribution leading to death charge was dropped.
“I was not pleased,” Mary said of the October deal. She said prosecutors had told her that Byrd had been useful to them.
The possession crime is punishable by 14 months to 51 months in prison. As part of the plea, Byrd, who served time in prison for a 2018 felony drug conviction, agreed to testify against Robinson.
Byrd is now scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 18, and Robinson, whose case is now in criminal mediation, is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing on Jan. 13.
In early December, the office of Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez indicated that it was prosecuting nearly a dozen defendants in separate cases for distribution of fentanyl that has led to death or great bodily harm.
Valdez, whose own brother died of fentanyl poisoning after taking a counterfeit painkiller, told the Journal-World then that she hoped “the prosecution of those involved in making money from selling this dangerous drug will raise public awareness.”
While the legal aspects of Angel’s death have provided little solace, Mary and Wilson both fortify themselves with memories of Angel and the lasting ways she shaped their lives.
Though Angel, like many, had not always made the best personal choices for herself, she never failed in her kindness to others, they both said.
“Her goal in life was to make everybody happy,” Mary said.
“Regardless if she had the means to help or not, she would go out of her way to make others feel better,” Wilson said. “She was someone who would do for you with no need of anything in return” and she had “this huge, bubbly laugh that could fill a whole room – and when you needed a dance partner she was always ready.”
photo by: Contributed
Wilson said she and Angel met at the neighborhood swimming pool as kids and bonded over their shared love of Hello Kitty — a love that years later they memorialized with matching “best friend” tattoos.
Angel loved to read, to cook, to be outdoors, to fish at Clinton Lake, to jump in the car, “driving the back roads just talking,” Wilson said.
“When we lived together for a few years, we often spent our mornings lying in bed talking about our futures, our dreams and, of course, men, giggling to ourselves and being way too loud,” Wilson said. “We planned Christmas together one year and filled our tree with Dollar Store gifts in the hopes of finding presents that would make one another laugh or smile without spending hundreds of dollars.”
Mary and Wilson both said that Angel at the time of her death was doing well in the new relationship — “He was so good to her, so sweet,” Mary said — and was looking at career options through Job Corps, possibly cosmetology school or health care.
“She would have been an amazing nurse,” Wilson said. “She was such a loving person. She had such a huge heart.”