Sherri Navarre poses in front of her truck’s tailgate covered with messages about the dangers of fentanyl. She
holds a photo of her niece, Shelbi Dale Crippen, who died from a dose of illicit fentanyl.

More than 1,200 mostly smiling, happy faces look back from the pages of the National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day website. Some are as young as 17, and maybe younger. Others are age 42 or more. 

Like Battery Creek High School graduate Shelbi Dale Crippen – whose photo is amongst them – they all died from a dose of fentanyl.

Crippen’s death on April 16, 2021, affected family members differently. Her aunt, Sherri Navarre, said her sister, Jacki Hanners, still has difficulty talking about her daughter. 

After resurfacing from deep depression over her niece’s death, Navarre has taken up the fight for all of them and is on a mission to promote awareness and prevention “because I don’t want any other families to go through this.”

Crippen grew up in Beaufort, loved cosmetology and talked about becoming a nurse, Navarre said, but soon after graduation she met someone who introduced her to hydrocodone. It wasn’t long before her family began noticing changes in her behavior. 

“After she started dating him, my sister was noticing things that were going on and how she was acting,” she said. “She picked up on it and got Shelbi out of there. She went to rehab and did well for a while, but soon she was back on drugs with someone different.”

Navarre recalled that Crippen was beautiful, very intelligent and loving. She occasionally made the honor roll, loved all her friends and family deeply, and loved animals, especially elephants and her guinea pigs.

“She was just the girl next door. She was just a beautiful loving child. She was funny as all get out and would always keep us rolling,” said Navarre. 

On a more serious note, she said her mission is specifically to spread awareness about illicit fentanyl, the cause of Crippen’s death.

“She couldn’t fight that demon. She went to rehab three times and the last time was the longest she was without drugs,” she said. 

Crippen worked several jobs, finally settling at Lowe’s, a job Navarre said she really loved. While working there, Crippen was also keeping in touch with a man she had met at the Beaufort Water Festival. After several months of talking on the phone, she went to visit him in Texas, and soon there was talk about plans for the future. Crippen ended up moving there.

“She was missing her family a lot, and I think that’s what got her started back on to doing drugs. Somebody was doing meth right down the road from her, and it was right there in her face,” Navarre said. “The boyfriend had nothing to do with it. He does not do drugs, and I don’t even think he knew she did. Not until she actually overdosed on heroin while she was there. He gave her mouth-to-mouth and then 911 came, and they got her back.”

Navarre said the family did not know she had overdosed and was in the hospital for a few days until months after the incident.

Crippen and her boyfriend broke up, but she was still staying there. She came back to Beaufort for what was supposed to be a week’s visit, and was planning to return to Texas and help him pay the rent. 

Navarre said Crippen arrived back in Beaufort on a Wednesday. On Thursday she got into a car accident. She wasn’t injured but the car was seriously damaged. 

Between her depression over the break-up and anxiety over the accident, she “had a lot of stuff on her mind,” Navarre said.

On Friday, Crippen went to stay with one of her best friends.

“She decided to go get a pill from someone she knew. We’re pretty sure about this from a text on her phone. We know it’s got to be one of the three people that she had been to before and got pills from. And she went and got a pill and it was either a Xanax or the Dilaudid,” said Navarre.

Dilaudid, or hydromorphone, is a potent schedule II opioid used to help relieve moderate to severe pain. Xanax or Alprazolam is also a narcotic in the benzodiazepine class, and is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.

“The pill was in her system, but the coroner told us that it was fentanyl that took her life. She was poisoned because she had no idea. She thought she was taking a pill and was going to get some sleep and not have to be anxious because of the car accident and breaking up with her boyfriend,” Navarre said. “She said goodnight to her best friend, went to the guest room to lay down, took the pill and probably within 15 minutes she was gone, because that’s how quickly it’ll kill you.”

Navarre said there were 21 milligrams of fentanyl in her system according to the coroner.

“It’s lethal at two grams, and that’s like the size of the end of a pencil head,” she said.

Crippen was supposed to go to her parents’ house the next day. It was midday and her mother called the girlfriend, who went up to the guest room and found her friend deceased.

Navarre had never heard of fentanyl until her niece’s death. 

“I looked it up and I was on a mission. And then I found out more and more about illicit fentanyl, because there’s pharmaceutical fentanyl, for pain, and usually doctors give it to people with cancer – the patches and that type of thing. And then there’s the illicit – the street fentanyl – pressed into a pill like what Shelbi took,” she said. “My mission is to help save as many lives as I can, to get it out there, to let people know how dangerous this really is. Because I think there’s a lot of people that either don’t know about fentanyl, or they don’t realize how dangerous it is.” 

Navarre belongs to several Facebook groups, including The Lost Voices of Fentanyl, which has held several rallies in Washington, D.C.

Navarre can be seen driving her red pickup in Beaufort County with large magnets on the tailgate promoting awareness.

“I have a picture of Shelbi. And then I have the statement ‘One party – One Pill – One Time.’ It’s not just (adults) who are addicted to drugs. It’s been children as young as 10 years old, that are just curious. Or they’ve had peer pressure to try something, or college students that need Adderall to keep themselves up that they can cram for that test at night,” she said. “They take what they think is just a pill and it’s fentanyl.”

It’s not just Navarre and her sister who mourn the loss of Shelbi. The sisters’ parents have also felt the loss. Her grandmother, Diana Crippen, was her confidante.

“We talked about everything. We’d have five-and-a-half-hour conversations,” she said. “We never argued – or we might want to disagree, but not anything ever mean. And anytime anything happened, whether it was good, bad or ugly, she would call me. It had been Friday we spoke and at that time, she had me hopeful that she was going to go to a meeting, actually with a good friend of hers that needed to go as well. And of course that didn’t happen.”

Crippen said she has spoken to some of her granddaughter’s peers about what happened and how dangerous the drug is, but with little reaction.

“Not too many are interested, because (they think) it won’t happen to them. I’m from a very small village outside of Chicago, and they say the drug is for Chicago,” she said. “‘That’s not going to happen to one of mine. Your grandchild must not have done very well.’ They never really came out and said that to me, but I know. I went to school with them. I know them.”

In 2020, there were 30 Beaufort County deaths caused by an overdose of opioids. 

According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, “there is significant risk that illegal drugs have been intentionally contaminated with fentanyl. Because of its potency and low cost, drug dealers have been mixing fentanyl with other drugs including heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, increasing the likelihood of a fatal interaction.”

It can also be pressed into counterfeit pills that look like the real thing, such as Valium and Xanax.

Navarre encourages people to get involved by contacting her through her Facebook page at Sherri Domagalla Navarre.

If you or someone you know uses drugs, take advantage of the opportunity to receive free training on the application of Narcan – also known as Naloxone. 

Contact the First Responders Project for group presentations and training, or for individual training and information. Call 843-255-6020 for the team. You’ll be able to get details on how to get a free kit to keep handy. 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.