Hunter Neiss, left, stands with his parents Dana Neiss, center, and Chad Neiss, Sr., at Lancaster Ice Rink Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. They are displaying a jersey and portrait Chad Neiss II, who died in October 2020 of a drug overdose. 

In his prep days, Chad “Bomber” Neiss II was a multi-sport student-athlete. He was a good teammate. He was good enough in the classroom.

There were no signs as to what awaited him after graduating from Manheim Township High School in 2013.

Run-ins with law enforcement. A worsening drug addiction. Several stints at rehabilitation facilities as Neiss attempted to separate himself from his demons, or at least learn how to keep them at bay.

Those demons led to jail time. His final stint in prison spanned six months. Around 10:30 a.m. Oct. 4, 2020, his last full day behind bars, Neiss opened his personal journal and penned 163 words on how he hoped to stay clean.

“I’m continuing to try and stay in the present time, as hard as it is,” he wrote. “Going through day by day is going to be a big part of my recovery.”

Two days later, Neiss was found dead of an overdose in his bedroom at his parents’ Manheim Township home. Toxicology results revealed the overdose to be pure fentanyl.

Neiss was 25.

Raising awareness

Tuesday is International Drug Overdose Awareness Day, a global effort to raise awareness of overdoses, reduce the stigma or drug-related deaths and acknowledge the grief felt by families and friends.

The day is felt by many in Pennsylvania, one of the leading states in overdose deaths in recent years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 5,172 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania last year, a jump of 16% from 4,444 in 2019.

There were 146 fatal overdoses in Lancaster County last year, a 40% increase from 2019, that officials attribute to the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic.

Among those overdose deaths was Neiss’. Shortly after his death, his former teammates formed an ice hockey team. That team reached the championship game of its league tournament at Lancaster Ice Rink last winter.

The game went to overtime.

Neiss’ younger brother, Hunter, had the puck in the final seconds. He faced a split-second decision: Hold onto the puck and let the game go to a shootout, or put a potential game-winning shot on the net.

‘Start worrying about yourself’

Hunter and Chad Neiss II

Brothers Hunter Neiss, left, and Chad Neiss II were separated by six years in age.

One of the driving reasons Chad Neiss II wanted to recover was to be a good role model for his brother Hunter.

“He cared about others a lot more than he cared about himself,” said their father, Chad Neiss Sr.

“He was always worried about what people were thinking about him,” he continued. “It was his greatest asset but his greatest downfall. I told him a million times, ‘Stop worrying about what other people think. Start worrying about yourself.’”

Chad Neiss II was a good student through his first two years attending Penn State Berks.

But he got caught up in the partying scene along the way. Alcohol led to marijuana to a stronger drug, according to the family.

From mid-2015 through the end of 2019, Neiss was arrested twice and had eight combined stints at six different drug rehabilitation facilities.

By early 2020, though, Neiss appeared back on track. He had a job. He was attending outpatient counseling sessions. He had a discussion with his parents about petitioning Penn State to return to class; he was three classes away from completing a bachelor’s degree in communications.

Then came another relapse.

On the evening of March 13, 2020, a Manheim Township police officer found Neiss unresponsive behind the wheel of a vehicle out front of the Neiss family home. The police officer revived Neiss with naloxone, a medication used to treat opioid overdose.

Neiss was arrested and spent the next three months at Lancaster County Prison. Because the arrest violated his probation from an earlier arrest in State College, Neiss spent an additional three months at Centre County Correctional Facility.

He was required to pass a drug rehabilitation program before being released. He received a certificate congratulating him on passing the program Sept. 30. He died exactly a week later.

Deadly delivery

Chad Neiss II Penn State

Before his death, Chad Neiss II was three classes away from completing a bachelor's degree in communications at Penn State University.

Dana Neiss picked up her oldest son from Centre County Correctional Facility mid-day Oct. 5.

“We stopped at the Sheetz on the way home,” she recalled. “He had an extra money card — we used to give him money for commissary. He had leftover money on the card. He was all happy jack about getting that money (out of the ATM) and putting it in his wallet.”

Dana Neiss suspects her son used that money to purchase the fentanyl that caused his death.

Hours after returning home, Chad Neiss II first texted Derrick Bunteman at 10:29 p.m., according to charging documents. The two texted back and forth a combined 21 times over the next 45 minutes. They did not discuss a drug deal. But by the end of the conversation, Bunteman was in front of the Neiss’ home.

After Chad Neiss II’s death, packets of heroin or fentanyl were found in his bedroom. Police traced those packets back to Bunteman, according to charging documents. Bunteman, 27, was arrested in December and charged with drug delivery resulting in death — akin in seriousness to third-degree murder, with a maximum possible sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison.

Bunteman was released on bail March 4 and awaits an on-call trial date Oct. 8. When reached by phone, Bunteman’s defense attorney Courtney Monson declined comment for this story since the case has not yet gone to trial but said, “Until then, Mr. Bunteman is presumed innocent.”

The rise of fentanyl

From 2000 to 2017, Pennsylvania filed criminal charges against individuals who sold or shared a drug used during a fatal overdose more than any other state with similar statutes, according to data collected by the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University’s School of Law.

Within the state over that same span, Lancaster County had the highest rate of filing the charge of drug delivery resulting in death.

“The prosecution reflects on a different philosophy that we have than other places,” Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said.

What is that philosophy?

“I start with looking at the crime itself,” Adams said. “The legislature has given the Drug Delivery Resulting in Death charge to be considered on the level of a homicide. The filing of that charge serves to dignify the victim, to treat it as a crime rather than some sad inevitability. Second is the heroin that’s being sold today is more deadly than ever before. Third is that we’re seeing fentanyl now more than heroin. Those two things call for a strong law enforcement response.”

The state created the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs in 2012. The $431 million agency now consists of more than 800 facilities statewide.

Closer to home, Lancaster Joining Forces was founded in 2017 as a countywide initiative with the mission to reduce deaths from opioids and heroin.

The efforts have been much needed as fentanyl has taken over the drug supply over the last half-dozen years or so. Of the 93,000 overdose deaths nationally in 2020, more than 60% of them involved fentanyl, according to CDC data.

Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times stronger than heroin. As a result, the high is much stronger, but in turn so is the brain’s craving for it, leading to a potentially fatal addiction.

The drug is also dangerous for its potency. One milligram of fentanyl is enough to cause a high, but two to three milligrams can cause death. Because it is often mixed with other drugs, users sometimes don’t know the amount of fentanyl they’re taking with each dose.

Fentanyl has also risen in usage because it is more lucrative for manufacturers and dealers; you need about 20 times less product to achieve the same high as heroin.

Fentanyl is primarily manufactured in foreign clandestine labs and smuggled into the United States through Mexico, distributed across the country and sold on the illegal drug market. The pipeline also flows from Chinese laboratories to U.S. customers through small, hard-to-detect packages in the mail.

In other words, the fentanyl that led to the death of Chad Neiss II had likely come a long way.

Tough to overcome

Chad E. Neiss II

Chad E. Neiss II

Had Neiss steered clear of drugs, he’d likely be in the early years of a professional career.

“He wanted to work for a pro sports team,” Chad Neiss Sr. said. “Be in their marketing department or public relations department. Or maybe in sales.”

But those ambitions will never come to fruition.

“When he first passed away,” Dana Neiss said. “I would just go up there and lay in his bed and just talk to him.”

“One thing that’s tough for me to overcome is, what could I have done differently?” Neiss Sr. said. “I ask myself that even to this day.”

“We feel like we’ve done everything we possibly could,” Dana Neiss said.

“Part of addiction is if you don’t want to get help, all the help in the world isn’t going to matter,” Neiss Sr. said. “It’s an individual choice.”

There’s also the concern for Hunter, a Manheim Township alumnus now entering his junior year at West Chester University.

“He’s seen all the things that happened,” Dana Neiss said. “He says he would never do that. You have to take him at his word.”

Forging ahead

Chad Neiss hockey

Chad Neiss II played ice hockey for much of his life.

On the ice, Chad Neiss II was considered the player his team turned to when it needed a goal in crunch time.

Hunter Neiss has followed in his brother’s footsteps. He was one of 16 players on the team of his brother’s former teammates that reached the Winter 2021 Lancaster Ice Rink men’s league championship game in late April.

With the game knotted at 3-3 with about 10 seconds left in overtime, Hunter Neiss snatched the puck on his team’s offensive end. League rules dictated the game would go to a shootout if it wasn’t decided by the end of the overtime.

“I think the other team thought Hunter was just going to go in and eat the puck to force the shootout,” had Neiss Sr. said. “Hunter made a power move coming out of the corner and picked the top shelf on the goalie. He scored at the buzzer.”

The team’s name was Gr-8-Ness, the No. 8 representing the jersey number Chad Neiss II wore in his playing days.

In the moments after Hunter scored the game-winner, the Gr-8-Ness players gathered on one end of the ice for a group picture with the championship trophy.

A few days later, one of those players texted Neiss Sr., pointing out the clock in the background of the picture. The time was 8 o’clock.

“Chad was on the ice with us that night,” Neiss Sr. said.

A scholarship has since been set up at Lancaster Ice Rink in the memory of Chad Neiss II. It will cover up to $500 of the fee for a Lancaster Firebird player to compete in the Delaware Valley Hockey League. Neiss II played for the Firebirds for much of his life.

The inaugural Chad Neiss II Memorial Golf Outing will be held at Iron Valley Golf Club on Oct. 1, with the proceeds split between the scholarship and the Lancaster Ice Rink, the latter to help the facility pay for much-needed renovations.

Meanwhile, Dana Neiss hopes to volunteer at drug rehabilitation facilities in Lancaster County.

“I feel I could be a counselor at this point,” she said.

Chad Neiss Sr., a longtime guitar player, has found solace in music by writing songs about his late son.

One of those songs is called “The Light.” It is written from Chad Neiss II’s point of view. The song is about the struggles he faced, and now being freed of them through death. These lyrics in the middle of the song summarize it best:

“Heaven’s now my home. The suffering is gone. God’s now by my side. I’m right where I belong.”

LNP|LancasterOnline reporters Enelly Betancourt and Dan Nephin contributed to this story.

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