Signs of loss are scattered across Baltimore. Sprays of flowers in front of a boarded rowhouse. Makeshift memorials in the lobby of an apartment building or the therapy room of an addiction treatment program. Each a statement: Someone who was loved died here.

People in Baltimore have been dying of overdoses at a rate never before seen in a major American city, a New York Times and Baltimore Banner examination has found. The epidemic has claimed almost 6,000 lives in the past six years.

About the series

The reporters examined the city’s response to rising overdose deaths as part of The New York Times Local Investigations Fellowship.

Here are some of their stories.

Yvonne Holden with a cardboard cutout of her son Al during a birthday memorial for him. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

SEPT. 21, 1971, TO SEPT. 21, 2021

Al Holden: The Boy Who Looked Like Charlie Brown

When Yvonne Holden became a mother at 14, she held her baby and noticed a resemblance to Charlie Brown. It was so striking, she said, she started calling him by the character’s name.

Her son, whose real name was Al Holden, grew into a boy who loved to box and then a man who taught his younger brothers how to cut hair. In his youth, he got his first taste of heroin, his mother said. Addiction was the source of many challenges in his life: imprisonment, homelessness, health problems.

Still, he remained close with his large extended family and made many friends. After he died of an overdose on his 50th birthday on Sept. 21, 2021, a few weeks after being released from prison, a crowd came out for a candlelight vigil, Yvonne Holden said. They told stories about Al Holden cooking for his neighbors and giving friends a place to stay when he himself was in financial straits.

Since then, Holden’s family has gathered annually to honor his birthday and death day, an anniversary of love and loss. They play basketball and release balloons. Yvonne Holden pictures the child she used to hug and kiss, who looked a lot like Charlie Brown. “I lost my baby,” she said.

William Miller Sr. ran a program that helped distribute Narcan, an overdose antidote. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

DEC. 31, 1954, TO OCT. 7, 2020

William Miller Sr.: Saving Others From Overdoses

William Miller Sr. had been “hustling” his entire life, from when he was using and dealing drugs to when he began persuading people to carry the overdose antidote Narcan, said William Miller Jr., his son.

Later in life, after taking a class in which he learned about community organizing, Miller Sr. had become a leader in Baltimore’s movement to save people from overdoses. He started a group called Bmore Power that set up tables in neighborhoods where people were overdosing. His team took an approach called harm reduction, focusing on mitigating the risk of illness and death rather than promoting abstinence from drugs.

William Miller Jr. with his 3-year-old son, William Miller III. His father’s death sent a shock throughout the community. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Miller died of an overdose in his bathroom on Oct. 7, 2020. His death at age 65 sent a shock through the community.

One group in the overdose prevention field remembered his “soft-spoken, no-nonsense manner” that commanded respect. Another called him a “legendary organizer.”

Behavioral Health System Baltimore, which funds Bmore Power, has downsized the outreach team over the years, said Miller’s son, who no longer works with them. Those who remain and other groups across the city carry on the work that Miller promoted.

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Mona Setherley brings flowers to the rowhome where her son, Bruce Setherley, was discovered deceased from an overdose in Baltimore on February 15, 2024.
Mona Setherley brought flowers to the abandoned rowhouse where Bruce, her son, died from an overdose in 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

JULY 27, 1978, TO MARCH 14, 2022

Bruce Setherley: Generous to the Needy

Bruce Setherley, 43, was found on March 14, 2022, in an abandoned home in Southwest Baltimore.

His body was in such bad shape that the medical examiner’s office and funeral home wouldn’t let his family see him, even when his sister asked to look at just a hand.

Without a chance to say goodbye, his mother, Mona Setherley, has had difficulty processing his death. She wondered if the body was really her son’s until she saw a description in his autopsy of his tattoos: a butterfly, in memory of his grandfather, and the word “outcast,” how he felt in the world.

A picture showing Mona Setherley walking her son Bruce Setherley down the aisle during a wedding.
Mona Setherley walks with her son down the aisle during a wedding. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Bruce Setherley had been addicted to heroin, then fentanyl, for more than 20 years, Mona Setherley said. He didn’t think he would grow old.

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As Mona Setherley sorted through piles of paper her son left in her home, she saw a note, dated 2004, for people to find after his death.

“My last wish is that when you do remember, you smile and if you can laugh, always laugh,” he had written. “If nothing else, laugh at me.”

He signed the note warmly: “Love, Dubbs.”

On the anniversary of her son Bruce Setherley's death in Baltimore on February 15, 2024, Mona Setherley distributes bags containing goods to those she encounters. Bruce Setherley was discovered deceased from an overdose inside an abandoned rowhome.
Mona Setherley distributes goods in the neighborhoods where her son used to use drugs. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

In life, Bruce Setherley was generous. He once spent Christmas morning making bacon-and-egg sandwiches and passing them out to people sleeping on church steps and on medians, the types of places he slept when homeless.

Since his death, Mona Setherley and her daughter have honored him by spending part of Christmas in the neighborhoods where he used to buy drugs. Last year, they gave a few dollars, two cigarettes, cupcakes and peanut butter crackers to anyone in need.

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Cassidy Fredrick, 6, sits on the headstone of her father, Devon Wellington. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

JUNE 5, 1989, TO JULY 24, 2021

Devon Wellington: Learning to Be a Father

Cassidy Fredrick, 6, climbed on top of her father’s grave and pointed to the clouds.

“I love you in the sky, Daddy,” she said.

Her father, Devon Wellington, had died in his truck of an overdose on July 24, 2021, at age 32.

Donna Bruce has a picture of her son, Devon Wellington, hanging on the wall of her salon. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

In high school, Wellington was prom king and played on the basketball team. But, after graduating, he grappled with addiction like his mother, father and grandmother before him.

A year before his death, he found out he was Cassidy’s father. He took her to the park, braided her hair and was trying to figure out what it meant to be a parent, said his mother, Donna Bruce. Though Wellington loved his daughter, he couldn’t escape his addiction. He relapsed that summer.

Bruce now works for a public library program that hires people who have been addicted to drugs to help others find treatment and social services. “I couldn’t save my son,” she recently said. “I took that pain and turned it into purpose.”

Sometimes, she and Cassidy look for signs of Wellington in the sky: a heart-shaped cloud, a rainbow, a butterfly flitting past.

Lisa Filer lights incense at an alter dedicated to her son Aidan Filer inside of her home in Baltimore, MD on March 22, 2024. Aidan Filer passed away from an overdose in 2020.
Lisa Filer lit incense at a home altar dedicated to Aidan, her son. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

OCT. 13, 1997, TO JULY 22, 2020

Aidan Filer: Lover of Sports, Reptiles and Fashion

When 22-year-old Aidan Filer died on July 22, 2020, it seemed like no authorities cared how or why, said his mother, Lisa Filer. A police officer told her this happened all the time, and his family should grieve and move on, she recalled.

So Lisa Filer examined the evidence herself. A photo of a dilapidated corner store with a hand-stenciled sign. A bank statement showing a $40 ATM withdrawal. A police report about gel capsules filled with white powder, her son found slumped over in his Toyota Camry.

Piece by piece, Lisa Filer assembled a picture of her son’s last day. She put the documents together in a three-ring binder. She knew some details could not be accounted for: Without his cellphone, which had gone missing, she had no way of figuring out who had sold him fentanyl.

Lisa Filer and Jon Filer leave sunflowers outside of Starlight Liquors in Baltimore, MD on July 20, 2023 where their son, Aidan Filer, passed away in the vehicle shown from a fentanyl overdose three years prior.
Lisa and Jon Filer left sunflowers outside a liquor store in Baltimore. Their son died of an overdose in his vehicle outside the shop in 2020. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Still, the act of documenting her son’s life felt cathartic. She kept going, stretching further back in time. She feared forgetting a single detail about her son, who had excelled at lacrosse, football and basketball and loved raising reptiles and buying designer clothes.

In the years since Aidan Filer’s death, the collection of binders has grown to thousands of pages.

They cover his middle school years, when he developed a facial tic related to anxiety and started seeing a psychiatrist for the first time. His high school years, when he attended parties with drugs and alcohol. His first year of college, when his parents realized the extent of his addiction and scrambled to find treatment options in a complicated system.

Nearly four years after her son’s death, Lisa Filer’s dark hair includes strands of silver and hangs down her back. Neither she nor her husband has had a haircut since their son’s death.

She helps lead a support group called Love in The Trenches for parents who have lost children to overdose. They gather virtually from their homes across the country, united by a common bond. They refuse to forget.