The distraught father told the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station deputy that the last time he saw his 24-year-old son alive, around 8 p.m. Jan. 29, he was in his bedroom.
A few hours later, he awoke in the middle of the night to use the restroom and saw his son’s light was still on.
Nick Zieska was supposed to head to Pasadena with his dad early the next morning for work at the family-run construction company, so Keith Zieska checked in on his son.
He opened the door and saw his son’s head tilted back in the chair where he was sitting.
Nick’s skin was cool to the touch.
“I walked in and he was laid back in his chair, obviously dead, but still I tried to resuscitate him, called 911,” Keith Zieska said Friday in a phone interview from his current home in Groveland.
Emergency personnel came quickly to their home in the 31600 block of Ridge Route Road.
That tragic discovery turned Keith Zieska’s life upside down, he said.
He struggled with alcohol. He moved almost five hours away and sought help.
“My business fell apart from this — I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “My life is nothing like it was the day before this happened. It completely changed everything.”
Now he’s back at work, but he’s still waiting for justice for those he feels are responsible for his son’s death.
“I would love to see them charged and jailed for second-degree murder,” Keith Zieska said. “I’m not a violent person, so I would like to see them locked up in jail for a very, very long time.”
A ‘perfect storm’
Medical examiners ruled Nick Zieska’s death was the result of fentanyl intoxication.
Keith Zieska said his son had his struggles before his death, and even sought an Alcoholics Anonymous program to try to get healthy.
“I knew there were some drugs that went along with it. He’d been in and out of therapy,” he said. “I knew there were issues there, but I didn’t ever expect it to go to the level of a fentanyl overdose.”
With the rise in such cases seen throughout the nation, drug treatment experts hear this refrain all too often.
Between 2019 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths increased by 31% and three-quarters of those involved opioids, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data available.
Of those instances, 82.3% of opioid-involved overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids, a spike experts attribute to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
“It’s freaking everywhere,” said Cary Quashen, founder and president of Action Drug Rehabilitation, who estimated that 25% of his clients were knowingly trying to detox from the drug, and most of the other 75% have some form of addiction in a degree to which they’re not even aware.
Quashen attributed the spread of the narcotic to conditions that created what he called a “perfect storm” the country is now weathering.
While the federal government was able to significantly reduce access to a number of prescription opioids in 2018 and 2019 due to their widespread abuse, it didn’t solve the addiction problem, Quashen said. It opened the door for something else.
Quashen, who operates a facility in Santa Clarita and in Kern County, where the problem is even worse, said he started to see the rise about six months before the COVID-19 pandemic was identified.
“Some of the reason is people that were using drugs used more drugs, and at the same time — and this is important, I think — at the same time that fentanyl came into the picture, the medical field decided that oxy(contin) and all these drugs were addictive,” he said. “So, they stopped writing prescriptions, which opened the door wide open for China and fentanyl and the cartels to start making pills. It was a perfect storm.”
After his son’s death, Keith Zieska went through his son’s phone and found a thread of messages sent to his supplier in the hours preceding his death.
The messages imply that Nick Zieska was looking for something to help him sleep, according to his father, who turned the phone over to the authorities to aid in their investigation. They also seem to imply the dealer knew what he was selling was deadly, according to a record of the text messages seen by The Signal.
A detective with the Sheriff’s Department’s Narcotics Bureau confirmed three Castaic men were arrested on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance for sale, but declined to discuss whether they were connected to Zieska’s death, citing an ongoing investigation.
“They were all arrested on what they call Ramey warrants,” said Sgt. Jason Viger, a member of the Overdose Response Task Force, which the Sheriff’s Department formed in July, during the course of his investigation into Zieska’s death. “They were arrested, brought in and released pending further investigation.”
A Ramey warrant, according to state law, is one a law enforcement official can request from a judge when there is a probable cause for arrest without starting the complaint process for the charging of a felony or misdemeanor.
“The case is over with the assistant U.S. attorney, and they’ll make their decision whether to indict or not or whatever they decide to do,” he added.
When asked, Viger noted there exists a small distinction between the federal statute for a second-degree murder charge and the California penal code. State law requires proving “malice aforethought,” or an intention to kill, which can be extremely difficult to prove to a jury.
“The federal statute requires that you prove someone has knowledge they are selling a controlled substance, either a Schedule I or a Schedule II,” Viger explained, “and that that controlled substance that they sold caused the death of another through ingestion. Those are the elements for (the federal) statute.”
Court records obtained by The Signal indicate a chilling conversation that took place between Nick Zieska and one of his alleged suppliers in the hours before his death.
“Dude that (expletive) is strong as (expletive)… I took one hit and I’m good dawg… I’m gonna sleep good tonight,” he wrote in successive messages.
“Yap it is strong he says that ppl r oding off [sic],” came the reply.
“Oh (expletive),” was his final message.
Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI both emailed statements that indicated no case associated with Zieska’s death had been filed as of Friday.
Keith Zieska reiterated his frustration during an emotional retelling of that tragic January night in Castaic.
“It’s a bad problem, and something needs to be done,” Zieska said. “Kids are dying all over the place. It’s the hardest thing that someone could have to go through. It’s just not OK.”