"We have to do something now. We can't wait anymore," Wonacott told Fox News Digital in an interview. "We've waited. The fentanyl crisis has been in the country for five to six years. We keep talking about legislation or doing something and we don't. We have to act now."
On April 16, 2021, Wonacott's son William, 27, died in Alabama from an overdose of methamphetamine laced with fentanyl. Then, less than two years later, on Nov. 15, 2022, Wonacott discovered his son James, 32, died taking fentanyl-laced methamphetamine while conducting a wellness check at his apartment.
Wonacott's voice cracked as he recalled the memory of his two sons, noting that fentanyl poisoning had claimed the lives of 50% of his four children.
William and James Wonacott are memorialized on the Drug Enforcement Administration's "Faces of Fentanyl" exhibit in Virginia. (Rep. Dan Newhouse)
"William was with us in Nebraska, went to high school, played sports, loved doing drama," he said. "He was a great, great actor, just funny, all that. And never did drugs, never drank, never smoked. As a matter of fact, he was the — you know, when the kids would go out and party like they do as teenagers — he was always the designated driver."
Wonacott said William, who was the third of four children, joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating from high school, but started dating a woman with drug dependency issues two years into his enlistment. Wonacott and his wife Brandi tried to break the cycle and convince their son to move back to Washington near them, but soon received a phone call informing them of his death.
"It's one of the worst things you get for a phone call — for your kid to be passed, and to find out that it was something laced with fentanyl."
James, the second of four children, had a rough childhood, according to Wonacott. However, after spending a year in prison on charges related to a DUI, Wonacott said James got clean and started a job in the aerospace industry as a repair technician for hydraulics.
However, the loss of his brother William caused James to relapse twice with a brief rehab stint in between.
"I actually was the one that found him in his apartment. Excuse me —" Wonacott said, his voice tailing off. "Local police department showed up at his apartment with me there. The coroner's report found out that he died from a fentanyl overdose, also with meth. And it's really rough, you know, two kids — 50% of my kids gone."
Following the death of James, Wonacott said it occurred to him that he had to do something to prevent the ongoing nationwide fentanyl crisis from taking more lives.
At one point, feeling helpless, he seriously considered vigilantism to go after drug dealers. However, crediting a good network of friends and family around him, he looked elsewhere to make a difference.
Ultimately, Wonacott came across the work of his congressman Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who has introduced various bills to address the crisis. He contacted Newhouse who, moved by Wonacott's story, decided to write legislation that would increase penalties for those who sell, give or distribute illicit fentanyl-related substances.
Newhouse is planning to introduce the legislation — titled the William and James Wonacott Act of 2023 — later on Tuesday.
"He reached out to my office, told his story and my conclusion was that something needs to be done to prevent these kinds of deaths," Newhouse told Fox News Digital in an interview. "So, we did some investigating in the kinds of improvements we can make to some of the deterrence to selling fentanyl and decided that increasing penalties to anyone selling this drug and decreasing the amounts to where these penalties would kick in was absolutely warranted."
"This is universal in every community — large cities, small communities — it's touching rich people, poor people, every demographic that you can verbalize. As legislators, we're trying to do all we can to curb the trend we're seeing in the country. The leading cause of death in young adults being drug overdoses is an issue that we cannot ignore."
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., leaves a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
The legislation would ensure that anyone who deals fentanyl-related substances would receive a minimum 20-year sentence with possibility of life. Under the bill, dealers who sell to an individual who dies from the sold substances would receive a minimum 25-year sentence with possibility of life.
The William and James Wonacott Act of 2023 has received support from local law enforcement, including Yakima County Sheriff Robert Udell, who has come face-to-face with the crisis.
"I guess you could call it an explosion in the use of fentanyl and the effects of it. We have seen a very steep increase in opioid deaths over the last three to four years," Udell told Fox News Digital. "The scariest thing about all of this is the price of the pills have dropped to about $1.50. That means any kid can afford a fentanyl pill. The prices dropped. It's capitalism at its finest."
"I think [Newhouse's legislation] is one component of a solution. If someone's going to sell it and they get caught, make it hurt," he continued. "The people that do things that hurt others, they always know what the consequences are — it's never a surprise to them when they get in trouble. So this is a big one — make sure they understand it's going to hurt if they sell it."
Like Udell, Wonacott said he hoped the bill would be just one component of lawmakers' broader efforts to tackle the crisis.
He argued more actions must be taken to address the southern border crisis, where fentanyl is regularly trafficked into the U.S. and noted government spending on foreign conflicts should be diverted to issues directly impacting Americans.
"This is just one piece of a larger puzzle," Wonacott said. "We have to do something with the cartels to curb them. We have to do something with our border to secure it. And we have to put something in place for the people that are impacted by this. The kids need real help and counseling and drug rehab."
"If we put the energy into it that we did with the Ukraine crisis, we would make an impact," he added. "If we can spend in one year $100 billion in Ukraine, we could revert some of that money here and start making an immediate impact."
Overall, fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat the U.S. has ever encountered, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In the 12-month period ending January 2022, 107,375 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses and poisonings. Of those deaths, 67% involved opioids including fentanyl.
According to law enforcement, fentanyl is increasingly mixed with other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Oftentimes, users are unaware they are taking fentanyl, which is particularly dangerous, being as much as 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Like many other counties across the country, Yakima County, which is located in Newhouse's district, has seen a large uptick in overdose deaths in recent years, county data showed. In December, the FBI announced it had seized approximately 120,000 fentanyl-laced pills and more than 42 pounds of methamphetamine in Yakima, making it one of the largest drug busts in recent history.
"Illegal narcotics, and fentanyl in particular, have become a scourge across the United States," U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref said in a statement at the time.