About five years ago, Drug Enforcement Administration agents began battling an opponent unlike any other they’d ever faced.
The extreme danger posed by fentanyl, the demographics of who it was killing and how pervasive it was becoming — and on the heels of an opioid epidemic that was already reshaping attitudes — prompted a new approach.
“There was kind of a shift back in 2018,” said Nicole Nishida, spokeswoman for the DEA’s Los Angeles office, noting that many previously long-held beliefs started to change around this time.
“A lot of agencies, and even the public for that matter, were looking at these deaths and saying, ‘Oh, it’s just an overdose, we’re not going to investigate it’ … because of the stigma,” she said.
Meanwhile, as priorities around the prosecution of drug crimes also changed, the death toll grew exponentially.
In Los Angeles County alone, the deaths increased from about 460 in 2019 to more than 1,500 in 2021. In the last year, the number of fatalities nearly tripled in the Santa Clarita Valley.
And the deaths weren’t happening to “traditional” drug users, or addicts — those less fortunate, Skid Row residents, men and women society often casts aside and stigmatizes as “junkies.”
In July, a 17-year-old Canyon Country girl died after splitting just half a pill that was laced with fentanyl, despite being given two doses of Narcan, the opioid-overdose reversal medication, at Central Park.
Last month, a half-dozen overdoses in a 24-hour period in the area surrounding Bouquet Canyon Park, including another fatality — believed to be at least the 31st that year — prompted the community to turn out during a Fentanyl Town Hall hosted by The Signal to ask questions and express frustration.
“And we’ve also seen a shift with fentanyl … we’ve always had cocaine, meth or heroin overdoses,” said Bob Thomas, OD Justice Task Force supervisor.
“But we generally saw those overdoses in longtime, chronic users,” he said. “And with fentanyl, we saw a shift from that to, we had one case where we were able to basically show that (for) the decedent, it was the first time they had experimented with drugs.”
And as the perception of the crime changed, so did the calls for punishment.
From a law enforcement standpoint, something had to be done differently with respect to how the crimes were investigated and prosecuted.
“One of the things we had to change is just that law enforcement mentality,” Thomas said, referring to the aforementioned stigma, and the long-held belief by many, which persists today, that people who overdose are responsible solely for their own decisions.
Los Angeles County Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the SCV, reflected the changing sentiment in her comments during the town hall.
“It’s one dose,” Barger said, with comments that followed a video montage that showed dozens of pictures of people, more than a few of them first-time users, who died from fentanyl. “This is not an overdose. This is a poisoning death.”
And the new problem required a different approach.
The first step, Thomas said, was a precursor to the current federal task force that he called a DEA response team, which was made up of special agents and experienced L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputies who studied how these deaths were handled in Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Clarita.
“And during that time, we realized that that model wasn’t going to be sustainable and wasn’t going to address what we needed to do on a countywide basis,” Thomas said.
The result was the DEA deciding to make a coordinated effort with local agencies, he said.
“We put on trainings for them, basically letting them know what we can and can’t do federally with these investigations, and then we work with them as partners,” Thomas said. “We consult on these cases, work with them as the case progresses, and it’s enabled us to expand not only to L.A. County, but now we’re able to cover all seven counties that fall under the DEA’s (area of responsibility for the Los Angeles-area office).”
The efforts of the DEA included not only looking at how the investigations were handled, but also the best way to turn them into effective prosecutions, he said.
“And one of the things that when we started looking into this, the historical overdose response by law enforcement is, you get called, you respond to the scene, you identify it as an overdose. And no investigation was done,” Thomas said, noting part of the challenge is that most states, including California, don’t really have a mechanism in the penal code that addresses overdoses. The closest thing in California’s penal code is a second-degree murder charge, but that creates a significant challenge in overdoses: A state-level second-degree murder conviction requires prosecutors prove a knowledge and intent component, which is known as “implied malice.” The intent component can be much harder to explain to a jury.
“And that’s pretty much because a lot of the states don’t have an actual charge to hold the dealer of those drugs responsible for the death,” Thomas said. “The federal charge gives us something to investigate.”
County task force
In Los Angeles County, Capt. Brandon Dean of the LASD Narcotics Bureau has been in charge of the effort that started in July to create an Overdose Response Task Force that looks at all overdose deaths, but the fentanyl crisis was the driving factor, he said.
Dean joined his current unit in May, after serving as a lieutenant in the Homicide Bureau, where he acknowledged the deficiency in the traditional approach to death investigations that involved overdoses.
“I mean, any illegal drug is dangerous — but this one changed the game because such a small amount, 0.02 milligrams, is fatal,” Dean said. “So that doesn’t mean that everybody who does 0.02 milligrams is going to overdose, but that is the minimum amount that can kill somebody.”
To put that in perspective, a teaspoon of salt contains 2,325 milligrams of sodium, according to Mayoclinic.org.
“I think just the sheer makeup of fentanyl has changed the overdose outlook on everything,” Dean said.
“The best way I can say it is, we’ve always worked overdoses in the Sheriff’s Department, whether it was our Narcotics Bureau or the (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force) as a pilot program, but never sunk like ‘real teeth’ into it,” he added. “So, we decided to really sink some teeth into it because the numbers are so astronomical and … they just keep going up every year.”
Now the goal is not to treat them as narcotics investigations, but to treat them as death investigations, he added.
The Narcotics Bureau’s “teeth” came in the form of a nine-member task force created in July, which includes investigators from LASD’s Major Crimes, Narcotics and Special Victims bureaus, as well as its gang unit. All of its members have undergone the same training that a homicide detective would receive from LASD, Dean said.
The team has yet to have a task force case be brought forth from the county DA’s office for prosecution, with Dean noting he’s been meeting with representatives from District Attorney George Gascón’s office in order to create another avenue for the cases to be pursued.
Dean is meeting again with the county prosecutors’ office next month and hopes to have procedures in place going forward after that discussion.
As things stand now, Dean’s team also has been working with Thomas and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to “pitch” a number of cases to them, in hopes they’ll be prosecuted under Title 21, Section 841 of the federal code, which refers to the distribution of a narcotic that leads to death. The crime carries a 20-year minimum sentence in federal prison.
“The whole point of that is to charge someone so there’s some real repercussions behind selling something that kills somebody,” Dean said, “so hopefully it changes people’s philosophies so that they’re not selling and, in turn, prices of drugs go up. It’s harder to buy. It reduces the amount of people we’re losing in our communities in our society, and we can bring some of those numbers down.”
The county’s task force has been responsible for about 10 cases that have been presented to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for investigation, with federal prosecutors expressing interest in a handful of cases.
Several cases involving SCV victims have yet to result in an indictment, but local officials are hopeful those could result in indictments being filed by this summer.
A drug-overdose case has a particularly long time to process because one of the key elements involved in the prosecution is the results of the autopsy, which is needed to prove the death was caused by a particular drug, according to investigators. Both Dean and Sgt. Jason Viger, who was with the L.A. County task force from its inception until recently transferring to the Homicide Bureau, estimated the turnaround time on toxicology tests from the coroner at about six months.
Federal cases also can take a little more time to bring forward, noted Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in a phone interview Friday.
“It’s very time-consuming, and complicated by, more and more, the use of social media,” he said.
“There is both the county coroner report and then we also utilize outside experts to weigh in and to give us their opinion that, but for the consumption of the narcotic, this person would not have died,” he said, which is necessary to prove the case. “So, there’s essentially two reviews of the cause of death, and then on top of that, there is the being able to determine that no other drug entered the residence in or around the time of the incident.”
The latter part includes a careful analysis of phone records and other communications, he added.
“When we file charges,” Mrozek said, “it is always the result of a thorough investigation.”
Using a recent Department of Justice news release as an example, federal prosecutors believe they can prove Jonathan Limas-Reyes, a 26-year-old Downey man, sold a 17-year-old L.A.-area high school student fake pills that resulted in the student’s death from fentanyl poisoning on Oct. 29, 2021. A federal grand jury issued an indictment against Limas-Reyes that accuses him of distributing fentanyl resulting in death and distributing fentanyl to a person under 21 on Aug. 19, 2022, which led to his arrest. The trial in that case is scheduled to start June 6.
Since the advent of aggressive federal investigations into overdose or drug-caused deaths, Thomas noted there have been 400 incidents looked at and, of those, 116 federal cases were presented, which has resulted in 51 that included the charge of distribution of drugs causing death.
“It appears we may be making some headway there, but we have a long way to go — people are still dying in spectacular numbers,” Mrozek said this week.
The most recent figures available to the federal government showed that in 2021, 71,000 people from across the country died from fentanyl poisoning, he said, a rate of nearly 195 per day. Mrozek said all indications point to that number likely being higher in 2022.
“I can tell you the amount of the seizures and the quantity of the seizures have been dramatically increasing over the past several years, both for powder fentanyl and for counterfeit pharmaceutical pills,” Mrozek said, noting it’s a “particularly pernicious problem” for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that fentanyl is frequently cut with so many other drugs.
This message was underscored in a video released Thursday by the DEA, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and prosecutors with the Riverside and San Bernardino counties. (Viger mentioned both counties by name as being influences on L.A. County’s aggressive new approach. A call to the Riverside DA’s office was not immediately returned Friday.)
“Death in Disguise,” the 51-second public service announcement, plays a 911 recording of a frantic mother who’s just found her teenage daughter dying from an overdose.
“Fentanyl is death in disguise,” the narrator states, as a montage of photos flashes on the screen. “One pill can kill, and you can’t rewind.”
City Hall has dealt with crises like this before, with Santa Clarita officials creating a Heroin Kills: The High is a Lie campaign in August 2011, when heroin started to become especially prevalent in the community.
Santa Clarita then hosted a Pills Kill symposium in 2014 in response to the rise of the opioid epidemic that some experts have described as a prelude to the fentanyl crisis now underway.
Cary Quashen, a local addiction expert who founded Action Drug Rehabilitation, noted that when doctors stopped prescribing opioids after awareness was raised in 2018, addicts and, in turn, the marketplace, started turning to fentanyl en masse. For millions, the addiction wasn’t being treated, Quashen reasons, so the addict found a new alternative: fentanyl.
The city’s outreach efforts picked up once again when fentanyl started resulting in poisoning deaths of local youths.
“The city has been closely following the fentanyl crisis, especially as the story of overdoses began to dominate the headlines,” said city spokeswoman Carrie Lujan, in a statement prior to the town hall, noting the city’s proactive efforts started last year. “The City Council played a key role in addressing the crisis through last fall’s Parent Resource Symposium, which highlighted the deadly consequences of drug abuse.”
The Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station began to track overdoses back in 2010, Sheriff’s Station Capt. Justin Diez said before the fentanyl forum, noting the tracking is what led to a pair of investigative units: the Juvenile Intervention Team, a station-specific unit that focuses on all drug crimes; and a highway interdiction team, which has since been disbanded. The J-Team offers resources and information for local parents and regularly gives presentations about the dangers of drugs.
Sgt. Diego Andrade, who was also at the forum, leads the J-Team for the station. He acknowledged fentanyl is a growing problem in Santa Clarita, as it is in most of the country.
“It’s what we’re seeing more of right now,” Andrade said, adding that another focus of the team is staying current with terminology and trends that change frequently. Sharing that kind of information with parents was a big part of the recent Fentanyl Town Hall.