Editor’s note: This story is the first in a continuing series that looks at the investigations that led to federal indictments regarding fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the Santa Clarita Valley and throughout the country.
The fentanyl-related deaths of two Santa Clarita teens were part of the investigation announced Tuesday by federal officials, the results of months of work and coordination among the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, Drug Enforcement Agency investigators and federal prosecutors.
Alyssa Dies and Cameron Kouleyan died within days of each other from overdoses attributed to fentanyl toxicity in July, Kouleyan at home and Dies during a city Concerts in the Park show.
Law enforcement officials alleged this week both teens received their drugs from Dominick Kingdiamond Alvarado, a 22-year-old Tarzana man who was arrested May 3 on suspicion of distributing fentanyl in the form of fake Percocet pills.
He’s currently being held without bail, according to a Department of Justice news release.
The two teens’ deaths were among the first cases investigated by the Sheriff’s Department’s Overdose Response Task Force, according to Sgt. Jason Viger, a former member of the team who now works in the department’s Homicide Bureau.
Now federal officials believe they can link both deaths to purchases made in Santa Clarita within about 10 days of each other.
Task force involvement
Federal officials announced the details of 12 cases Tuesday for National Fentanyl Awareness Day, and court records detail a task force’s look into dozens of deaths, countless hours of meticulous work that will be discussed in subsequent stories that discuss the challenges, triumphs and even politics that can surround such investigations.
There are certain elements necessary in order to secure a federal charge for a fentanyl-related overdose death, according to sheriff’s Capt. Brandon Dean, who was in charge of the department’s Narcotics Bureau when the task force was formed over the summer.
A former homicide investigator, Dean knew the way overdose deaths had been investigated was inadequate to really “sink their teeth” into the problem, he said.
The goal of the task force was to treat each death like a homicide investigation, as opposed to a traditional drug investigation, with a 10-member team of people from Homicide, the Special Victims Bureau and the county’s gang unit, as well as narcotics detectives.
The challenge became a little more complex for investigators when the discussion involved federal charges, he added.
“Are we able to identify the person or persons that sold a controlled substance?” he asked, explaining the first element, which is not always as easy as it sounds in an era where people can also purchase narcotics using websites and other anonymous means.
“If we’re able to identify the person or persons that sold that controlled substance, then we start the process of the investigation, and we begin to work it,” Dean said, “and it’s our job to now prove that the decedent purchased a controlled substance from that suspect, and nobody else, and that what that suspect sold that decedent is what ultimately caused their death.”
County to federal
Bob Thomas, supervisor of the DEA Los Angeles office’s OD Justice Task Force, has been involved in the prosecution of these crimes through the task force since it was formed in 2018, he said in a January interview.
And in the years since, law enforcement officials throughout the country have seen a significant increase in the death toll associated with the drug.
The mounting deaths and public outcry prompted law enforcement officials to be creative in how such cases are now being pursued.
“For drug-caused deaths, we have a charge — it’s not really even a charge, it’s a sentencing enhancement under our distribution statutes — where when a death or serious bodily injury results from an illegal distribution, it gives us the sentencing enhancement for 20 years mandatory minimum in the federal system,” Thomas said.
Cases like the ones announced Tuesday are the result of law enforcement officers’ altered approach to investigating and prosecuting cases, Thomas said, based on federal and local law enforcement agencies working together.
“One of the things we’ve had to change is that law enforcement mentality,” Thomas said previously. “And part of it is just getting the word out, that encouraging, and part is just getting the word out that, ‘No, we do have a charge that can be investigated and charged.’”
Dean said by stepping up the penalties with the prosecution, officials hope they can disrupt the marketplace and deter future sales.
“The whole point of that is to charge someone so there’s some real repercussions behind selling something that killed somebody,” Dean said earlier this year. “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.”
Now Alvarado, the first of the local suspects to face a federal indictment, is being charged with five counts in the indictment released Tuesday.
“Alvarado allegedly sold fake pills laced with fentanyl to a group of young people in a transaction in Valencia on July 11, 2022,” according to a Department of Justice news release. “Two days later, an 18-year-old Santa Clarita resident (Kouleyan) was found dead by his brother. Ten days after the first death, Alvarado allegedly sold fake pills containing fentanyl to another group of teenagers at the same mall in Valencia where the prior transaction took place. Following this second sale, a 17-year-old girl (Dies) died of fentanyl poisoning after ingesting the narcotics and suffering an overdose in a Santa Clarita park.”
For the first two counts, which allege Alvarado supplied the fentanyl that caused the deaths of Dies and Kouleyan, the mandatory minimum sentence for each count is 20 years, according to Ciaran McEvoy, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the maximum is life in prison. For the other counts, which allege cocaine and fentanyl distribution, he faces a potential maximum sentence of 20 years.
Alvarado was ordered to be held without bond after he was taken into custody. He’s currently being held in federal custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center Los Angeles, according to federal records available online.
He’s due back in court for his first hearing June 27.