A 24-year-old Saugus woman pleaded not guilty in a federal courtroom Thursday to two counts related to the death of an 18-year-old Santa Clarita resident who died Nov. 6, 2022, from fentanyl poisoning.
A grand jury charged Skylar Lynn Mitchell with selling Jax Markley the dose of fentanyl that caused Markley’s death last year.
“(Mitchell) was ordered detained (held without bond) and a trial was scheduled for Jan. 23,” said Thom Mrozek, director of media relations for the Department of Justice.
Mitchell now faces charges with a maximum exposure of more than 20 years in federal prison for two counts.
The case is the result of months of investigation initiated by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Opioid Overdose Response Task Force.
Members of the task force have said they had very good reasons for taking the case federal: There simply wasn’t an appetite for adequate charges by the L.A. County district attorney.
Matt Markley, Jax’s father, who’s been trying to raise awareness about the dangers surrounding the issues since his tragic loss and lots of research, said the situation points out some of the glaring problems that still exist regarding how the fentanyl crisis is being discussed.
Representatives of the DA’s office and District Attorney George Gascón’s campaign declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
A new approach for LASD
The Opioid Overdose Response Task Force was created in July 2022 to try to hold the people who sold narcotics laced with fentanyl and other deadly narcotics accountable for any deaths they could tie directly to the sales of those drugs, according to the task force’s founder.
Capt. Brandon Dean, who led the Narcotics Bureau when Sgt. Jason Viger put the first team together in the summer of 2022, described the idea behind that task force as an attempt to take a holistic approach to solving the crimes.
The 10-person squad combined individuals with specialized training from investigators who dealt with the fentanyl crisis: the gang unit, Operation Safe Streets; the Special Victims Unit, for the crimes involving juveniles; as well as the Narcotics and Homicide bureaus.
Recently, federal officials announced the first outcome associated with the work of the county’s team: Dominick Alvarado, 22, of Tarzana, is expected to receive at least a 12-year sentence when he’s due back in court for sentencing. He pleaded guilty to supplying the fentanyl that led to the deaths of Alyssa Dies and Cameron Kouleyan, two Santa Clarita Valley teens who died from fentanyl poisoning last summer.
The case highlights a couple of unique facets about the work of the local fentanyl task force: one is the time involved in bringing the cases to court, as Dies and Kouleyan died in July 2022, and the case is just now coming to a plea deal; and that the case is not being pursued by county prosecutors, by design of investigators.
To date, none of the deaths investigated by the team have been prosecuted by the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office, a fact the office declined to discuss.
The decision to prosecute federally was made in order to seek stiffer penalties for those held accountable, according to law enforcement officials.
Following a federal model
Prior to the formation of the task force, if someone died as the result of an overdose, it was most often considered a death investigation. The coroner usually confirmed whether toxicology tests confirmed the suspected presence of narcotics, officials said. That meant it wasn’t treated as a murder, and often there was not much followup investigation.
However, the nature of the opioid crisis and how widespread of a problem it had become prompted federal officials to change how they began to prosecute the cases, according to Bob Thomas, a supervising agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, who’s been involved in the federal Overdose Justice Task Force since its inception in 2018.
That unit is the model for L.A. County’s Opioid Overdose Response Team, and now that all of the task force’s cases are going federal, Thomas acts as the liaison between the Sheriff’s Department and the federal government.
“We were looking at the increase of drug-related deaths across the country,” Thomas said during an interview back in January. “And we were seeing increasing numbers here in Los Angeles County in our (area of responsibility) and it was kind of a … ‘Is there something we can can do to address this issue?’”
In 2022, fentanyl surpassed methamphetamine to become the most common drug type listed as a cause of death in accidental drug overdose deaths in the county, accounting for 59% of all alcohol and other drug overdose deaths, according to information released this month by the county’s Public Health Department: “Data Report: Fentanyl Overdoses in Los Angeles County.
The proliferation of overdoses, as well as the fact that their numbers were no longer confined to chronic long-term drug users, helped “shift the thinking” Thomas said, and recognize something needed to be done.
That something, officials surmised, was stiffer sentences.
Dean said the hope was that long sentences related to the fentanyl deaths would send a message to the community that selling that drug in particular would have serious consequences and perhaps disrupt the marketplace by making the supply more scarce.
According to multiple sources in the Sheriff’s Department and in the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office, Gascón does not appear to share that same strategy for prevention or enforcement.
Back in January, when the Opioid Overdose Response Task Force was still looking to establish protocols with DA’s office, Capt. Dean, who now leads the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station, explained the task force’s logic:
“If we can get a second-degree murder charge on somebody, which carries a 25-year sentence, but they plead them out to say 15 or 16 years, to us, that’s a win,” he said, comparing it to how things had traditionally been handled. “So, if we can get a dealer that’s selling something (deadly), and they get 15 years, we look at that as a huge win.”
According to multiple sources in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, several “trial cases,” including one with a body of work three separate investigators had seen and referred to as a “slam dunk,” were presented to the DA’s office in hopes of seeing how the cases would be handled.
Lt. Robert Dean, who currently leads the task force, said once the task force realized what was happening, the team changed tact.
“So what we do with these cases is we are taking them to the (Assistant United States Attorney) because George Gascón’s office will not file them as second-degree murder. They have a desire to file these as involuntary manslaughter, which makes (the defendant) eligible for probation only — which is not acceptable to us nor the victim’s family.”
Matt Markley, who spoke at City Hall in September during a fentanyl-awareness recognition for the more than 30 who died from the drug last year, said he confronted Gascón about his policies during a meeting of the SCV Democrats in August.
Markley said his purpose was not to make the issue political. That is actually the last thing he wants to do, he said, because that often only polarizes people. He was there to learn more and also raise awareness about how pervasive the problem is, and he took umbrage at Gascón’s comments.
“He presented some loose facts about the fentanyl crisis that I took issue with,” Markley said in a Nov. 10 phone interview, “one of his comments being the majority of the ones who are caught up in the fentanyl crisis are the ones that are seeking it who are addicted to it.”
While ultimately that may happen, Markley previously mentioned how that kind of mentality is part of what perpetuates the problem, a point that both federal and local investigators mentioned in their reasoning behind creating a task force.
Markley said after the dressing-down, Gascón’s office did reach out and they had productive dialogue, for a while.
According to filings in the Santa Clarita courthouse, Mitchell confessed to detectives that she sold Jax Markley the fentanyl that killed Jax.
Matt Markley said Friday that one of the particularly frustrating aspects of the experience for him was a conversation he had with a high-level L.A. County prosecutor who acknowledged to him the case had the elements of a second-degree murder but wouldn’t bring the case forward over concerns reported about the suspect. Court filings obtained by The Signal indicate detectives learned Mitchell was introduced to marijuana at age 12 by her mother, was placed in foster care at age 14 and then began using fentanyl during the pandemic.
“I’m sure they’re trying to make sense of the value judgements here,” the frustrated father said, “but they’re also exposing the rest of us to more of the same and I don’t think that’s how you deal with a situation that’s getting worse.”
File and wait
Markley also said in spite of the difficulties he’s had in getting his voice heard, he feels like he’s one of the lucky ones, as not every case will meet the elements necessary for a federal prosecution, or even a case that can be looked at locally.
Viger said there are strict requirements for evidence investigators must meet to prove a murder has occurred, and the evidence isn’t always available to them.
Thomas said federal requirements are even more stringent. In almost five years for the federal task force, as of January, federal agents have looked at 400 overdose deaths. Of those, only 116 have resulted in federal cases being brought forth, which resulted in 73 cases by Department of Justice prosecutors, and 51 of those suspects being charged with the federal statute of distributing a drug that causes a death.
While the federal prosecutions ultimately could lead to longer sentences, which is something that Keith Zieska said he would like to see, the waiting has been difficult.
The Alvarado case, which involved two fatal overdoses, a number of witnesses and lots of evidence for a team of investigators to go through, only recently resulted in the plea deal about 17 months after his victims were found dead.
Part of the delay is unavoidable: an estimated six-month backlog at the L.A. County Coroner-Medical Examiner’s Office on the processing of toxicology reports, a necessary ingredient in proving an overdose was a murder case that involved fentanyl.
But information from federal law enforcement has not been readily available, Zieska said. Keith Zieska’s son, Nick, died Jan. 31, 2022, with the cause of death attributed to fentanyl intoxication, according to the coroner’s office.
The family calls regularly to check in on the status of any case or cases against the suspects. Sometimes, they get calls back, sometimes they don’t, he added.
“I heard there were three suspects and a complaint was being prepared for the (Drug Enforcement Administration),” he said in an interview Friday. “I probably heard that a couple of months ago.”
A DEA representative did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Federal officials have also said there’s a stringent evaluation process for any case they take on, which can be a time-consuming process.
“Our goal is, if we have everything else in place, where that (cause of death) is the last piece we’re waiting for, then our goal would be to get these indictments within a year of the death, but there’s a lot of factors. I think the fastest we’ve done one of these is five months from the time of death,” Thomas said, noting that case still had to go through the proper process, some of which was delayed by COVID-19, which continues to impact the backlog of cases. “It took another year and a half or so to get that to sentencing for that to be fully adjudicated.”
While local law enforcement officials can’t really say much once a case is passed on to federal officials, it often leaves family and friends of the overdose victims waiting and wondering what’s going to happen.
While their process might be time-consuming, data from federal prosecutors does speak to its efficacy: Pew Research Center data from June indicates that in the previous year, “only 290 of 71,954 defendants in federal criminal cases — about 0.4% — went to trial and were acquitted.”
A news release Friday from the Department of Justice demonstrated the type of sentences that local and federal law enforcement officers had in mind with the task force: A South Bay man who distributed fentanyl-laced pills to a 15-year-old boy and then insulted the victim online as he was dying of an overdose was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.