View Original Notice ? Law enforcement agencies, families call for tougher penalties against fentanyl dealers
Rows of photographs lined a conference room and outdoor patio at the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday, depicting people from all walks of life who shared one thing in common: they all died of fentanyl overdoses.
Surviving family members of some of those men and women gathered for a news conference aimed at increasing public awareness of the fentanyl epidemic that is killing thousands of people at an alarming rate and to promote laws allowing drug dealers, especially fentanyl dealers, to be charged with murder.
State lawmakers have rejected several efforts to pass such laws, triggering a war with local law enforcement officials and families of those who died from what they call “fentanyl poisoning.”
“From my perspective, I will tell you that it seems as though the Legislature is not serious about dealing with this epidemic of fentanyl,” said Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, during Wednesday’s news conference. “We are not giving up. We are going to continue moving forward, but we certainly need the public’s help.”
Melendez’s comments came a day after the Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday — for the second time since last year — rejected her Senate Bill 350, which would allow repeat drug dealers to be charged with murder under California law, especially those who sell fentanyl to unsuspecting buyers who die after using the synthetic opiate.
Matt Capelouto, whose 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, died of a fentanyl overdose in December 2019 and who is the namesake of Melendez’s proposed bill, dubbed “Alexandra’s Law,” called on California voters to get SB 350 on the ballot as an initiative and put it to a vote.
“Since SB 350 was rejected, California went from over 4,000 fentanyl deaths in 2020 to what is expected to be nearly 10,000 deaths by the time 2021 statistics are available,” Capelouto said during the news conference. “This is a war not being fought with guns and bullets. We’re being poisoned from within.”
Alexandra Capelouto was attending college out of state on a scholarship when she returned to her Temecula home to celebrate the holidays with her family in December 2019. She purchased what she thought was oxycodone via Snapchat. Her mother found her dead in her bed, two days before Christmas.
“She was poisoned, and this was murder,” Capelouto said.
Since the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office led the charge to file murder charges against people in fentanyl-related deaths (the office has charged 11 people with murder in 10 cases to date), prosecutors in Orange and San Bernardino counties have followed suit.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said his office has charged one man with murder in a fentanyl poisoning case involving a Chino Hills teen last April, and has partnered with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to form a fentanyl task force to respond to and investigate suspected fentanyl overdoses.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said his office has now implemented the same admonishment to first-time convicted drug dealers that Melendez is pushing for in her legislation.
“If you peddle fentanyl, and you kill somebody in my county, we will absolutely consider charging you with murder. Enough is enough!” Spitzer said.
The flip side
Missing at Wednesday’s news conference was Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, whose position on the fentanyl problem reflects the other side of the debate.
“We have been down this road before: We know that increased penalties for drug offenses do not save lives,” said Alex Bastian, special advisor to Gascon, in an email.
In more than three decades of increased drug penalties against criminal defendants, he said, drugs have become more potent, cheaper and easier to access. “We need to learn from the failed strategies of the past, in order to find solutions for the future,” Bastian said.
By the numbers
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said that since 2016, the number of fentanyl-related deaths in his county skyrocketed by more than 800%.
“Those numbers are similar to what we’re seeing across the region. Our citizens are dying at an alarming rate because of fentanyl,” Hestrin said. “All of us on the stage today have resolved, in one way or another, to fight back against this scourge.”
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said the number of confirmed fentanyl deaths in the county in 2021 is nearly 400 thus far, but he anticipates that number to increase to more than 500 when toxicology results in other suspected overdose cases come in.
He said fentanyl overdoses in his county have become such a problem that he outfitted every one of his deputies with naloxone, or Narcan, an over-the-counter nasal spray that is used to revive unconscious people who have overdosed on drugs.
“I can’t even venture to guess how many deaths we’ve saved in the last year because we do this on a daily basis,” Bianco said. “Multiple times a day we are responding to cases where someone is unconscious or under the influence of fentanyl, typically being poisoned because they thought they were getting something else.”
San Bernardino County could not immediately provide the number of fentanyl related deaths in the county in 2020 and 2021.
In Orange County, fentanyl-related deaths increased 1,067% from 2016 through 2020 — from 37 to 432. Those figures grew by 18.5% in 2021, with 512 fentanyl-related deaths logged, and toxicology still pending on more than 400 other cases, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
And in Los Angeles County, 1,117 fatal fentanyl overdoses were recorded in 2021, down 0.7% from 1,125 the previous year, according to the county’s Department of Public Health.
Education and accountability
Assemblyman James Ramos, a co-author on Melendez’s SB 350, introduced two bills Tuesday to address what he called the “skyrocketing surge” in fentanyl overdoses.
AB 1627 would establish pilot programs for providing free naloxone and training to parents provided by the local departments of behavioral health and sheriff’s departments. It will also create overdose response teams within sheriff’s departments to investigate overdoses to collect evidence for potential criminal activity.
AB 1628 aims to tighten up policies for social media platforms like Snapchat to deter the sale of drugs on their sites. The law would require Snapchat and other relevant social media platforms to submit their policies prohibiting illegal activities on their sites to the Attorney General’s Office, subjecting the private companies to government oversight.
“It’s time we take a stronger approach to press the envelope and make sure these social media platforms know that someone is watching,” Ramos said in a telephone interview. “This is something that needs debating.”
Alexander Neville, 14, of Aliso Viejo, died in 2020 after buying a pill on Snapchat that purported to be oxycodone. His family formed the Alexander Neville Foundation so other middle and high school kids would understand the deadly danger of fentanyl in street drugs, and that it takes only one pill to kill.
The foundation, along with Victims of Illicit Drugs, will protest at the Santa Monica headquarters of Snapchat on Jan. 21. The platform hasn’t done enough to root out and eliminate drug dealers, parents say. Demonstrators will meet at 11:30 a.m. at Clover Park, 2600 Ocean Ave., and walk together to Snapchat headquarters by noon.
Federal authorities are prosecuting dozens of people for allegedly hawking drugs on platforms like Snapchat and Craigslist, however, they are not charging them with murder. Instead, they most often are charged with distributing narcotics resulting in death, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years to life. It’s easier to prove than murder, since murder requires prosecutors to prove intent to kill.
Officials from Snapchat say they are continually working on making the platform safer.
Ramos said his bill is not intended to solve the problem, but to ramp up awareness and acknowledgment of a drug that is killing thousands of people across the country. “What this will do is open up the dialogue and advocacy. We have to start somewhere,” he said.
Staff writers Teri Sforza, Scott Schwebke and Tony Saavedra contributed to this report.