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Investigating Fentanyl Deaths and Dealers

An 18-year old girl was found dead in a home in early November, and days later members of the newly-formed Los Angeles County Sheriff’s drug overdose deaths task force arrested a 23-year old woman from Santa Clarita suspected of selling the victim the drugs, they say, could have caused her death.   

The NBC4 I-Team was with the task force in the dark hours of Nov. 9 at a home in Santa Clarita to serve a search warrant.  

“Tonight was a search warrant that came over a suspected overdose death a few days ago,” Sgt. Jason Viger, LASD task force team member, said. 

Sgt. Viger leads the investigation that he says began with the death of an 18-year old girl and pills found at the scene of her death days before. 

“We did some investigating to find potential source of supply for what we believe is counterfeit oxycodone pills most likely containing fentanyl,” Sgt. Viger said.   

Days after the teenager’s death, LASD investigators say they connected the potential source of the pills to a 23-year old woman believed to have sold the drugs to the victim. 

“This is not just what you would expect in a drug dealer. These pills are being sold and bought by kids. That could be your neighbors, could be your kids,” Sgt. Viger said. 

Federal authorities including the Drug Enforcement Administration, say the synthetic and highly addictive drug fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin.   

The DEA released a public safety alert this month updating their data on these counterfeit pills. They now say six out of ten pills they confiscate, and test contain a potentially deadly dose of fentanyl. That’s up from 4 out of 10 pills before.  

…they affect every walk of life whether you’re young, you’re old, black, white, Hispanic, female, male, it doesn’t discriminate against your economic status. we’re seeing it all over the place.

Capt. Brandon Dean, LASD Narcotics

Federal authorities say chemicals used to make fentanyl are coming from China, landing mainly in Mexico, where drug cartels are manufacturing these illegal and dangerous pills, then selling them on our streets. 

LASD investigators showed the I-Team a small container with pills and other evidence collected at the 23-year-old’s home and car.  

They can often look like prescription pills, but deputies say they are likely counterfeit and can kill with as little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl, or about the size of 2 grains of salt.  

They say more pills were found in the home after their search — 28 pills in total were discovered. 

The Sheriff’s Department says it tested only one of the pills, and it was positive for fentanyl.   

The NBC4 I-Team has been following the task force for weeks, going out with them on drug-related death calls during what they say is the worst drug crisis they‘ve seen in decades.  

“The thing about these overdose deaths is there is no set boundaries, you know, they affect every walk of life whether you’re young, you’re old, black, white, Hispanic, female, male, it doesn’t discriminate against your economic status. We’re seeing it all over the place,” Capt. Brandon Dean, task force team leader, said. 

More than four people on average are dying every day from fentanyl in Los Angeles County, according to the I-Team’s analysis of data from the Los Angeles County Coroners’ office.   

He wanted to live; he didn’t want to die. He was a very special boy and I miss him so much

Perla Mendoza, lost son Elijah to fentanyl

The data also shows the number of fentanyl-related deaths has increased more than 2,500% from 2016 to 2021, taking the lives of people like 20-year-old Elijah. 

“He wanted to live; he didn’t want to die. He was a very special boy and I miss him so much,” Perla Mendoza, Elijah’s mother, said.   

The 23- year-old woman suspected of selling to the 18-year-old girl who died has been preliminarily charged with possession of fentanyl.  She was arrested and released and has not been arraigned. 

If the autopsy, which can take six months or more, confirms that the victim died from fentanyl, and investigators can prove the drugs came from the woman, they say she could face serious charges.  

Each arrest and prosecution could help decrease the sale of these tainted pills and save lives, according to authorities. 

“Right now, the federal charge carries a minimum 20-year sentence for distribution of pills, controlled substances resulting in a death on the state side and the state court, it’s possible that you could be looking at second-degree murder, which would carry 15 years to life,” Sgt. Viger said.     

Up to this point, the LASD specialized group has opened 121 death investigations since July. 

One incident has been presented to the LA County District Attorney in state court, and two cases are with federal prosecutors.  

The US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles has filed charges against 51 defendants in the last four years for selling drugs, mostly fentanyl, that resulted in death.   

“It’s really unfortunate because there’s gonna be multiple lives ruined out in an hour. We already have one girl that’s deceased and one girl that could potentially spend the next 20 years or life in prison,” Sgt. Viger said of the arrest of the 23-year-old woman in the death of the 18-year-old girl.     

Sheriff deputies and federal investigators tell us enforcement is one part of the effort to reduce and eliminate fentanyl-related deaths, but education and awareness is important. They say, it only takes one pill that you may not even know contains fentanyl to kill. 

DEA warn never take a pill that wasn’t prescribed to you and never take a pill from a friend or one that you bought on social media.  

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