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'Our Kids Were Poisoned To Death': SoCal's Fentanyl Conversation

Southern California parents who have lost children to fentanyl want the public to know this: "Our kids didn't overdose. They were poisoned to death."

Law enforcement, prosecutors and politicians across the region are taking notice.

The deadly fraud problem

Over the last few years, Southern California police agencies have warned about fentanyl. Victims — often young people — are being duped by drug traffickers who sell them fake oxycodone, Percocet, Valium and other alleged "medications" compounded in nonsterile conditions using the simplest of ingredients and tools such as powdered baby formula and a blender, according to law enforcement officials.

It doesn't take a genius or a lot of money to spice up the recipe with some coloring and fentanyl, which is extremely inexpensive to manufacture. A pill press can mold the concoction into tablets, or the powder can simply fill empty gelatin capsules. A quick search on Amazon offers just about everything a low-level trafficker needs, minus the fentanyl, to make the fake pills at home. More elaborate operations can mass-produce.

As for selling the counterfeit product, the dark web and social media platforms like Snapchat are commonly used distribution channels and an easy way to reach end-users.

"We need the help of the community to increase awareness about the effects and dangers of fentanyl and other opioids, and we need to educate and empower our young people so they can make intelligent, informed decisions about drug use," said Bill Bodner, special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Agency, Los Angeles Field Division.

Bodner was on hand Wednesday for a news conference in Los Angeles to announce the rollout of the DEA's Operation Engage, aimed in part at reducing fentanyl deaths.

The DEA's Los Angeles Division encompasses all of the Southland except San Diego and Imperial counties, which are overseen by the DEA's San Diego Division.

Fentanyl is now involved in approximately 49 percent of the drug-caused deaths in Los Angeles County and approximately 42 percent of the drug-caused deaths in Riverside County, according to the DEA's L.A. Division.

The L.A. Division in 2017 seized just under 120,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills that were in fact fentanyl pills. In 2020, that number increased tenfold to 1.2 million pills. Many of the tablets or pills were manufactured to simulate the appearance of 30-milligram oxycodone and were stamped or impressed with some variation of the "M-30" designation.

The statistics are just as grim in San Diego County. Countywide deaths from fentanyl alone rose from 151 in 2019 to more than 400 in 2020, said Rachel S. Crowley, public affairs specialist for the DEA's San Diego Division.

"We saw the number of fentanyl seizures as well as the amount in those seizures more than double from 2019 to 2020, especially in the summer months of 2020," Crowley said. "We are attributing these significant increases to the cartels adapting to the COVID restrictions in place at the border, but it is hard to have the full picture of what is going on while we are still in the midst of this."

The synthetic opioid is found not only in fake pills. Traffickers are cutting it into methamphetamine and cocaine. "The cartels are businesses, and like all good businesses, they adapt," said John W. Callery, special agent in charge of the San Diego Field Division. "They've adapted to disruptions in their supply chain by sending more loads, and actually much larger loads, of fentanyl and meth. With the COVID restrictions on the border, their supply on the U.S. side is limited, and since fentanyl is such an incredibly strong and dangerous drug and a cheaper product for them to make, they've started using fentanyl to mix into their other products like methamphetamine." While fentanyl is often manufactured in China, the cartels are buying. Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison said it's is "cheap, potent and deadly." It only takes about 2 milligrams of fentanyl to kill a human.

Change of tactics

Going after fentanyl dealers and distributors may seem like playing a game of whack-a-mole, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said. In an effort to save lives and dissuade traffickers from peddling fake pills containing fentanyl, Bianco announced this week, "We are making it a goal [that] every death caused by fentanyl toxicity is being investigated as a potential homicide."

The Riverside County District Attorney's Office filed its first-ever murder charge Monday against an alleged drug dealer who is accused of selling counterfeit pills containing fentanyl that resulted in death. On Friday, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department announced another arrest. In the second case, an 18-year-old man was booked on suspicion of murder in the fentanyl-induced death of a 16-year-old girl.

A tool that may help lead to convictions is California state legislation introduced earlier this month by Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore). Senate Bill 350 requires that a person convicted of selling, manufacturing or transporting a dangerous narcotic receive a written advisory of the danger of manufacturing and distributing controlled substances. The bill would require that the fact the advisory was given be on the record and on the abstract of conviction.

The paper trail could make it easier for a narcotics-induced murder charge to stick on a repeat drug offender whose product leads to death. It falls under the category of the "Watson murder rule," which is similar to legal precedents used when filing a second-degree murder charge against an intoxicated driver who ends up killing someone in a crash. The Watson rule argues that intoxicated drivers have "implied malice" or "specific knowledge":

They knew ahead of time that their actions could have deadly consequences. Dubbed Alexandra's Law, SB-350 is named in memory of 20-year-old Temecula resident Alexandra Capelouto. She died Dec. 23, 2019, from fentanyl poisoning after she took a pill marketed to her as oxycodone by a drug dealer, said her parents, Matt and Christine Capelouto.

Alexandra Capelouto was not a drug addict. She was a college student who was home for the holidays at the time of her death. She took one pill that she thought was oxycodone. It killed her, Matt Capelouto said.

The Capeloutos are working with other grieving parents who have lost kids to fentanyl. They want to see Alexandra's Law get passed, and they also want law enforcement to investigate fentanyl deaths as homicides rather than as overdose deaths. "Our daughter did not overdose," they said.

Alexandra's Law is still moving through the legislative process.

"Senate Bill 350 has received tremendous support from both the families of victims and law enforcement agencies who've witnessed firsthand the fatal impact caused by fentanyl-laced pills," Melendez said Friday. "This crisis is not partial to our politics, and it's why I'm hopeful my colleagues will rally behind this effort to protect our kids from these dangerous substances."

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