Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

DAs get tough on drug charges

Wave of deaths linked to fentanyl has Riverside County office and others seeking counts of murder

- By Joe Nelson jnelson@scng.com

Struggling to contain a “wave of poisonings” that has contribute­d to an 800% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in the past four years, Riverside County is pursuing murder charges against those believed responsibl­e for fatal overdoses.

In the past two weeks, the Riverside County district attorney’s office has charged three men with murder for supplying the cheap synthetic opiate to unwitting drug users. A fourth man was arrested

Friday on suspicion of murder in connection with a fatal overdose, but his case has not yet been presented to the district attorney.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin said the proliferat­ion of fentanyl on Riverside County streets and the staggering increase in deaths are driving his crackdown on alleged drug distributo­rs.

“In the last five years, the number of fentanyl deaths has doubled every year. We’re trying to get ahead of this wave of poisonings,” Hestrin said, noting there were 25 fentanyl-related fatal overdoses in 2017, 25 in 2018, 110 in 2019 and 227

last year.

Citing the death toll, prosecutor­s nationwide are beginning to partner with their respective local law enforcemen­t agencies to launch a front-line assault on drug suppliers selling fentanyl-spiked drugs to people who overdose and die.

Prosecutor­s in San Luis Obispo and Contra Costa counties have charged suspected drug dealers with murder in the past year, as have prosecutor­s in Florida and Colorado.

But in Southern California, Riverside County stands alone so far.

While Orange County has yet to prosecute anyone for such circumstan­ces, District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he is open to it if warranted.

“This is a dangerous and lethal drug. At any time our office were to receive such a fentanyl induced homicide we will certainly consider filing murder charges if we can meet our legal and ethical obligation­s,” Spitzer said in a statement.

An Oct. 29, 2020, post on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page noted that the Orange County crime lab had seen a 100% increase in the presence of fentanyl in all drugs tested by the lab. A year prior, sheriff’s deputies seized 18 pounds of the drug, with a street value of $1.25 million, along with 5 pounds of heroin and a half-pound of methamphet­amine. It signaled a “quickly growing” and “substantia­l threat to the public,” officials said at the time.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on whether his office has a plan to address the growing fentanyl epidemic in his county. Since 2018, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has recovered more than 1,500 pounds of fentanyl, not counting seizures in pill form, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, said Lt. Scott Aikin of the department’s narcotics bureau.

“In reality, these numbers are probably much higher. With fentanyl being a relatively new phenomenon, it wasn’t until early 2018 that we implemente­d a better system to capture the true volume of fentanyl seized,” Aikin said. “We faced some setbacks last summer due to civil unrest, the pandemic and budget shortfalls, but, currently, our seizures seem to be returning to pre-pandemic numbers.”

Aiken said his department, along with its federal, state and local partners, has “made the scourge of fentanyl abuse or counterfei­t pills containing fentanyl a top priority.”

In San Bernardino County, District Attorney Jason Anderson would not say whether or not his office would take a hard line against fentanyl-related overdose deaths such as in Riverside County and elsewhere.

From 2018 to the present, authoritie­s have seized more than 334 pounds of fentanyl in San Bernardino County. The drug is typically found blended into cocaine, heroin or methamphet­amine, and it’s rare for detectives to find large amounts of pure fentanyl, a sheriff’s spokespers­on said.

From 2017 to 2020, fentanyl-related deaths increased by more that 240% in Los Angeles County, 505% in Orange County, 808% in Riverside County and 960% in San Bernardino County.

First murder charge

During a Feb. 22 press conference, Hestrin announced Riverside County’s first fentanyl-related murder charge against 21-year-old Eastvale resident Joseph Michael Costanza, who in October allegedly sold fentanylsp­iked drugs to 18-yearold Angel Vazquez, also of Eastvale, and a 16-year-old. Vazquez later died of an overdose, but the 16-yearold survived, authoritie­s said.

Two days later, an unidentifi­ed 16-year-old girl and adult male were found unconsciou­s inside a residence in French Valley due to a fentanyl overdose. They were taken to the hospital, where the male was revived but the girl was pronounced dead, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Investigat­ors arrested Raymond Gene Tyrrell Jr., 18, of French Valley on suspicion of murder. On Feb. 27, they also arrested Jeremiah David Carlton, 18, of Canyon Lake in connection with the French Valley case. He also has been charged with murder.

Costanza’s attorney, James Knox, did not respond to a request for comment. Riverside County Deputy Public Defender Kathleen Pedro, who is representi­ng Tyrrell and Carlton, also did not respond.

On Friday, Riverside County sheriff’s investigat­ors arrested Samuel Leo Mussaw, 21, of San Jacinto on suspicion of murder and possession of drugs for sale in connection with the fatal fentanyl overdose Thursday of 23-yearold Adam Young, who was found unresponsi­ve at his home.

When a search warrant was executed at Mussaw’s home, deputies found firearms, cash and approximat­ely 2,000 fentanyl pills called “M-30s.”

Mussaw is being held on $1 million bail and is scheduled for arraignmen­t Tuesday, according to sheriff’s booking records.

Implied malice

Prosecutor­s have charged Costanza, Tyrrell and Carlton with seconddegr­ee murder under the Watson murder rule, used primarily in fatal DUI cases. The law is named after a 1981 California Supreme Court case that held a person driving under the influence can be charged and convicted of murder if the driver acted with “implied malice.”

In other words, the driver knew that getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle while intoxicate­d could have potentiall­y deadly consequenc­es.

Prosecutor­s will argue that each of the men was aware of the potential lethality of selling fentanylsp­iked drugs given their prior histories, thereby making second-degree murder charges appropriat­e. Hestrin said the Watson murder rule applies to their cases.

“You’ve got someone who is dealing drugs, and through the course of their drug dealing they become aware they have killed somebody with their own activities, and the thing they’re selling continues to kill people,” Hestrin said. “In this case, they disregard that risk and continue to sell even if they continue to kill people. It’s like the drunk driver getting behind the wheel knowing how dangerous it is.”

In Costanza’s case, sheriff’s investigat­ors learned that, prior to Vazquez’s death, there were seven overdoses at Costanza’s home over a one-year period, including a woman who fatally overdosed in July 2020, according to Sheriff Chad Bianco.

Authoritie­s were not as clear on the case of Tyrrell and Carlton. Hestrin, however, did say, “It looks like it’s going to fall under the same kind of rule as the Costanza case, and I will be prosecutin­g it the same way.”

Less than three weeks before Hestrin’s press conference announcing the murder charge against Costanza, a Riverside County task force, during raids in downtown Riverside and north San Diego County on Feb. 4 and Feb. 5, respective­ly, seized a total of 3 kilos of fentanyl. The fentanyl seized in San Diego County was intercepte­d on the northbound 15 Freeway as it was being delivered to Riverside County, authoritie­s said.

Most fentanyl coming to the U.S. is produced in China and commonly transited through Mexico, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank on U.S. foreign policy and internatio­nal affairs

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 36,000 people died in 2019 from overdoses involving synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. About 2 milligrams is a potentiall­y fatal dose for most people. One teaspoon of fentanyl contains about 5,000 milligrams. It has earned the grim term “one and done” because often someone’s first dose of fentanyl proves fatal.

“It is astounding the lethality of this substance,” Hestrin said.”There is no safe way to use drugs now. You’re going to get hurt. It’s as simple as that. And this stuff is spreading everywhere.”

He said the number of fentanyl-related deaths in Riverside County would be in the thousands if not for Narcan, a nasal spray used by first responders, even drug users and dealers themselves, that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

“If it weren’t for Narcan, there would be thousands and thousands of deaths,” Hestrin said. “There have been dealers who have died just packaging this stuff. A lot of dealers are carrying around Narcan.”

Alexandra’s Law

Last month, Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, introduced SB 350 to help combat fentanyl-related deaths. She named it Alexandra’s Law in honor of 20-year-old Alexandra Capelouto, a college student who died of a fentanyl overdose at her parents’ Temecula home while visiting for Christmas in 2019. Her father said she thought she had taken oxycontin.

The proposed legislatio­n would require the court to issue a warning to firsttime offenders convicted of selling or distributi­ng controlled substances that their actions could result in another person’s death and, if so, a murder charge could be filed against them.

Melendez knows her bill faces an uphill battle, but she was encouraged last week when Democratic Assemblywo­man Cottie Petrie-Norris, who represents Orange County’s coastal 74th District, signed on as a co-author. “I think the district attorneys certainly would welcome another tool in their toolbox with this legislatio­n,” Melendez said.

Hestrin’s objective is simple: He hopes murder prosecutio­ns will discourage drug suppliers from dealing fentanyl.

“What I am trying to do is protect the people of Riverside County,” said Hestrin, a former line prosecutor who has served as district attorney since 2015. “I’m going to do whatever I can to bring down the numbers in Riverside County and protect the families in this county, and drug dealers should know that.”

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Hestrin
 ?? TERRY PIERSON — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin is taking a firm stance against drug dealers who sell fentanyl-spiked drugs to users who fatally overdose. “It is astounding the lethality of this substance,” Hestrin said about fentanyl.
TERRY PIERSON — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin is taking a firm stance against drug dealers who sell fentanyl-spiked drugs to users who fatally overdose. “It is astounding the lethality of this substance,” Hestrin said about fentanyl.

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