Calif. county’s war on fentanyl dealers gaining attention

Since the DA's office filed a murder charge for a fentanyl-related death in Feb. 2021, prosecutors have pursued cases against 19 defendants suspected in 20 deaths

By Joe Nelson
The Orange County Register

RIVERSIDE COUNTY, Calif. — A partnership between the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office to prosecute suspected drug dealers for murder in fentanyl-related deaths is gaining attention statewide.

Sheriff Chad Bianco, whose investigators have arrested 22 people in connection with fentanyl-related deaths since the county launched its war against suspected dealers in early 2021, said several law enforcement agencies throughout California have been reaching out to his department and the District Attorney’s Office to find out what they are doing and how they are doing it.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, pictured here at right with Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, said fentanyl-related deaths and arrests have skyrocketed in the past year.
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, pictured here at right with Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, said fentanyl-related deaths and arrests have skyrocketed in the past year. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Since the District Attorney’s Office filed its first murder charge for a fentanyl-related death in February 2021, prosecutors have pursued murder cases against 19 defendants suspected in 20 deaths. That first case was filed against Joseph Michaal Costanza, 22, of Eastvale for selling fentanyl to a man who later died.

District Attorney MIke Hestrin said the county still leads the state in fentanyl-related murder prosecutions, but as more people become alarmed by the fentanyl epidemic, other counties are paying attention and some are following Riverside County’s lead.

“There are other counties that have jumped on board and are beginning to do this, but they don’t have the number of prosecutions that we do,” Hestrin said in a telephone interview. “We’ve been doing training around the state. Other D.A.’s offices are very interested in our approach.”

In nearby San Bernardino County, the District Attorney’s Office filed a murder charge Sept. 21 against Alfred Urrea, 18, of Bloomington for allegedly selling fentanyl to an 18-year-old Highland man who died of an overdose. Urrea was the second person San Bernardino County prosecutors have charged with murder in a fentanyl-related death.

“Our Office is committed to prosecuting these crimes using all available county, state and federal resources. In doing so, we seek to bring closure to the victim’s families, and accountability to illicit drug dealers,” District Attorney Jason Anderson said in a statement.

In Los Angeles County, the District Attorney’s Office, has charged a 15-year-old boy with manslaughter for the Sept. 13 fatal overdose of 15-year-old Melanie Ramos in a Hollywood high school restroom. The office has previously taken the position that increased penalties for drug offenses do not save lives.

“We don’t know if this is the first involuntary manslaughter case involving fentanyl or not, but it’s not the first where a charge arises from a death caused by an overdose,” said a statement from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. “The filing does not reflect any new policy and the case was evaluated like any other against the elements of involuntary manslaughter.

“It was determined that we have enough evidence to prove that the offense was committed. The fact that there was a drug involved does not protect a person who otherwise clearly meets the definition of the crime.”

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office has yet to file any fentanyl-related murder charges.

“We are reviewing cases — we just haven’t filed any murder cases yet,” said office spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.

Even federal prosecutors are beginning to take steps to crack down on fentanyl dealers. A federal grand jury in December 2021 indicted Brendan Michael McDowell, 22, of Riverside, charging him with one count of distributing fentanyl resulting in death in connection with the Dec. 22, 2019, fentanyl overdose death of 20-year-old Alexandra Capelouto at her Temecula home.

Capelouto, a student at Arizona State University, was home for the holidays when she bought what she thought was an oxycodone pill, via the social media platform Snapchat, from McDowell. What she got was a pure fentanyl pill called an M-30, authorities said.

Trial ordered in death

The most recent court proceeding in a fentanyl-related murder prosecution in Riverside County came Friday, Sept. 30, when a Superior Court judge ordered 19-year-old French Valley resident Raymond Gene Tyrrell II to stand trial in connection with the Feb. 24, 2021, death of 16-year-old Jenna Lynn Gordon.

Gordon and Tyrrell had ingested an M30 fentanyl pill — crushed into powder, split into two lines and snorted by both — in Jenna’s bedroom at her French Valley home. At Tyrrell’s preliminary hearing at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta, Jenna’s mother, Tammy Lyon-Gordon, testified she found the two unconscious in the bedroom and called 911. Tyrrell was resuscitated and survived, but Jenna did not.

Less than a year before Jenna’s death, Lyon-Gordon’s son, Tyler Jason Gordon, 18, had died of a fentanyl overdose after taking what he thought was a Percocet pill he had purchased from someone he met on Snapchat.

Sheriff’s investigator Wesley Martinelli testified that Tyrrell had told him during an interview he was aware the pill he had given Jenna was an M30 and contained fentanyl, that her brother had recently died of a fentanyl overdose, and that he had previously overdosed on an M30 pill purchased from the same dealer.

The 19-year-old Canyon Lake man who allegedly supplied Tyrrell the M30 pills, Jeremiah David Carlton, also also been charged with murder in connection with Jenna’s death, but his case is being heard separately. He will next appear in court on Oct. 7 for a pretrial hearing.

Work intensive

To put into perspective the kind of work Riverside County sheriff’s investigators have cut out for them in fentanyl-related death cases, Bianco said the county averages 80 to 100 homicides a year, and he has about 20 investigators working those cases.

In comparison, he said, he has a team of four investigators and one sergeant who are now investigating 482 active fentanyl-related deaths countywide.

“I’d like to hire 100 more investigators to do fentanyl deaths, but that can’t happen, so we’re doing the best we can,” Bianco said, adding that deputies from other subtations, in the areas where the alleged crimes occurred, are pulled in to assist in the investigations.

Hestrin said fentanyl-related deaths and arrests have skyrocketed in the past year. In June, the Riverside County Gang Impact Team seized 40,000 M-30 fentanyl pills and 5 kilos of powdered fentanyl, with an estimated street value of $1.5 million, during three investigations.

“It’s just gone through the roof. It was bad a year ago, now it’s four and five times what it’s been,” Hestrin said. “It’s what everyone has been talking about in law enforcement, is fentanyl.”

Killer drug

Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful 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.

The drug’s extremely high-risk death potential has earned it a phrase among its staunch opponents: “One and done.”

Fentanyl is manufactured in overseas labs, including in China, and, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, is smuggled across the U.S.- Mexico border by cartels. The substance is a popular additive, mixed into any number of narcotics and pharmaceuticals.

The U.S. Department of Justice said fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat facing the nation.

In 2021, a record number of Americans – 107,622 – died from a drug poisoning or overdose, and 60% of those deaths can be attributed to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, according to the Justice Department.

Watershed moment

Bianco said Capelouto’s death was a watershed moment in Riverside County for his department and the District Attorney’s Office in waging their war on fentanyl dealers.

“I met with Mike (Hestrin) and we started talking about the alarming numbers of fentanyl overdoses, or poisonings that we’re calling them, and I said, ‘We need to do something,’ ” Bianco said. “He said it was going to be difficult. I told him we’ve got to do something. He said, ‘You put a team together, I’ll give you an attorney, and we’ll see if there’s some way to charge them.’ ”

Hestrin credits Bianco in his aggressive push to tackle the fentanyl problem head-on, despite the challenges and obstacles that would lie ahead.

“Our sheriff took the lead in the state and formed a team and began to investigate these cases as potential homicides, and that made all the difference,” Hestrin said. “If potential evidence isn’t gathered, then there’s no way we can move forward on those prosecutions.”

Case closed

One murder prosecution that won’t be moving forward involved Justin Lee Kail, 31, of Winchester, who was arrested in February in connection with the Aug. 21, 2021, fatal fentanyl overdose of Ernie Gutierrez in Winchester.

Kail was being held on $1 million bail at the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center in French Valley. But sheriff’s Sgt. Brandi Swan said Kail died May 17 while in custody. Cause of death: a fentanyl overdose.

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