Orange County DA Todd Spitzer announces crackdown on fentanyl dealers

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer announced Tuesday his office will now pursue murder charges against convicted drug dealers who peddle dope that leads to a death, an effort also being undertaken in Riverside County.

Spitzer said the practice will work much like the so-called Watson Waiver, which permits second-degree murder charges against convicted drunken drivers involved in a deadly crash. The major difference, however, is the Watson Waiver has been approved by state lawmakers and is established legal precedence.

An effort to pass a similar law against convicted drug dealers peddling fentanyl earlier this year failed to get out of committee in Sacramento.

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Spitzer was joined in the announcement by Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, who said his office has already filed seven such cases and has three more in the pipeline.

Several parents whose children died as a result of taking lethal doses of fentanyl also joined Tuesday's news conference, calling on parents and educators to relay the message of how deadly the drug has become, especially in the case of counterfeits that are being illegally manufactured and trafficked into the country.

"We have seen a 1,000% increase over the last five years as a result of overdoses and deaths by fentanyl," Spitzer said. "Statewide, fentanyl deaths are up 1,513%. Rich, poor, Black, white, Brown, men, women, children, hardcore drug users and first-time drug users who are exposed have died."

Spitzer said there were 450 deaths pending toxicology tests to determine the cause in the Orange County Sheriff's Coroner's Office.

"Those are all going to be related to fentanyl," Spitzer said.

Spitzer said the drug is "50 times more potent than morphine," adding it is "cheap, it's easy to get."

Because so little is needed for a high, it is also easier to conceal, Spitzer said.

Spitzer said he was working with law enforcement officials in the county to also give drug dealers "advisements" that if they are busted again for drugs and someone dies they could be on the hook under the legal theory of implied malice murder.

Matt Capelouto spoke with FOX 11 Tuesday evening about the policy change from both Riverside and Orange counties.

"This is great news. When I started this journey nearly two years ago, we came up with the idea of enacting similar legislation as we do for DUI and giving a similar admonishment to drug dealers," said Capelouto.

Capelouto was behind the effort to get state lawmakers to approve Alexandra's Law, following the fentanyl-related death of his 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, in 2019.

"My daughter did have depression and anxiety and insomnia issues and I believe in an effort to self-medicate and try to get a good night's sleep, she searched for oxycodone, and it wasn't hard for her to find a drug dealer on Snapchat. My daughter took one pill and never woke up. My daughter did not die of an overdose. She did not take too much of something. In fact, she was deceived. She was sold a false bill of goods. She thought she was getting one thing and she got poisoned. She was deceived to death and that's not an overdose. It's poisoning and it amounts to homicide and people need to be held accountable for that," said Capelouto.

Alexandra's law did not make it out of committee in Sacramento earlier this year.

"We worked very hard on it for the course of one year and our legislature to turn it down was heartbreaking, to say the least," said Capelouto.

Capelouto has not given up. He has decided to work with local law enforcement on the issue.

"Now we're just going straight to law enforcement, district attorneys and they see the need for it so they're just doing it themselves and hopefully our legislature will begin to understand this. We've allowed drug dealers to become serial killers. Fentanyl has changed everything. We need to stop these drug dealers who are selling stuff, selling drugs with fentanyl in it and killing people. That's what they're doing," said Capelouto.

Capelouto plans to re-introduce the bill early next year.

Spitzer brushed aside the fact that state lawmakers rejected the concept. The state law would have allowed for voluntary manslaughter or second- degree murder for convicted fentanyl dealers.

"If they don't want to be aggressive about all these young people dying then shame on the state Legislature," Spitzer said. "Because the state Legislature has an epidemic. They understand a pandemic, but they certainly need to understand they have an epidemic when it comes to fentanyl."

But Spitzer said, "We're going to be arguing, trying to convince judges and juries. That's just what we do. We fight for victims. We try to stop future crimes from happening. We try to save lives. This is pathetic. This is horrible. This is beyond imagination."

Hestrin said fentanyl has been a game-changer in the drug trade.

"Fentanyl has changed the entire nature of drug use and drug dealing," Hestrin said. "In Riverside County in 2016 we had two fentanyl- related deaths. This year we're on pace to have 500 to 600 fentanyl-related deaths. The deaths are doubling every year."

Fentanyl "is so lethal. It is poisoning our communities," Hestrin said.

"So I decided we weren't going to do things the old way," he said of going after fentanyl pushers.

Perla Mendoza said her son was suffering from depression and having trouble with insomnia, and was prescribed sleep medication. But when a doctor would not refill a prescription because of concerns about addiction, her son contacted someone on Snapchat, who delivered a drug to him.

"One pill killed my son," Mendoza said. "I don't want this to happen to anyone else in our community."

She wanted to warn parents about the dangers of drugs.

"Parents, this could happen to any of us," she said. "My son was a good boy. He had a dream of helping others. He was funny, a loving son. My only son. He was born on Christmas Eve, my Christmas gift... No one is immune to this nasty poisoning."

Another mom, Amy Neville, said last year her 14-year-old son died after consuming a "single, counterfeit pill containing fentanyl."

"Unfortunately he had been experimenting with cannabis," and he got the drug from a dealer who was connected to two other deaths in Orange County, she said.

"I believe to drive down the deaths we need to drive down the demand," Neville said.

But, also, a crackdown on the dealers is necessary, Neville said.

"They should be considered culpable," Neville said.

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