Fighting Fentanyl

Fighting Fentanyl: Santa Cruz Family Says Law Enforcement Failed in Daughter's Death

16-year-old Lace Price was found dead in a man’s home with drugs in her system. A man is charged with giving her drugs but not with her death. Why? The Investigative Unit examines concerns some law enforcement agencies are failing to hold suspected drug dealers accountable for lives being lost.

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The 911 emergency call came in at 7:40 PM on November 12, 2021 of a possible fentanyl poisoning of a 20-year-old female at home in Corralitos, Calif., which is located in unincorporated Santa Cruz County.

Except, she wasn’t 20; she was 16-years-old.

Lace Price, from Santa Cruz, was in Michael Russell’s family home “barely breathing,” according to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s incident report. The document shows deputies treated the call as an overdose. Price could not be revived, and by 8:47 PM, the Santa Cruz County Coroner’s Office was notified.

“So a little bit over an hour from the time the call is received, [the case] is essentially closed and turned to the Coroner’s Office,” said Michael Leininger. Leininger is a retired San Jose police detective who specializes in child abuse and death cases. He is not involved in the Santa Cruz County death incident.

“In my opinion, this should have been treated as a suspicious death,” Leininger told the Investigative Unit.

The Investigative Unit uncovers exclusive details and concerns some law enforcement agencies are failing to hold suspected drug dealers accountable for lives being lost. Raj Mathai speaks with Investigative reporter Candice Nguyen and retired San Jose police detective Michael Leininger on this.

Three months later, 23-year-old Michael Russell, originally from San Jose, would be criminally charged with having sex with two minors, including Price. He was also charged with providing Price with Xanax and Percocet, according the felony complaint. Russell has pleaded not guilty. His attorneys declined to comment for this report.

The last time Price’s mother, Jill Price, saw her daughter was in her casket.

“I put makeup on her,” she said tearfully, still absorbing the shock of her daughter’s sudden death. “I did her hair…and that matters to me.”

The number of fatal fentanyl poisonings are soaring. Last year, San Francisco saw 476 deaths. San Francisco police initiated a suspicious death investigation last February after finding a 16-year-old girl suspected of overdosing in an alley.

In the South Bay, a Los Altos High School student was recently found dead possibly from fentanyl, according to Mountain View police. Throughout Santa Cruz County, fentanyl deaths tripled from 2019 to 2020 and then spiked again in 2021.

And, in Santa Cruz County fatal fentanyl poisonings nearly quadrupled from 2019 to 2020 surging even more in 2021.

Michael Russell is not facing any charges directly related to Price’s death and her father, Michael Price, would like to know why.

“I would [like to see] murder or manslaughter [charges],” he said.

Prosecutors on the criminal case declined to provide details citing active court proceedings, so the Investigative Unit spoke to Santa Clara county District Attorney Jeff Rosen who made the call to file murder charges against a suspected drug dealers earlier this year after he says a 12-year-old San Jose girl died from taking less than a single pill laced with fentanyl. Rosen couldn’t comment on the Santa Cruz County case but says prosecutors statewide are starting to file murder or manslaughter charges in fentanyl poisonings but under specific circumstances.

“When we can prove that the drug dealer knew how dangerous fentanyl was – knew that the people could die from using just a tiny amount or using it once and sold it anyways to put profit over human life,” Rosen said.

That’s a mistake Lace Price’s parents believe happened in their daughter’s case. Russell is also charged with concealing or destroying her phone.

Michael and Jill Price believe Santa Cruz County deputies failed to look at their daughter’s death as a possible crime when the 911 call came in, dismissing it as just another tragic overdose.

“I asked the officer, ‘If a minor was in my home today and I called you and said they were dead on the floor would my house be considered a crime scene?’ And he said ‘Yes, it would.’ And I said, ‘You failed.’ And he said, ‘I know,’” Jill Price said.

The Investigative Unit tried three different ways to reach Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart. His spokesperson said he declined an interview, so we emailed Sheriff Hart specific questions but never got a response. Our team even visited his headquarters in-person, but a person with his office said he – and anyone else – was unavailable to answer questions.

Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Johanna Schonfield agreed to an interview with the Investigative Unit. She could not talk about specific cases but said her office works with law enforcement to fight fentanyl prioritizing education.

“The death to me is too late for [it to be] the focus, to be the emphasis; the tragedy has already occurred,” she said. “I believe that the emphasis should be further upstream…Why are people using drugs to begin with? Why are children actively online engaging in drug-seeking behavior?”

When asked about concern that comments like that place more blame on victims and their families rather than on people providing these deadly drugs, Schonfield said it’s a valid critique.

“I don’t want to minimize that. We are holding drug dealers accountable. The District Attorney’s Office is committed to seeking justice,” she said.

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