Fighting Fentanyl: Investigating Law Enforcement's Response to the Opioid Crisis

The Investigative Unit spent five months digging into our growing fentanyl crisis by following a troubling case out of Santa Cruz County involving the sudden death of a teen girl.

Investigative Unit

Part 1: Santa Cruz Family Says Law Enforcement Failed in Daughter’s Death

The Investigative Unit spent five months digging into our growing fentanyl crisis following a troubling case out of Santa Cruz County involving the sudden death of a teen girl. Candice Nguyen explains.

Part 2: Watsonville Police Accused of Ignoring Fentanyl-Laced Drug Warning Before Santa Cruz Girl’s Death

Weeks before a teen girl was found dead in a man’s family house, Watsonville Police received a 911 call about the man selling “fentanyl-laced Percocets.” The caller told the Investigative Unit the officer ignored that portion of her report putting the public at risk. Candice Nguyen reports.

THE CASE

16-year-old Lace Price was found unresponsive in a man’s home in Santa Cruz County last November. Her parents say they were told fentanyl was in her system along with other substances. The man, Michael Russell, who is originally from San Jose, has been charged with sex crimes against Price and another minor and providing drugs – to which he’s pleaded not guilty. But he’s not charged with Price’s death. Why? After a five-month-long investigation, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit uncovers exclusive details about the case, our community’s fight against fentanyl, and concerns some law enforcement agencies are failing to hold suspected dealers accountable for lives being lost.


THE CRISIS

After making its way across the country, our nation’s fentanyl crisis has hit California, including the Bay Area. Fatal fentanyl poisonings soared before and during the pandemic as the crisis continues to spike in many counties. The Investigative Unit spoke to prosecutors who say some counties are just now improving law enforcement training to detect possible fentanyl cases and autopsy processes to include fentanyl testing.

Here are the latest numbers from some of our local counties:  

Santa Clara County provides up-to-date death information, including a breakout of fatal fentanyl poisonings, on its new Medical Examiner dashboard: https://medicalexaminer.sccgov.org/medical-examiner-coroner-dashboard.

It shows 27 fentanyl-related deaths in 2019, 86 in 2020, and 131 in 2021.

San Francisco public health officials say overdose deaths there began a rapid rise in 2018 due to the arrival of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply. In 2021, the city saw 476 fentanyl deaths, according to its Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Fatal fentanyl poisonings nearly quadrupled from 2019 to 2020 in Santa Cruz County. County officials tell the Investigative Unit they are still processing 2021 numbers, but confirm the number is still surging. They say the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, and Public Health Department are participating in a public virtual town hall meeting Monday April 25, 2022 to address their community and media about its fentanyl crisis, including their response thus far. Here's more information. SafeRx Santa Cruz County is leading the event.

The fentanyl crisis is no longer isolated to adults and people struggling with substance abuse. Law enforcement across the Bay Area and Santa Cruz tells the Investigative Unit illicit drugs are being advertised to young teens online and on social media where the possible one-time-user may have no idea the drug being purchased contains or may contain a deadly amount of fentanyl.

Drug dealers add the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl to other drugs to increase profits. The hospital-grade opioid is known to cause a heroine-like effect cheaply because you only need to use a microscopic amount. Lacing other drugs – for example, Percocet, Xanax, or cocaine – with fentanyl makes them more powerful, more addictive, and also more dangerous.

Public health and safety experts say the conversation about drugs with children needs to change from “drugs are bad” to “one pill can kill.”

In January, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office filed a murder charge in a case where they say a 12-year-old girl suddenly died after taking less than a single pill laced with fentanyl. In February, a Los Altos High School student was found dead, and police believe the cause was fentanyl.


THE CONVERSATION

Fentanyl Overdose vs. Fentanyl Poisoning

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen talks about the new conversations underway surrounding the use of the word “overdose” versus “poisoning” when it comes to fentanyl. He also talks about the importance of law enforcement collecting evidence early on in suspected fentanyl cases if prosecutors are going to hold drug dealers accountable.   

“It doesn’t make a difference how old or how young you are.”

Edwin Moore visits a memorial of a 16-year-old girl found dead in a San Francisco alley last February of a suspected overdose. He does not know the girl but was overcome with emotion. San Francisco police and the Medical Examiner are treating the case as a suspicious death. It’s unclear if fentanyl was in the girl’s system, but the Investigative Unit has filed a records request for the autopsy and toxicology report.


RESEARCH & RESOURCES:

Learn more about fentanyl: https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/basics/fentanyl.html

Substance abuse and mental health support (SAMHSA): https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

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