Investigative Unit

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. The police department says it handled the call appropriately.

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Six weeks before 16-year-old Lace Price, from Santa Cruz, was found dead in Michael Russell’s family home with fentanyl and other substances in her system, according to her parents, the Watsonville Police Department ignored a warning about Russell possibly selling deadly fentanyl-laced drugs.

That’s according to Mercy Wright, Russell’s now 18-year-old ex-girlfriend who says they dated while he was in his twenties and she was a minor.  

The Investigative Unit obtained the audio of Wright’s 911 call that confirms on September 21, 2021 she told a dispatcher Russell was harassing her and sold fentanyl-laced Percocets to another girl who died. The dispatcher forwarded her notes, which specifically mentioned the fentanyl tip, to the Watsonville Police Department.

“They just ignored me,” Wright said. “The officer called me back and said that he wasn’t going to listen pretty much because it was ex-drama.”

Wright says this experience negatively impacted her trust in law enforcement.

“I literally said I can never trust the system. I don’t even know why I bother trying to make a difference,” she said.

Despite fatal fentanyl poisonings soaring across California during the pandemic prompting this Santa Cruz County public health advisory, Watsonville Police Department’s assistant chief told the Investigative Unit the responding officer did not discuss the fentanyl tip with Wright or share the information with any other agency.

Dispatch notes to the Watsonville Police Department

Watsonville Assistant Police Chief Thomas Sims declined an interview with NBC Bay Area but said in an email that the priority was for Russell to stop harassing Wright and the officer handled the incident appropriately.

Little did everyone know at the time, just weeks after Wright’s 911 call, neighboring Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputies would respond to the possible fentanyl poisoning of Lace Price at Michael Russell’s family home. Russell is now criminally charged with having sex with two minors (Price and Wright), human trafficking and providing the girls with controlled substances. Russell has pleaded not guilty to the charges and his attorneys declined to comment for this report..

Price’s parents believe their daughter might still be alive if Watsonville police took Wright’s 911 report about fentanyl-laced drugs seriously.

“There are no words to describe the gravity of that fallout,” said Jill Price, Lace’s mother.

Russell is not charged with anything related to Price’s death, but her parents believe that’s because law enforcement failed to take a call about fentanyl seriously again – this time the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. They say deputies failed to treat their daughter’s death as a possible crime and rather saw it as just another tragic overdose. The Sheriff’s Office’s incident report indicates the Coroner’s Office was called to move Price’s body about an hour after law enforcement received the initial call. Important evidence was lost, Price’s parents believe. Russell is charged with destroying or concealing their daughter’s cell phone.

“What more needs to happen for you to take it seriously? There’s a dead 16-year-old,” Lace Price’s father said, Michael Price.

Although Sheriff Jim Hart has declined to address the issue publicly with NBC Bay Area after repeated requests for an interview, his office is expected to participated in a public Town Hall about fentanyl awareness scheduled for April 25.

Weeks before a teenage girl was found dead in a man’s family house, Watsonville police received a 911 call about the man selling “fentanyl-laced Percocets.” Raj Mathai speaks with investigative reporter Candice Nguyen on this.
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