They stood on the steps outside the San Bernardino Police Department on Wednesday, Dec. 9, the parents of children whose lives were cut short by a cheap synthetic opiod called fentanyl, demanding stiffer penalties for dealers who sold their children the drug.
They held signs saying, “Why are drug dealers getting away with murder?” “Re-activate investigations on street drug poisonings,” and “Forgotten victims of drug induced homicide. We will not be silenced!”
Among them was retired San Bernardino police Sgt. Steve Filson, whose 29-year-old daughter, Jessica Filson, and her boyfriend, Nicholas Castillo, 30, were found dead in her Redlands home on Jan. 22, 2020. The couple thought they had ingested cocaine.
“The members of the San Bernardino Police Department executive staff categorized these deaths as nothing more than a simple overdose of a drug addict. That mindset is a travesty,” Filson said.
San Bernardino police Sgt. John Echevarria did not respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday.
Filson, however, praised the work of the investigators who not only worked his daughter’s and her boyfriend’s deaths, but the fentanyl-related deaths of two others that occurred within hours of each other in San Bernardino. All four deaths are believed connected, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Riverside is reviewing the case, Filson said.
Half a pill could kill 7
Jaime Puerta found his 16-year-old son, Daniel, unconscious in his bed in their Santa Clarita home on April 2, 2020. Daniel took half of what he thought was an oxycodone pill. The pill, however, was not oxycodone, but a counterfeit “fenta pill,” composed of pure fetanyl. Half a pill was enough to kill seven people, Puerta said.
At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Daniel was declared brain dead. At 3:40 p.m. on April 6, Puerta and Daniel’s mother, Denise Johnson, made the decision every parent prays they never have to make: they had Daniel removed from life support.
“My son, Daniel Joseph Puerta, 16 years old, he was not addicted to drugs. He was my only son,” Puerta said. “This is not only affecting people who suffer from substance use disorder. There are children 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 years old who are dying because they are trying drugs for the first time and they were unlucky enough to get a fenta pill.”
Filson and Puerta are among members of a group that started the website DrugInducedHomicide.org, which promotes investigating fentanyl death cases as homicides.
“It’s killing our children and nothing is being done about it. Our authorities are not investigating these because they are deeming these overdoses,” Puerta said. He said that, since 2013, 604,000 people nationwide have died due to “fentanyl poisoning.” The media also needs to stop labeling fentanyl deaths as overdoses, Puerta said.
Filson, his voiced often strained with emotion during Wednesday’s protest, said, “Our purpose today is two-fold: immediate public awareness and the immediate need for law enforcement, as a whole, to recognize and treat these investigations as they should be and for what they are, a drug-induced murder.”
Most of the approximately 50 people who attended Wednesday’s demonstration met in Ohio in October with U.S. “drug czar” James W. Carroll, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, to share their stories and push for more punitive laws for those who knowingly sell fentanyl to unsuspecting buyers.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has been cracking down on dealers suspected of selling fentanyl that has resulted in overdoses and fatalities.
In November, a San Fernando Valley man was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for selling fentanyl to a 22-year-old who died 20 minutes after ingesting the drug.
In September, federal prosecutors charged a San Gabriel woman with drug distribution resulting in serious bodily injury after she allegedly sold fentanyl-spiked cocaine on Sept. 11 to five men, all who subsequently overdosed after taking the drugs. Two of the men died, authorities said. Marisol Bolanos Hernandez, 35, faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted.
Eric Kay, a longtime Los Angeles Angels public relations employee, was charged in August with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl after star pitcher Tyler Skaggs died last year.
Matt Capelouto, whose 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, was found dead in the bedroom of her Temecula home two days before Christmas last year after taking what she was told was Oxycontin, said he has been working with state Sen. Melissa Melendez on proposed new legislation that woulod make it easier to charge drug dealers with murder in fentanyl-related cases. A bill number has yet to be assigned, but Capelouto said updates will be posted on DrugInducedHomicide.org.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, most of the increases in fentanyl deaths over the past three years have not been attributed to prescription fentanyl, but to illegal fentanyl mixed with or sold as heroin — with or without the users’ knowledge.
In July 2016, the DEA reported that hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription pills had entered the U.S. drug market since 2014, some containing deadly amounts of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, the CDC said.
“There is nothing accidental about these or any other deaths involving fentanyl,” Filson said. “These are intentional poisonings, and as such, nothing short of murder.”