A number of families who have lost their loved ones to the deadly drug fentanyl in recent months gathered Tuesday, Sept. 5, in front of the California Attorney General’s office along with supporters of a voter initiative to Stop Fentanyl Dealers, adding to the current Senate Bill 350 Alexandra’s Law warnings.
Leading the Sacramento live stream news conference on the initiative was Matt Capelouto, member of the Stop Fentanyl Dealers movement and the father of Alexandra Capelouto whose name is on the law that currently warns drug dealers that the fentanyl is extremely dangerous to human life and if they manufacture to sell it and if a person dies from it they could be charged with voluntary manslaughter or murder. It basically served only as warning and the initiative seeks to put more teeth into that law, making it a capital crime.
Helping forward the initiative is a recent case where a Southwest Justice Center Superior Court jury in French Valley found a man guilty of second degree murder of the fentanyl-related death of Kelsey King in June 2020. It took that jury only one day to convict the defendant, Vincente David Romeo, 34, of that crime before Judge Timothy Free. His sentence will be given Friday, Oct. 6.
Alexandra’s Law is only a warning.
Addressing the crowd in front of the attorney general’s office, Matt Capelouto said in a news release, it is only a warning.
“Yet there are currently no laws in California to hold a drug dealer accountable for these kinds of deaths. This initiative will change that,” Capelouto said.
The local Romero court case as well may set some precedence for the initiative. He said currently the drug dealers and manufacturers who are caught and let go often go on the streets to ply their illicit trade again. The manufacturers often sell counterfeit drugs as prescription drugs to unwary victims.
The father of Zach Didier, 17, who died of fentanyl poisoning two days after Christmas 2020, Chris Didier, spoke at the news conference.
“My son Zach was an accomplished student, actor and athlete – then a fake pill made of fentanyl killed him,” Chris Didier said. “While I now spend my time warning families and students about the dangers of fentanyl, it's just as important to stop those selling it. This initiative helps do that.”
“This measure provides a critical tool for prosecutors in the fentanyl crisis,” Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire, who drafted the initiative and whose office he said was the first in the state to secure a murder conviction for a fentanyl-related death. “It helps us reduce fentanyl deaths by cracking down on dealers and sending the clear message to those convicted of hard drug crimes: ‘If you choose to continue your behavior and sell and kill, the consequence will be severe.’”
Young 11-year-old Sonovah Hillman took the microphone and said, “I lost my aunt and uncle to a drug overdose and my dad to addiction. Fentanyl is affecting every gender, race, class and age group.”
Sonovah’s Grammy-nominated father and rapper DMX died of a drug-overdose induced heart attack in 2021.
“I may be young, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something to help this crisis. Too many kids are being affected and I want to give them a voice,” Sonovah said.
Also participating in the news conference were Perla Mendoza, founder of Project Eli who lost her son Elijah to fentanyl poisoning; Janice Celeste, president and CEO of FentanylSolutions.org; Debbie Boyd, board member of Crime Victims United, and Tom Wolf of the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions.
A number of state legislators joined the group to give their support to the Stop Fentanyl Dealers, a coalition of parents and families of fentanyl poisoning victims, nonprofit organizations, legislators, criminal justice professionals and other stakeholders who are united to eradicate illicit fentanyl. Contact [email protected] for a copy of the initiative.
The Riverside case awaits sentencing.
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin in a news release said his office provided justice to a victim’s family by securing a guilty verdict by a jury in a fentanyl-related homicide trial in Southern California.
“DDA Jerry Pfohl not only demonstrated that the law can be upheld in a fentanyl-related murder case but also established a precedent for future cases,” Hestrin said.
He said in a news release it was the first of 23 active homicide cases in Riverside County related to fentanyl poisonings to go to trial and is a landmark case in California in which a person who knowingly supplied fentanyl was convicted of murder.
In the case, the prosecutors had to prove that the defendant knew the drug was deadly and still provided it to a victim to meet the threshold for murder.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is more than 50 times stronger than heroin, and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is often added to other, more expensive illicit drugs because of its potency.
The newly formed Stop Fentanyl Dealers group and the Riverside County District Attorney’s office both said they are determined to place and keep fentanyl dealers in jail for longer and stronger terms.
Since Romero was found guilty of second-degree murder in Riverside County, it carries a potential sentence of 15 years to life. The additional charges carry a sentence of up to six years, eight months in prison.
The murder case, SWF2007390, was prosecuted by Pfohl of the Riverside DA’s Homicide Division.
Tony Ault can be reached by email at [email protected].