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Southern California law enforcement puts fentanyl dealers ‘on notice’

Bill Bodner remembers when he first encountered fentanyl on the streets of New York City.

Back in 1991, he was a new agent working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In February that year, at least 12 people died and dozens more overdosed in the New York City area, ingesting a batch of fentanyl-laced heroin, branded then as “Tango and Cash.”

“(Police) were cruising around with loudspeakers,” telling residents not to take the drug cocktail, Bodner said.

It’s been more than 32 years since that moment, and more than ever, local and federal law enforcement are worried about the increasing presence of fentanyl in local communities.

Now, Bodner is the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Los Angeles office. On Tuesday, he said he couldn’t believe more than three decades later he’d still be talking about fentanyl.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

Bodner and about a dozen other law enforcement leaders from around the Southern California area on Tuesday, May 9 announced a string of cases they’ve filed over the last year in federal court targeting dealers accused of selling fentanyl and fake drugs spiked with fentanyl to unsuspecting users.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s easy to produce and far more powerful than either the painkillers found in some prescription drugs or actual heroin. Bodner noted that for illicit drug manufacturers the process for making fentanyl is as easy as mixing certain chemicals together by hand.

“There’s no heat required,” Bodner said from the Spring Street Courthouse in Downtown L.A. He said ease of making fentanyl is a big part of why it has become so popular for drug cartels, who can add fentanyl to other drugs to increase their power, or to manufacture fake versions of other drugs.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles has filed at least 12 cases recently against suspects accused of dealing fentanyl to victims who later died.

The cases include charges against a North Hollywood man arrested last week for a 2021 death that police suspect was the result of an accidental fentanyl overdose.

Federal prosecutors said in that case, a 19-year-old from La Canada Flintridge bought drugs from 24-year-old Heriberto Galvan of North Hollywood on Dec. 4, 2021. The victim was found dead in his car the next day, according to prosecutors. It’s not clear why law enforcement arrested Galvan more than a year after the man’s death.

Galvan is expected to appear in court on July 11.

Many local district attorney’s offices have been part of an increasingly fraught political debate over whether to charge dealers with murder if they are found to have sold fentanyl to victims who later die.

Since 2021, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin has charged almost two dozen people with murder who police said distributed fentanyl to victims who later died. But L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón’s office has come out against filing murder charges against fentanyl dealers.

In the state legislature, several bills to increase penalties against fentanyl dealers have repeatedly been killed in the committee process. Progressive lawmakers have argued that increasing penalties against low-level drug dealers is reminiscent of the war on drugs of the 1970s and 80s, in which hundreds of thousands of people were jailed on low-level drug charges.

In federal court, however, U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said his office has been pursuing stiff penalties against similar suspects.

Last week, in a case brought by Estrada’s office, a judge sentenced Jason Soheili, a 28-year-old Laguna Hills man, to 20 years in prison for distributing fentanyl to a man who later died of an accidental overdose.

Estrada said federal law allows prosecutors to charge suspects with distribution of fentanyl resulting in death without having to prove whether the suspects knew they were dealing fentanyl.

“Under our statutes, if someone sells a drug and that results in the death of a person, we don’t need to prove that there was any knowledge that was fentanyl,” Estrada said. “We just need to prove the individual sold a drug, a controlled substance, and that drug then resulted in the death of another person.”

Estrada said he believed anyone selling counterfeit painkillers like oxycodone or Percocet knows “there’s a very high risk of what they’re selling contains fentanyl.”

“So they’re on notice,” he said.

In court records for the case against Soheili, prosecutors said text messages showed Soheili agreed to sell the victim, only identified as “J.M.”, cocaine and Xanax. There was no information about whether or not Soheili knew the drugs he was selling contained fentanyl.

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