Deaths from the illegal drug fentanyl happen nearly every day across Southern California.
Once viewed as drug overdoses, many drug deaths and cases are now considered poisonings and even murder.
It is about changing attitudes with police and prosecutors looking into these cases which hasn’t been easy.
The NBC 4 I-Team found one father’s loss and persistence led to change in one the way law enforcement handles drug deaths in Riverside County.
“She had a very deep soul, she loved to read and write and paint,” Matt Capelouto, from Temecula, California, said.
Capelouto lost his daughter, Alexandra Capelouto in 2019.
The 20-year old was attending Arizona State University on an academic scholarship. One of 4 sisters, she was home for the holidays in December 2019. Her dad believes she was looking for something to help with her anxiety.
“She reached out to a drug dealer on social media, found a drug dealer who sold her what she thought was oxycodone and sometime before going to bed she took half of one of these pills and died,” Capelouto said.
He later learned the pill she took was counterfeit, containing the illegal drug, Fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s similar to morphine, and at least 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Often smuggled in from Mexico, investigators say drug dealers will mix fentanyl in with other illegal drugs to increase their potency.
“I knew nothing of fentanyl, nothing of these counterfeit pills going around,” he said. “My daughter did not make a wise choice,” he said, adding “but it certainly wasn’t a choice that was worth dying over.” Capelouto and his wife met with the Riverside County Sheriff and the Riverside County District Attorney soon after his daughter’s death.
“I’m having to look at this grieving mother and the dad that’s pleading with me to do something about this,” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, said.
The parents say the meeting led to changes in the handling of drug deaths in Riverside County.
“This is our number one issue,” Sheriff Bianco said.
404 people in the county died from the effects of Fentanyl in 2021; the drug has been linked to 110 deaths in the first four months of 2022, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
“We’ve doubled every year for the last five years and we don’t we don’t see it stopping,” Sheriff Bianco said.
The county now dedicates K9 officers trained to detect fentanyl and has added four seasoned investigators, specifically assigned to drug cases where someone has died. Sheriff Bianco says he keeps Alex’s picture with him as a daily reminder.
“Some things, there aren’t words that can express how you feel and that’s one of them,” Capelouto said. “I’m proud to say that you know, we sparked something here,” he added.
Nearly every single pill the Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents say they see now contains fentanyl masked as legitimate prescription drugs; the pills are often purchased by unsuspecting customers on social media. The DEA says 4 out of 10 counterfeit pills they tested in 2021 contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
“Ultimately what was my daughter trying to do? she was trying to feel better, right? and the person on the other side of that transaction was simply trying to peddle poison for profit,” Capelouto said.
Riverside County prosecutors are now reviewing 800 cases involving drug deaths as potential homicides and have filed charges in 18 cases, according to Sheriff Bianco.
Each county can handle drug death cases differently, sometimes coordinating with federal agents and coroners to evaluate cases.
The ITeam was inside the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office when DEA Agent Bob Thomas and the Chief of the Forensic Sciences Laboratories Division for the LA County Coroner’s Office met to discuss recent drug deaths.
“Without Fentanyl in this person’s system. would you expect to see them alive,” Agent Thomas asked. “Yes,” Dr. Ruby Javed, said.
“So, it’s unintentional consumption of the drug that unfortunately is leading to these deaths,” Dr. Javed added.
Working together, Thomas and Javed hope the evidence collected here helps prosecute the dealers who provide deadly drugs.
Tougher enforcement is happening.
In April, a man who helped supply the counterfeit pills with fentanyl that led to the overdose death of Rapper Mac Miller was sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison.
Prosecutors allege Perry Edward Davis of San Diego provided drugs containing Fentanyl to three people, including 25-year-old Joshua Chambers who died. Davis was sentenced earlier this year to 20 years in prison for distributing fentanyl that resulted in death.
The man who allegedly provided the pill with Fentanyl to Capelouto’s daughter faces trial in federal court this fall.
“The law enforcement end of this is only one part. we need to step up our game,” he said. “Parents need to have these conversations with their kids,” he added.
This grieving father is doing all he can to educate others, and to honor his daughter’s legacy.
“She wanted to work in the foster care system and you know she’s just saving lives. in a different way,” Capelouto said. He now runs the non-profit organization Drug Induced Homicide.