Federal prosecutors are increasingly treating fentanyl overdose deaths as homicides in an attempt to crack down on the growing crisis by punishing dealers with more severe prison sentences.
On July 11, Sergio Martinez, of Lawrence, Mass., was charged with distributing fentanyl that resulted in the March overdose death of a man in New Hampshire with the initials “K.B.” He now faces a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison, if convicted, prosecutors said.
Previously, the feds charged Martinez, 28, and his brother with running a “vast network” of dealers who sold large quantities of fentanyl in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The Martinez brothers and 41 others have been snared in the year-long investigation. Among those arrested were four illegal immigrants, officials said.
“New Hampshire knows all too well about the deadly nature of fentanyl,” New Hampshire U.S. Attorney Scott Murray said. “We are fully committed to ending the opioid epidemic and will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to identify and prosecute those who are responsible for distributing fentanyl and other dangerous drugs.”
The growing fentanyl crisis is reflected in data released July 11 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that synthetic opioids, a category that includes fentanyl and its derivatives, were responsible for more than 27,000 deaths in 2017, up from 20,000 deaths in 2016.
Fentanyl is a drug 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. The opioid comes mostly from China. Senate investigators reported earlier this year that fentanyl sellers could be found online through a simple Google search.
The number of federal fentanyl prosecutions have more than tripled, from 74 defendants in 51 cases in fiscal year 2016 to 267 defendants in 181 cases in fiscal year 2017, according to the Justice Department. Some of those cases involved an overdose death.
“This crisis is devastating,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in Concord, N.H., on July 12. “But we will not stand by idle. We are not going to accept the status quo. We will not allow this to continue.”
He announced he was ordering federal prosecutors in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maine, California and Pennsylvania as well as in New Hampshire to prosecute anyone suspected of fentanyl dealing.
“We can weaken these networks, reduce fentanyl availability, and save lives,” Sessions said.
In April, federal prosecutors in Buffalo, N.Y., charged Robert (Fonz) Moore, 39, of Williamsville, N.Y., and Joshua Levine, 21 of Lancaster, N.Y., in connection with five deadly Fentanyl overdoses in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in Western New York.
“This indictment is a significant step in bringing drug dealers to justice for causing overdose deaths as a result of their illegal actions,” stated DEA Special Agent-in-Charge James J. Hunt.
An investigation into 18-year-old Bailey Henke’s 2015 fentanyl overdose death in Grand Forks, N.D., resulted in indictments against nearly three dozen people, including six Chinese nationals on charges of importing large quantities of fentanyl to the U.S. from China, according to prosecutors.
Henke purchased the fentanyl from a friend Ryan Jensen who bought it over the Dark Web. Jensen was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2016.
Last year, 95 people nationwide received federal prison sentences for distributing drugs resulting in death or serious injury, nearly double the number in 2014, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal agency that determines sentencing guidelines for judges.
In June, Robert Mansfield, age 61, of Ladson, S.C., was sentenced to 20 years in prison for distribution of fentanyl resulting in the death of a man in December 2016, South Carolina federal prosecutors said.
Investigators said Mansfield used the Dark Web to purchase fentanyl and other controlled substances from sources in Hong Kong and other foreign locations. He then sold the drug through the Dark Web and used the United States Postal Service to ship packages to customers throughout the country.
In April federal prosecutors in Orlando, Fla., obtained a conviction against another Dark Web fentanyl distributor, Jeremey Achey, who was charged in connection with the February 2017, death of the 25-year-old daughter of a Virginia law enforcement officer.
The prosecutors said Achey, 44, was one of the largest synthetic opioid distributors on the now defunct AlphaBay marketplace. At the time of his arrest in June 2017, Drug Enforcement Administration agents investigating the woman's death said that Achey was also under investigation in connection with the overdose deaths of 19 other people, according to court papers.
“I’m the biggest vendor on there probably,” Achey said of AlphaBay
in a post-arrest interview with DEA agents obtained by Fox News. “I mean I’m probably the best on there at what I do.”
Prosecutors said Achey filled 100 orders a day operating out of his home in Pennsylvania where he lived with his wife and 16-year-old daughter, court papers show.
In June, Achey, 44, was sentenced to life in prison after Judge Paul Byron rejected his plea for a lesser sentence of 20 years in prison.
“You showed a complete disregard for the safety of your fellow
man,” the judge told him, according to a court transcript.
The Achey case is one of 14 fentanyl overdose death cases Florida Middle District U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez has brought since the beginning of 2017.
In June, her office charged Corey Damond Smith, Jr., 22, of Tampa with selling Bradley Dykes fentanyl billed as heroin. Dykes was 46 when he overdosed and died in November 2017.
"The impact of illegal opioids on our communities has reached epidemic proportions," Lopez told Fox News. "We intend to work with our partners and use every tool available, from enforcement and prosecution to education and prevention, to stem the flow of this devastating scourge."