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Baby's fentanyl overdose death puts parents, and alleged supplier, in prosecutors' crosshairs

Baby's fentanyl overdose death puts parents, and alleged supplier, in prosecutors' crosshairs
Toxicology tests showed fatal levels of fentanyl, pictured, in the bloodstream and stomach of a 10-month-old boy who was was among the 81 victims of a fatal fentanyl overdose in San Diego County last year. (Associated Press)

Baby Leo spent the early hours of Sept. 18, 2017, the way he usually did, snuggled up next to his parents in bed.

Except that morning he didn’t wake up.

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Toxicology tests showed fatal levels of fentanyl in his bloodstream and stomach.

The likely source, authorities say, was his father’s little blue pills that had apparently been in the bed with the sleeping family that morning.

Leo Holz, only 10 months old, was among the 81 victims of a fatal fentanyl overdose in San Diego County last year.

The district attorney’s office is now seeking to hold his parents — a couple with a history of drug abuse — responsible for the death.

The investigation has not ended there, however.

Last week, federal prosecutors said a San Diego woman who called herself “The Drug Llama” is also being investigated as the suspected supplier in connection with the death, as well as a second one that same month. She has not been charged.

However, Melissa Scanlan, 31, is facing federal charges in another case in Illinois accusing her of running a dark web drug enterprise in which she allegedly shipped more than 50,000 fentanyl pills throughout the United States, according to court records and prosecutors. She was arrested in San Diego earlier this month.

As the opioid crisis continues to claim tens of thousands of lives nationwide — a death toll fueled by synthetic drugs such as fentanyl — the criminal justice system has responded by aggressively going after the source.

In San Diego County, overdose deaths are now treated as potential homicides, resulting in a handful of prosecutions against suspected drug dealers and, in Leo’s case, his parents.

Only one overdose has been charged as a murder so far (and the case eventually pleaded down to voluntary manslaughter). The district attorney’s office has used other charges to prosecute fatal overdose cases, including child endangerment and drug sales. The office has also referred about 10 cases to the U.S. attorney’s office for prosecution under a specific law — distribution resulting in death, officials said. At least four such cases have been filed in the last year.

“There is a raging opioid epidemic in this country, and we want dealers to be on notice: Every time we have an overdose death, we are going to come looking for you,” U.S. Atty. Adam Braverman said in April upon announcing the latest such indictment.

In that case, a documented Lakeside gang member is accused of selling fentanyl that led to the death of a 25-year-old La Mesa woman in January.

There is no shortage of targets in this line of work. Earlier this month, fentanyl-laced cocaine was making the rounds through the San Diego beach communities of Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach, killing three and sickening two more. The investigation by a task force led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is continuing.

The rate of fentanyl overdose deaths looks to be on pace to match last year’s, with 41 confirmed in the first six months, according to the county medical examiner’s office.

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Baby Leo lived with his parents, Colin Holz and longtime girlfriend Chantil Kalagian, in his grandmother’s Point Loma-area condo.

According to the San Diego police arrest warrant, Leo’s grandmother found the boy awake in his bedroom and placed him in bed with his parents as she routinely did.

Kalagian tried to breastfeed him, then fell asleep with the baby in her arms next to Holz.

About 8:25 a.m., Kalagian woke up to find Leo blue and unresponsive. Holz told her to call 911 and tell first responders that the baby may have ingested some pills he had on the bed, according to the warrant.

The baby was declared dead at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego.

When officers asked Holz where his prescriptions were, he became evasive, according to the warrant, and said he didn’t know where he’d put his pills or the medicine bottle.

As part of the death investigation, officers asked the parents to perform a video re-enactment of the incident — common protocol for a Sudden Infant Death Syndrome case. At no time did the parents mention pills, the warrant states.

A search of the bedroom revealed a small blue pill on the floor near the bed, authorities said. It was stamped with “M” on one side and “30” on the other — the marks of an oxycodone pill.

Holz later told investigators that he had three blue pills in his shorts pocket and two pills in a bottle when he had been sleeping in the bed with Leo, and that he’d lost track of the pills in his pocket, according to the warrant.

He said he’d flushed the two pills in the bottle down the toilet at the hospital, the warrant states.

An autopsy found high levels of fentanyl in Leo’s system, and tests on the blue pill found similar components, authorities said.

Both parents were on probation for prior drug charges. Kalagian about a year and a half earlier discovered she was three months’ pregnant during a stint in jail on a drug charge, according to the warrant.

“Due to negligence, both parents are culpable for the circumstances that led to the death of Baby L.,” the warrant states.

The parents were charged in May with child endangerment likely to produce great bodily harm or death. They have pleaded not guilty and remain jailed.

They are also being held on probation violations in a number of unrelated cases, including robbery, theft and assault, according to the jail records.

Their defense attorneys declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

The child endangerment charge being used in this case can apply to many situations, such as a distracted parent who forgot to lock a gun cabinet, resulting in a child shooting, or a parent who left prescription medication on a counter within reach of a child.

But parents in those situations might get more leniency compared to parents who are already doing something illegal when a child is harmed, including manufacturing methamphetamine at home or leaving drugs out, said Daniel Greenberg, a criminal defense attorney in Riverside who has handled child endangerment cases.

“Even if the drug fell out accidentally, the government will probably say the responsibility doesn’t lie with the child, it lies with the adult,” Greenberg said. “If you carry that kind of medication on your person, you better make sure you don’t lose those drugs.”

As far as where the fentanyl came from, it is not clear what evidence led investigators to Scanlan as a suspect.

She is accused of selling the same kinds of counterfeit oxycodone pills through the dark web, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Sherri Hobson, who spoke at her detention hearing in San Diego on the Illinois case. Such fentanyl-laced pills are common in the illicit market and have been seized in massive amounts along the Southwest border recently.

Hobson said Scanlan admitted to investigators during an interview last month that she obtained the pills from a Mexican cartel.

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Similar pills are believed to be involved in another overdose death about two weeks before Leo’s.

The 41-year-old woman who lived alone in a second-story apartment in North Park had obtained “Mexican blue” pills from a dealer in the days before her death, according to her autopsy report.

She apparently took one of them the night of Sept. 5, 2017, and later thanked her dealer in a text message. She said the pill had made her feel better and that she “just might actually sleep tonight,” according to the medical examiner’s report. The report does not name the alleged dealer.

The victim had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, although authorities have ruled her death as accidental. Her toxicology report showed a cocktail of drugs: fentanyl, clonazepam, quetiapine and gabapentin. Some of the drugs were prescribed, some were not.

Hobson said Scanlan is also being investigated in connection with this death but did not provide further details.

Scanlan’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

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