Suspected Southern California drug dealers charged in 11 overdose deaths
Federal agents fanned out across Southern California this week to arrest suspects charged with supplying drugs that caused 11 fatal overdoses amid a rising danger from black-market pills laced with fentanyl.
In each case, prosecutors and the Drug Enforcement Administration were enforcing a federal law that carries greater penalties than drug dealers typically face in California courts: a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 20 years.
For the record:
9:37 p.m. May 13, 2021A previous version of this story said Patrick Wilson is a Rolling Hills Estates city councilman. He is a Rolling Hills city councilman.
Among those charged with distribution of fentanyl resulting in death were Alexander Declan Bell Wilson, 20, of Rolling Hills, who is accused of distributing pills that killed a 15-year-old boy in May 2020. Their Snapchat conversations showed the victim thought he was buying oxycodone, prosecutors said. Wilson’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Wilson, the son of Rolling Hills City Councilman Patrick Wilson, was already awaiting trial on state assault and robbery charges in connection with the 2019 beating of a man in a shopping mall parking lot and the theft of his mobile phone. He was out on bail when he was arrested Wednesday.
Also charged was a former security manager of the American Junkie nightclub in Newport Beach: Sean Robert McLaughlin, 47, of Aliso Viejo. Late one night in November 2016, prosecutors said, he provided nightclub patrons with “a powdered drug” that led to three overdoses, including one that was fatal. It contained a substance nearly identical to fentanyl. McLaughlin’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
Newport Beach police arrested McLaughlin hours after the victim’s death. The Orange County district attorney’s office has handed off the case to federal prosecutors.
“Most of the victims in these cases had no idea they were taking fentanyl, and it cost them their lives,” said Tracy L. Wilkison, the acting U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
The arrests come amid an alarming increase in fentanyl overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in California and other Western states. More than 81,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in the year ending in May 2020, an all-time record, and the main drivers of the surge were fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alert released in December.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is used to treat severe pain, often in cancer patients. But most of the drug overdoses come from illegally manufactured fentanyl that drug dealers mix with cocaine, heroin or pills to increase euphoria, often without the user’s knowledge.
The CDC attributed a recent rise in cocaine overdoses to the mixing of the drug with illicitly made fentanyl.
The synthetic drug is the leading culprit in the U.S. opioid epidemic. Most comes from Mexico, where traffickers have embraced it over heroin.
In California, the inconsistent dosing of fentanyl in fake oxycodone pills made in clandestine labs in Mexico poses a growing problem, said Bill Bodner, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Los Angeles field division. When teenagers try to buy painkillers on the black market, he said, “more often than not, they are sold fentanyl — colored, sized and stamped to look identical to the prescription drug.”
“One pill is often enough to cause death,” he said.
The DEA has been working with local law enforcement agencies to step up homicide investigations after fatal overdoses. Investigators try to join coroners at the scene and ensure that a victim’s phone is preserved for evidence, Bodner told The Times last year.
Online transactions have posed another challenge for law enforcement. Tobin Oliver Wood, 49, of Costa Mesa was arrested April 7 on a federal charge of distributing fentanyl that caused the fatal overdose of a 32-year-old San Clemente man in 2018. Prosecutors said he posted a Craigslist ad offering “Roxy board short,” a street term for oxycodone pills. His attorney could not be reached.
Edwin Lopez, 21, of Riverside used Snapchat to arrange a deal in May 2020 to sell fake oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl to a 20-year-old Fontana man who died of an overdose two days later, prosecutors said. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Times staff writers Matt Hamilton and James Queally contributed to this report.
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