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Rise in fentanyl overdose deaths giving new focus on opioid prosecutions in Sonoma County

In response to a dramatic increase in drug overdose deaths in Sonoma County, the District Attorney’s Office is revamping its approach to investigating and prosecuting opioid crimes.

Last year, someone died after overdosing on opioid drugs about twice a week in Sonoma County, more than double the frequency of these deaths in 2019, according to data from Sonoma County’s health department.

The growing prevalence of fentanyl is at the core of these deaths because of its sheer potency and the increased risk of overdose when its mixed with other drugs, local law enforcement officials said. Of 102 overdoses, 94 involved the synthetic opioid fentanyl, health data shows.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said her office plans to use a $340,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance to increase its capacity to help area agencies investigate drug traffickers and support prosecutions.

“This is an acknowledgment that fentanyl is increasing in its impact on our community,” Ravitch said. “We want to go after the bigger players.”

Opioid-related overdose deaths in Sonoma County were about 70% above the statewide average in 2018, according to data from the state Department of Public Health. Last year, the county recorded 9.8 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to 5.82 deaths per 100,000 residents statewide.

Hospital emergency room visits for opioid overdoses increased by 50% between 2010 and 2017, from 12 visits per 100,000 residents to 18 visits per 100,000 residents, county data shows.

After the 2019 death of a Santa Rosa baby who officials said accidentally ingested the fentanyl his father was using, local investigators helped federal authorities trace the path of the drug to San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Three Santa Rosa residents are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco for their roles buying the drug in San Francisco and selling it to the father, 29-year-old Patrick O’Neill, who also overdosed and died.

Prosecutors said Leanna Zamora purchased the drugs in the city and sold them to Lindsay Williams — who is listed in court records as Lindsay Bain Muniz — which were then delivered to O’Neill by Shane Cratty. Zamora pleaded guilty in January to felony distribution of fentanyl causing great bodily injury or death, a charge that could bring a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The cases for Muniz and Cratty are pending.

The federal Len Bias law — dubbed after the basketball star whose 1986 cocaine-related death spurred the legislation — allows overdose deaths to be investigated as homicides and drug dealers to be charged with murder. Prosecutors around the country trying to stem the opioid crisis are increasingly turning to this law, though it is controversial.

Ravitch said she hopes this grant will help local agencies more aggressively investigate the source of fentanyl in each overdose death.

The number of overdoses tied to fentanyl has risen sharply, from four in 2017, 21 in 2018, 40 in 2019 and 94 in 2020, according to health department data.

In 2020, 94 of the 102 overdose deaths from opiate drugs involved fentanyl, according to the health department.

Those numbers may include the suspected fentanyl overdose death of a 14-year-old girl from Guerneville in December. Yadhira Carrillo Guzman was found unconscious in the back seat of her 16-year-old friend’s Toyota Camry, which had been involved in a hit-and-run crash, police said.

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Brian Boettger, who runs the department’s narcotic unit, said nearly all of their investigations involve fentanyl, which seems to have totally overtaken heroin in the local illicit drug market. They are increasingly seizing the drug in larger amounts and its ingestion has led to a troubling percentage of overdose deaths, he said.

“It’s just getting worse and worse and worse,” Boettger said. “Eighteen months ago we had a seizure of one ounce of fentanyl — the size of a golf ball. In just the last two and a half weeks, we’ve seized over four pounds.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar said the grant money will be used to improve communication and data-sharing among different law enforcement jurisdictions. It will also help fund several positions, including a senior attorney, a senior investigator and an analyst.

“The reality is fentanyl is in our community and it’s taken a foothold,” Jamar said. “This one of many efforts to attempt to quell that tide.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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