BOISE — As heroin and opioid overdoses rise nationwide, so has the likelihood that more people will be charged with distributing drugs that resulted in overdose deaths.
Some of those on trial for this charge face up to life in prison.
This year alone, four Idahoans were charged with delivery and conspiracy to deliver fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and methamphetamine, which resulted in the death of a 43-year-old Nampa man in August 2017.
Only six people in Idaho history have been charged with delivering a drug that resulted in a death, but that's a considerable departure from the norm, according to officials.
“It’s new for us,” said Rafael Gonzalez, first assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Idaho.
In 2015, in 15 states, the New York Times found over 1,000 prosecutions or arrests in accidental overdose deaths. Those prosecutions doubled from 2015 and 2017, just as overdose deaths totaled nearly 72,000. Of those, almost 30,000 were due to fentanyl and synthetic opioid overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Nationally, Gonzalez said there is an increase in the use and the trafficking of heroin and counterfeit pills, which increasingly includes fentanyl. Gonzalez said Idaho is seeing more fentanyl, too. Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. A person can overdose on only a few particulates — about the amount of a couple of grains of salt, he said.
“For traffickers, the attractiveness of fentanyl is it’s highly potent,” Gonzalez said. “It makes it easy to smuggle in small packages."
Though the nation has seen the use of fentanyl and those overdosing on the drug increase, in Idaho, meth is still “king,” Gonzalez said.
The first charge Idaho had seen of distributing a drug that resulted in death was related to a meth overdose. Tommy Basco was charged in 2016 after being accused of injecting a 19-year-old with meth who suffered an overdose. Basco was originally charged in 2017 to distribution of methamphetamine resulting in death.
On Sept. 24, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of distributing meth. Prosecutors could not prove that the drugs Basco gave to Charles Peyton Chambers were what killed him, as the investigation showed Chambers had more meth in him than what Basco injected, the Idaho Press previously reported.
Although meth remains more popular in the state, Gonzalez said synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, have proven more lethal.
A Pocatello man, Micheal Simmons, was sentenced in June to 17-and-a-half years for distributing an opioid that resulted in a death, according to an Idaho State Journal report. In February 2017, he was arrested on suspicion of distributing a drug that contained fentanyl and U-47700, which is seven times more potent than heroin, to a man who died from taking the drug.
In Idaho, Gonzalez said, it’s challenging to tie deaths specifically to one drug because reporting the drug type is not required on an Idaho death certificate.
Drug poisoning deaths, or more commonly overdoses, that included the drug type on a death report increased from 184 in 2009 to 261 in 2016, Gonzalez said. Idaho State Police data reveals that there was only one reported heroin-related overdose in 2012, compared to 26 recorded overdoses in 2016.
The state has the burden of proof in the cases. For a suspect to be convicted with delivering a drug that resulted in a death, prosecutors must be able to prove the specific drug the person delivered is without a doubt what killed the person.
If the person who died has multiple drugs in their body, it makes it difficult to prove that a drug dealer's delivery of a specific drug resulted in that death. That was the case for Basco, who ultimately received a lesser sentence because different drugs, other than what Basco was accused of injecting Chambers with, were found in Chambers' body.
"Evidence permitting, where filing this charge will hold drug traffickers accountable for the results of their illegal activity, we will use it," said Bart Davis, U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho in an email statement.
Depending on a defendant's previous criminal history and the amount and type of drug distributed can alter the sentence they face for a distribution resulting in death charge. For example, if a defendant has no prior criminal history or accompanying charges and is caught selling one kilogram — a little over two pounds — or more of heroin, the federal mandatory minimum sentence is 10 years in prison or up to life. If death occurs in that same distribution, that mandatory minimum is bumped to 20 years in prison up to life.
DOMINICO 'NICK' STEWART'S DEATH
In August, Ryan Curtis was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison for distributing a drug that resulted in the death of Dominico “Nick” Stewart in August 2017. Curtis had shared a drug called “China White,” which contained fentanyl and meth. When Stewart passed out from the drug, Curtis injected him with meth in hopes it would revive him.
Stewart was later found dead in an alley on Aug. 13, 2017.
Curtis could have faced up to a lifetime in prison and a $1 million fine for the charge. He pleaded guilty to the crime in April.
Three others, Herman Sedillo, Matthew Sedillo and Vaudencia Hamilton face similar charges for the death of Stewart.
Herman Sedillo and his son, Matthew Sedillo have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and methamphetamine resulting in Stewart’s death. Herman Sedillo's sentencing is set for Oct. 18 in federal court. Matthew Sedillo's is set for December.
Like the Sedillos, Hamilton is accused of knowingly combining a mixture of fentanyl and meth which resulted in the death of Stewart, according to a criminal complaint. She is charged with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and methamphetamine resulting in death in addition to distributing meth and distributing fentanyl. A jury trial for Hamilton is set to begin in November.
Gonzalez, the U.S. attorney, said the state doesn't think it's likely these charges will dissipate in Idaho.
“We would expect that if fentanyl remains available, we will probably see more of these cases in the future,” Gonzalez said.