Miami-Dade County

Inmate overdose deaths in Miami jails could lead to murder charges

Miami Fire Rescue responds to overdose case

Captain Tony Milan, and battalion commander for City of Miami Fire Rescue, works on an overdose victim in Overtown in November 2016.
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Captain Tony Milan, and battalion commander for City of Miami Fire Rescue, works on an overdose victim in Overtown in November 2016.

Whoever supplied the suspected fentanyl that likely killed two inmates could face murder charges as investigators ramp up their probe into how the deadly drugs were smuggled into the troubled Miami-Dade County jails.

Newly released court documents reveal Miami prosecutors, in addition to probing the introduction of contraband into the jails, are considering using a new Florida law that makes it easier to charge a fentanyl supplier with murder.

The investigation comes as the deaths have again cast scrutiny on the Miami-Dade corrections department, one of the largest jail systems in the country — which remains under federal judicial supervision because of its long history of shoddy conditions for inmates.

“We’re considering these two overdose deaths to be a criminal investigation for potential murder,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told the Herald. “And the other thing that is clearly screaming out for attention is potential facility corruption — how are these drugs getting into the jail? How are they being distributed? There are a lot of questions.”

A Miami-Dade jail spokesman would not discuss the overdoses, citing the ongoing investigation.

“Generally, we recognize the introduction of any contraband within our facilities poses a threat to inmates and our staff safety,” said spokesman Juan Diasgranados. “We are reviewing new technologies, such as body scanning equipment, to further assist us in detection of any contraband.”

Miami-Dade’s Pretrial Detention Center, where two inmates died this month of suspected fentanyl overdoses. Chuck Fadely Miami Herald

The jails’ woes have been long chronicled.

Twice in the past 13 years, Miami-Dade grand juries blasted deplorable conditions at county jails. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the jail system engaged in a “pattern and practice of constitutional violation” of the rights of inmates housed in deplorable living conditions under abusive, inadequate or limited care.

Whether federal monitors will investigate the deaths of the inmates is unknown; DOJ lawyers in charge of the case did not return calls for comment on Thursday.

Miami-Dade’s Organization of Minority Officers, which has frequently criticized the department, said security measures have fallen in recent years.

“We stopped strip searching inmates,” said corrections officer Corey Barney, the president of the organization. “If a guy is hiding drugs in his anal cavity, I don’t care how much you pat him down — you’re not going to find those drugs.”

The search warrants and police documents obtained by the Herald reveal that the suspected fentanyl batch may have been present in at least two Miami-Dade jails.

Inmates Juan Salgado, 24, and Jesus Perdomo, 25, died Dec. 6 after collapsing inside the Pretrial Detention Center, commonly known as the Dade County Jail, 1321 NW 13th St.

Two other inmates, Joseph Del Valle, 49, and Miguel Tamayo, 27, were also hospitalized after falling ill from drugs. They survived. All four were housed on the fifth floor of the jail.

Del Valle was the first one to fall ill that day, just before 3 p.m. According to a search warrant, Del Valle snorted a line of the suspected fentanyl he got from another inmate named Nathaniel Vargas, who had just been transferred from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

Nathaniel Vargas
Nathaniel Vargas Miami-Dade Corrections

Vargas was booked into TGK a few days earlier on a cocaine charge. According to the warrant, he showed off 8 to 10 “small black bags ... believed to be heroin, but was more than likely fentanyl.”

He claimed that he wanted to use the bags, each worth about $50, to “barter” for goods while in jail — and he was even going to peddle some through a jail “trustee” who is allowed to roam the hallways, according to police.

Del Valle and Vargas snorted the drugs together. About 30 minutes after inhaling the suspected fentanyl, Del Valle passed out while doing push-ups. He later awoke in the hospital.

Vargas remains jailed on his original charge, and has not been charged with any of the overdoses. His defense attorney did not return a request for comment.

A few hours later, just past 6 p.m., is when rescuers found Perdomo, who was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he died.

Miami-Dade detectives were already investigating his death when another emergency call went out just past 10 p.m. That’s when jailers found overdose victims Salgado and Tamayo —who shared a cell next to Vargas and Del Valle.

Salgado died. Tamayo admitted to snorting “an unknown white powdery substance” but would not say where he got it from, the warrant said.

In all, Miami-Dade homicide detectives interviewed over 70 inmates on the fifth floor. They are awaiting results of the tests on suspected drugs found in the jail, as well as toxicology reports on the blood of all the victims.

Contraband is a perennial problem in any jail, but those in Miami-Dade have a long history of goods getting to inmates — particularly cellphones and drugs. The deaths came four months after a group of inmates was hospitalized after reportedly suffering seizures that might have been drug related.

Captain Tony Milan, and battalion commander for City of Miami Fire Rescue, works on an overdose victim in Overtown in November 2016.

Fentanyl and its synthetic variants — which can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin — have ravaged communities across Florida, where a crackdown on prescription painkillers such as Oxycodone is believed to have led to the spike in opioid abuse.

If investigators make an arrest for murder, it wouldn’t be the first time they cuff someone for an overdose death in the jail.

A decade ago, Miami-Dade police arrested Melanie Mazzotti with first-degree murder charges in the death of her jailed boyfriend Edward Hawkins, 26. Police alleged she smuggled drugs to him in a package during a “contact visit.” He swallowed the drugs to conceal them from corrections officers. The package later burst in his stomach and killed him

She ended up pleading guilty to manslaughter and serving more than four years behind bars.

Proving such cases is difficult, however, although Florida law has long allowed prosecutors to charge someone with murder if they provide a fatal dose of heroin or cocaine. The Florida Legislature passed a law this year to make it possible to charge dealers with murder if they provide a fatal dose of fentanyl — and key for prosecutors, drugs mixed with fentanyl.