Drug dealers as murderers? Proposed Florida law targets sellers fueling overdose crisis

Mother fights for changes after death of son to opioids

Cindy Dodds 24-year-old son, Kyle, was found dead of a lethal drug overdose on the streets of Overtown in Sept. 2016. Kyle had a mix of fentanyl, carfentanil, cocaine and heroin in his system. Cindy is hoping to raise awareness about opioid abuse,
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Cindy Dodds 24-year-old son, Kyle, was found dead of a lethal drug overdose on the streets of Overtown in Sept. 2016. Kyle had a mix of fentanyl, carfentanil, cocaine and heroin in his system. Cindy is hoping to raise awareness about opioid abuse,

After years of battling addiction, Kyle Dodds collapsed on an Overtown street corner on an early morning, victim of an illegal drug usually used for tranquilizing elephants.

For Miami homicide detectives, holding a drug dealer accountable for Dodds’ death has proven a familiarly futile task.

His cell phone disappeared from the scene, so investigators found no text messages or calls that might lead to the possible drug source. No witnesses surfaced to say they saw Dodds buying at a particular dope hole. Detectives didn’t even find a baggie of drugs on Dodds, which might offer a clue to a distinct seller.

Dodds was one of nearly 250 people who died of synthetic opioid overdoses in Miami-Dade last year, but not one dealer was charged with felony murder or manslaughter — a record that underscores how difficult it is to prosecute someone for causing a fatal overdose.

And even when investigators find evidence, making a prosecution stick is challenging. Florida law specifically allows for cocaine and heroin suppliers to be charged with felony murder, but does not address peddlers of fatal doses of fentanyl or other increasingly common synthetics.

But as the Florida Legislature opens Tuesday, lawmakers could close that loophole with a bill that would make prosecuting drug dealers easier if their product — a wide array of synthetic drugs including fentanyl and, more importantly, a mixture of those drugs – causes a fatal overdose.

I’m for justice. It’s a deterrent for drug dealers.

Cindy Dodds, mother of 24-year-old overdose victim

“It’s important to me to be able to have the laws in place to be able to strengthen the prosecution of the people behind this epidemic,” said Cindy Dodds, Kyle’s mother, who on Monday gathered more than 20 supporters to pray at the Overtown vacant lot where her son died. “I’m for justice. It’s a deterrent for drug dealers.”

The proposal (House Bill 477) is being pushed by the Florida Sheriffs Association and is supported by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. A related Senate bill (Senate Bill 150) would also stiffen penalties for drug dealers caught trafficking fentanyl.

“We think its important to hold these drug traffickers and dealers responsible,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chair for the association’s legislative committee. “They’re responsible for making money off the backs of these victims.”

The measure is being proposed as prosecutors are still exploring the possibility of charging dealers for several overdoses from the past year, said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

“The message is that if you’re going to play with the tools of death, you should be held accountable,” she said.

The effects of fentanyl and its variants have been widely chronicled, devastating communities across the nation and in Florida, where a crackdown on prescription painkillers such as Oxycodone is believed to have led to the spike in heroin and opioid abuse.

While fentanyl is a legal painkiller generally prescribed in patch form, the version of the drug wreaking havoc on the streets is believed to shipped illegally from clandestine labs in China. The new trade of drug dealing was chronicled in the 2015 Miami Herald’s Pipeline China series. A federal commission in January blasted China’s role in the opioid epidemic, while Miami-Dade county leaders met as part of a task force aimed at curbing the deaths.

The dramatic spike in deaths — more people died of opioid abuse in Miami-Dade last year than there were homicides — has spurred more law-enforcement efforts against dealers, particularly in Overtown, ground zero for sales and overdoses.

Overtown is where 24-year-old Kyle Dodds, of Key Biscayne, died on Sept 26. Like so many addicts, he began using painkillers that were prescribed to him. Dodds injured his shoulder playing high-school football at Westminster Christian Academy.

Throughout his teenage years, Dodds struggled to kick his habit, which mostly consisted of cocaine and Xanax. He did eight stints in rehab, and overdosed three times before his death.

"He was losing the battle and we could see it,” said Cindy Dodds, his mother who lives in Key Biscayne. “He was suffering, especially having seen so many of his friends die.”

The morning he overdosed, Dodds parked his car along Northwest Second Court, got out and bought from someone nearby. He apparently snorted the drugs as he walked back, collapsing and dying immediately on the sidewalk next to a tree.

A toxicology report late confirmed that Dodds’ system contained a lethal mixture of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and carfentinel, a drug so powerful that is normally used to tranquilize elephants and big game. The emergence of carfentinel in Miami-Dade last summer was shocking. The drug is is up to 5,000 times stronger than heroin, and has now been banned for production by authorities in China.

With so little evidence in Dodds’ case — it didn’t appear he had any known relationship with whoever peddled him the drugs — bringing a viable prosecution was next to impossible.

“We would have wanted to charge someone in his death, but like so many of these cases, we simply did not have the evidence,” said Miami Detective Anthony Reyes, who was the lead investigator in Dodds’ case.

Going after drug dealers directly for overdose deaths is always tricky. Victims who craved and bought drugs will always shoulder some blame for their own demise, something that can make juries hesitate to convict.

Over the years, South Florida has seen a handful of cases of drug dealers charged and convicted with killing their clients. But the prosecutions usually have to feature the perfect alignment of witnesses and timing: proving that a user’s deadly batch came from one particular seller.

In the case of Christopher Rodriguez, he was arrested in 2007 for felony murder after selling ecstasy to a carload of teenager girls on their way to party in South Beach. One of them, a 15-year-old, took a tablet and grew sick minutes after their visit to Rodriguez’s house.

The key: One of her friends — who witnessed both the sale and the girl getting sick — cooperated with Miami Beach cops, giving them Rodriguez’s cell phone number. Rodriguez did six years in prison for murder, and is still on probation.

In the case of suspected Miami drug dealer Raymundo Rodriguez Fernandez, he was arrested for the overdose death of a woman in March 2014 – only after a witness came forward to claim he plied Cherri Rollins with high-grade heroin, then refused to get her medical attention.

Rodriguez is still awaiting trial. “Raymundo is frustrated, and I can understand his frustration,” said defense attorney, Madeline Acosta. “He does not believe he caused her death.”

If the dealer is going to get in trouble, maybe they will leave the person there without any help.

Madeline Acosta, defense attorney for accused dealer

Acosta, who advocates more treatment for addicts, said that increasingly targeting dealers on murder or manslaughter charges may have the opposite effect, making sellers afraid to call for medical attention for fear of being prosecuted for murder.

“If the dealer is going to get in trouble, maybe they will leave the person there without any help,” Acosta said.

So far, there has only been one fentanyl-related death prosecuted in South Florida. It happened in federal court, where laws make it easier to indict for an overdose death. Most all overdose fatalities are investigated by local police agencies.

Last year, the U.S. Attorney’s office indicted a Palm Beach County drug dealer Christopher Massena with distributing a mixture of drugs that contained fentanyl that killed 22-year-old Christopher Hernandez. Detectives identified Massena through a flood of text messages found on Hernandez’s phone, and bought fentanyl from him during a series of undercover buys.

His defense team tried to argue that Hernandez was responsible for his own death, although they were prohibited from making that argument during trial.

Ultimately, the federal grand jury convicted Massena. He sentenced to 30 years in prison.