Health & Medicine

Sacramento’s deadly fentanyl cases yield first known arrest

This week’s arrest of a 50-year-old Sacramento woman for alleged distribution of hydrocodone and fentanyl could be just the beginning.

It’s the public’s first glimpse of the months-long federal investigation into the deadly use of illegal fentanyl on Sacramento streets, a probe that was triggered in March by a wave of overdoses and deaths linked to the powerful opiate.

“This is just one layer of the investigation. We continue to work the other layers, like peeling an onion,” said Casey Rettig, special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has been investigating fentanyl trafficking in the region since last spring. “With an ongoing investigation, there is always the potential for additional arrests.”

Rettig said the DEA’s goal is to get to the top of the fentanyl distribution chain. “I don’t know how long this will take us or whether it’ll go outside the U.S.”

In the three-count indictment Tuesday in a U.S. Eastern District federal court, Sacramento County resident Mildred Dossman is alleged to have possessed hydrocodone and fentanyl with an intent to distribute, as well as used a cellphone to facilitate that distribution. The defendant, who also goes by the name Denise Dossman, was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond. According to local court documents, Dossman has no prior felony convictions on her record.

Her Sacramento defense attorney, Chris Cosca, declined to discuss the case in detail. “At this stage, the charges are simply allegations and not evidence or proof of anything,” Cosca said in an email. “I intend to defend her vigorously and make sure all her rights are protected.”

He and federal investigators declined to discuss her case further or confirm her residence. Dossman is scheduled to appear Aug. 18 in federal court for a status hearing.

For south Sacramento resident Natasha Butler, news of the first public arrest in the DEA’s fentanyl investigation is partial solace for the death of her 28-year-old son, Jerome Butler, who overdosed March 30 after taking a Norco tablet believed to be tainted with fentanyl.

“Yesterday was 110 days that Jerome has been gone,” said his mother, who has expressed frustration that the federal investigation has dragged on for months. “I’m glad that an arrest has been made. I just want the law and God to get justice for my family. ... I can accept my son’s death. But I can’t accept how it happened.”

Although illegal fentanyl has been blamed for a rash of deaths and overdoses on the East Coast and other Midwest states in recent years, it wasn’t widely heard of on Sacramento streets until late March, when a spate of overdoses and deaths shocked the region. As of this week, there have been 53 overdoses and 12 deaths reported in Sacramento County. Another three overdoses and two deaths have been reported in Yolo County.

Those numbers could be far higher, authorities say.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Hemesath, who’s handling thecase. He said there could be many other deaths or overdoses that weren’t reported, either because medical personnel didn’t recognize fentanyl-tainted pills or individuals didn’t realize what they were taking.

“In an age where drugs like fentanyl are so easily obtained from the dark web and from overseas, it’s a natural consequence that injury and death would occur from such a potent and difficult-to-handle drug in a counterfeit context,” Hemesath said. “There’s the temptation to (manufacture) your own pills and sell them for premium prices on the street.”

Legally prescribed fentanyl is a highly potent painkiller, typically used in hospitals as skin patches or “lollipops” to treat cancer patients. On the illegal market, it’s become a popular street drug, known to deliver a high that’s considered 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Despite its deadly reputation, fentanyl has proved appealing to drug dealers because it’s relatively cheap to manufacture and highly sought after by addicts. Investigators say the chemical components are often created in China, smuggled into Mexico and stamped into fake hydrocodone tablets that resemble, for example, Norco. But synthetic fentanyl is also available illegally online.

According to investigators, phony hydrocodone pills can sell on the street from $3 to $10 apiece.

The DEA encourages anyone with information relating to Sacramento’s fentanyl investigation to call its anonymous tip line at 530-722-7577.

The Sacramento arrest comes as state and federal lawmakers try to clamp down on an epidemic of U.S. opiate abuse, including heroin and fentanyl. In the last 15 years, the number of deaths from opiates has skyrocketed, coinciding with widespread use of prescription painkillers such as Norco and Oxycontin. Heroin overdose deaths alone have tripled since 2010 with more than 10,500 fatalities in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this month, Congress sent to President Barack Obama’s desk a bill authorizing $181 million for more treatment resources for heroin and painkiller abuse and more anti-overdose drugs for emergency medical responders. In California, the state Legislature is considering bills to stiffen prison sentences for those convicted of distributing illegal fentanyl and to require doctors writing opiate prescriptions to first consult a state database of those who have received similar prescriptions from other physicians.

In the wake of her own son’s death, Butler, who is helping raise Jerome’s three children, including his 18-month-old daughter, Success, has a message for parents.

“If you know there’s someone on your street selling drugs, we have to pull together as a community. ... If you see your child hanging around the wrong crowd, say something. Fight for your child. You have to speak loud.”

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

Bee reporter Cathy Locke contributed to this story.

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