In a first-of-its-kind case, Los Angeles police and Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested a suspected drug dealer for causing the death of a 23-year-old man in Sherman Oaks.
In an affidavit unsealed last week, LAPD homicide detectives say they have video evidence that James Dorian Rodriguez, 27, sold a lethal dose of the opioid fentanyl to Romulo Rice on March 18.
The exchange allegedly happened outside a business on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Just a few hours later, Rice was found dead inside his car in a parking lot nearby. Rodriguez, a Van Nuys resident, was arrested at a motel in Mission Hills.
The arrest followed Rodriguez being charged in the first indictment brought under a new task force to investigate opioid overdoses. The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury on September 28, charges Rodriguez with distributing the lethal dose of fentanyl.
"We got a lot of investigating leads concerning this case and it kept unraveling and unraveling and unraveling," says LAPD Detective Kenneth White. "We're no longer going to stand on the sidelines."
The arrest of Rodriguez signals the first case brought under a new state-federal law enforcement partnership established to aggressively investigate opioid overdose deaths and prosecute the responsible drug dealers.
The DEA's newly formed Tactical Diversion Squad is part of the Southern California Drug Task Force, which operates under the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program.
"With this state and federal partnership, we are going after drug dealers who leave a trail of death and misery in their wake," said United States Attorney Nicola Hanna. "Fentanyl is a highly dangerous synthetic drug that has caused countless overdose deaths in our community, and we will use every tool at our disposal to send the dealers to federal prison."
"DEA wants to send a very strong and clear message to street opioid dealers: You are predators and the federal law enforcement system will not tolerate you," said DEA Associate Special Agent in Charge Daniel Comeaux.
The unsealed affidavit in support of the search warrant reflects how investigators used surveillance video, phone records and witness statements to determine that Rodriguez supplied the narcotics to the victim only hours before he was found dead. The affidavit also states that Rodriguez had intended to sell cocaine to Rice, but accidentally gave him fentanyl instead. The overdose was the result of him snorting the drugs.
"That's where the danger lies," says LAPD Valley Homicide Detective Andrea Marsh. "They don't know what they're getting and it's in there and something they think they won't die from but they're actually overdosing on."
The affidavit documents how Rodriguez sold the fentanyl only one month after he was convicted on felony cocaine trafficking charges in Los Angeles Superior Court. When he was arrested on that state case in April 2017, Rodriguez was in possession of cocaine, various pharmaceutical narcotics and marijuana.
Rodriguez is expected to be arraigned on the indictment this afternoon in United States District Court. If convicted of the charge in the new indictment, Rodriguez would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
The statutory maximum sentence for the narcotics distribution charge is life without parole. Valley Detectives say they will be looking back on overdose cases to see if additional cases warrant further investigation and possible prosecution.