Why big bust in Turlock shows how fentanyl could be Central Valley's new scourge

Death is 'collateral damage' for fentanyl dealers

The state Assembly Appropriation Committee on Aug. 11, 2016 killed SB 1323 to increase penalties for drug traffickers of fentanyl. Orange Co. Sheriff's Captain Stu Greenberg says drug dealers consider fentanyl deaths "collateral damage."
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The state Assembly Appropriation Committee on Aug. 11, 2016 killed SB 1323 to increase penalties for drug traffickers of fentanyl. Orange Co. Sheriff's Captain Stu Greenberg says drug dealers consider fentanyl deaths "collateral damage."

Authorities said Thursday that a highly toxic opioid drug is now a dangerous threat in the Central Valley.

At a news conference in Modesto, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott of the Eastern District of California announced the indictment of two men charged with distributing fentanyl as part of a drug trafficking network stretching across counties in Northern California.

Ramon DeJesus Magana, 40, of Paramount, and Maurilio Serrano-Cardenas, 27, of Fontana, face federal prosecution on charges of conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute and aiding and abetting.

The two men were arrested Feb. 21 after delivering 5 kilograms of fentanyl and one kilogram of a precursor chemical to an undercover officer in Turlock. The undercover officer had arranged to pay $180,000 for the controlled substances, authorities said.

Scott said there was enough powder to make 50,000 pills for sale on the streets.

Magana is set for arraignment in federal court Friday. Serrano-Cardenas is scheduled for a court appearance April 19. Both were released on bail.

A task force of local and federal agencies in Placer County was investigating the drug trafficking network and the undercover "buy and bust" operation took place in Stanislaus County. The investigation was part of the Drug Enforcement Administration's High Intensity Drug Area program.

The nation has seen a three-year, 540 percent increase in fentanyl overdose deaths as a major part of the opioid epidemic. The synthetic drug has a legitimate use as a pain reliever after surgery, but has more recently become a widespread street drug — and a dangerous one.

Fentanyl, which was originally used in hospice care, is the same painkilling opiate identified in the deaths of famous entertainers Prince and Tom Petty.

It is far more potent than morphine. When traffickers make powder containing fentanyl into pills, there is no quality control to keep the pills from containing a deadly dose, Scott said.

Authorities say large amounts of fentanyl made in China are shipped to Mexico and mixed with powder that's transported into California. Scott said fentanyl is an emerging drug problem in a Central Valley region historically marred by methamphetamine addiction.

"We have a real problem here and it is only going to get worse," Scott warned.

The two men were initially charged in Stanislaus County, but District Attorney Birgit Fladager reached out to the Department of Justice for assistance. A federal grand jury handed down Thursday's indictment of Magana and Serrano-Cardenas.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $10 million fine if the defendants are convicted.

At Thursday's news conference, federal authorities gathered with police officials from Modesto, Ceres and Turlock to discuss involvement in Project Safe Neighborhoods. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revitalized the initiative last year, offering the assistance of federal prosecutors in reducing illegal firearms and violence in local neighborhoods

Department of Justice attorneys from Sacramento and Fresno met with local authorities in Modesto, Stockton and Fresno to consider cases of gun-related violence, such as a gun used by a convicted felon or gang member in committing a crime, Scott said. To get violent offenders off the streets, authorities consider the option of prosecuting the case in federal court, where sentencing laws are tougher.

Scott said criminal laws have been watered down in California by voters and the Legislature, resulting in lighter sentences for convictions that previously would have resulted in prison time. He said there are convicted offenders who should be in prison instead of the Stanislaus County jail or on the streets.

Scott said the role of the federal liaisons is not to dictate to local district attorneys. "We let the locals tell us," he said.

Fladager said her office and other local agencies have twice-monthly meetings with federal attorneys to discuss cases. She said they often look at repeat offenders and talk about the appropriate court system for the cases, so that violent individuals are not in and out of county jail.

With public safety realignment and sentencing rules in Proposition 47, "we don’t have quite the hammer we used to have," Fladager said.