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CA authorities target fentanyl dealers in a dozen indictments

Two men face charges in connection with overdose at Santa Barbara County Northern Branch Jail
Fentanyl is the deadliest drug in America, CDC confirms
Posted at 6:39 PM, May 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-09 23:37:50-04

Tuesday marked National Fentanyl Awareness Day which seeks to raise awareness about the devastating effects of fentanyl in communities across the nation.

Also on Tuesday, law enforcement officials from across Southern California announced 12 new federal cases targeting fentanyl dealers. All but one of the cases resulted in the death of at least one person.

One of the indictments involved a deadly overdose at the Santa Barbara County Northern Branch Jail on Thursday, October 20, 2022.

Kaelen Wendel, 31, of Lompoc and Michael Villapania, 35, of Santa Barbara were indicted for distributing fentanyl that led to the death of one jail inmate and serious bodily injury to a second.

According to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, Wendel had smuggled fentanyl into the jail after being arrested for outstanding property crime warrants. Villapania, who was also in jail on various warrants, allegedly brokered a deal to sell the drugs to another inmate in exchange for commissary items. That inmate shared the drugs with his cellmate and the two men overdosed. One died and the other was revived after receiving CPR and Narcan.

At a press conference in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, “We are working in partnership with public health officials and community members, leaders, and organizations to increase awareness and educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl, and to make substance use treatment available to those who are addicted, and to adopt harm-reduction strategies including widespread distribution of Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

"But prevention, treatment, and harm reduction effort alone are not going to solve the fentanyl problem our nation grapples with today. We must also resolutely enforce the laws against those who cavalierly manufacture and distribute dangerous drugs like fentanyl without any regard for the lethal consequences of their reckless actions.”

Approximately 70,000 Americans die from fentanyl every year, the U.S. Department of Justice reported.

“I’ve lost count of how many people that I knew personally that died from fentanyl overdose just in our community,” said Jacob Blair, intern counselor at Aspire Counseling Services in San Luis Obispo.

According to the DEA, the two main drivers causing fentanyl-related deaths in our community are accessibility and deception.

Experts say users are drawn to the drug because it's affordable, and social media makes for easy access.

Tom Buckley, Executive Director of Aspire Counseling Services, says many addicts get started with prescribed medications.

“A lot of these youngsters started with an actual legitimate prescription to a medication and now have completely shifted towards just using fentanyl,” Buckley said.

He adds that fentanyl can be laced with other recreational drugs on the street. Fentanyl test strips can be used to detect the drug in recreational substances.