A Temecula man convicted of providing a fatal dose of fentanyl to a 26-year-old woman has been sentenced to 15 years to life in prison in Riverside County's first fentanyl murder case to go before a jury.
In August, Vicente David Romero, 34, was guilty of the murder count, as well as possession of controlled substances while armed, being a felon in possession of a loaded gun and possession of drug paraphernalia in connection with the 2020 death of Kelsey King.
“It should be known far and wide, that the district attorney, that’s Mr. Hestrin, and his deputy, Mr. Pfohl, who prosecuted this case, along with the sheriff’s office, that’s Chad Bianco, and the deputies who testified, they will aggressively investigate and prosecute individuals for furnishing fentanyl causing death. That should be abundantly clear. They will seek murder charges in this case. They will obtain convictions,” remarked Judge Timothy Freer during the sentencing.
“Drug-induced homicide is homicide. Today’s sentencing not only reflects the gravity of what happened to Kelsey King, but what continues to happen to so many men and women in our community because of the skyrocketing rates of illicit fentanyl sales,” said District Attorney Mike Hestrin. “Our office is prosecuting the largest volume of fentanyl-related homicides in the state because we firmly believe those who knowingly endanger the lives of others must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Among the roughly two dozen defendants who have been charged in fentanyl-related deaths countywide, Romero's is the first murder case to go to trial.
It is also a milestone case in California, in which a person who knowingly supplied fentanyl was convicted of murder by a jury.
Romero and King were acquaintances, and according to the prosecution's trial brief, the two ran into each other in Temecula on June 16, 2020, both seeking to get high.
Romero was a reputed drug dealer, and on the day of the meeting, he had multiple fentanyl-laced M-30 pills, known on the street as "blues," in his backpack, prosecutors allege.
The defendant later admitted during an interview with sheriff's detectives that he and King went to a spot on Jefferson Avenue, underneath Interstate 15, where he crushed one of the pills and used a straw to snort the contents, according to the brief.
"King then snorted the other half of the pill,'' the brief said. "The defendant and King began to feel better and were laughing for about five minutes. The defendant then remembered that he started sweating and feeling funny. He checked his phone camera to look at his face. That was the last thing that the defendant claimed he remembered before passing out.
He awoke hours later to find King unconscious, laying face down with her buttocks in the air, prosecutors said.
"The defendant remembered King being cold to the touch when he tried to wake her up,'' according to the narrative.
He walked to a Chevron gas station several blocks away on Rancho California Road and asked the attendant to call 911, then began vomiting uncontrollably, court papers said.
Deputies went to the Chevron and questioned Romero. After confirming he was a probationer, the deputies searched his backpack and discovered a loaded handgun, as well as five ``blues,'' according to the brief.
Romero told them about King, pointing out where he had left her. A patrol unit went to the location, and a deputy discovered the woman dead shortly after 9 p.m., prosecutors said.
"The defendant was transported to Temecula Valley Hospital, where he was treated for the fentanyl ingestion, as well as methamphetamine,'' the brief stated.
A Riverside County Coroner's Office autopsy on the victim determined her cause of death stemmed from the ``effects of methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl,'' court papers said.
While speaking with detectives, Romero allegedly acknowledged that King's death ``is on me because I gave her the pills,'' according to the brief.
"The defendant confirmed that King had never used fentanyl before, but that she had taken shots of `black,' referring to heroin,'' the prosecution wrote.
Court documents show Romero has prior convictions for assault, unlawful intercourse with a minor and burglary.
According to public safety officials, there were 503 confirmed fentanyl-related fatalities countywide last year, compared to just under 400 in 2021, a 200-fold increase from 2016, when there were only two.
Fentanyl is manufactured in overseas labs, principally in China, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which says the synthetic opioid is smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border by cartels. The drug is 80-100 times more potent than morphine and can be mixed into any number of street narcotics and prescription drugs, without a user knowing what he or she is consuming. Ingestion of only two milligrams can be fatal.
Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 45 years old, statistics show.