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Fentanyl’s heartbreaking impact and how Riverside County is tackling the deadly drug

It’s a devastating reality; the number of deaths related to fentanyl in Riverside County are growing at an alarming rate. That’s according to the Riverside County District Attorney’s office.

In an exclusive interview, News Channel 3’s Caitlin Thropay spoke with Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin and sat one-on-one with a grieving mother who lost her teenage son to fentanyl.

Now, we’re learning more about the heartbreaking impact this drug is having on our community and the punishment for those involved with fentanyl.

“Steven was a hilarious kid who loved to smile, who loved to laugh," Jennifer Loza, Steven Loza's mother told News Channel 3. "He had a heart of gold, he really did. He loved to help other people," she added.

Jennifer said her son Steven dreamed of being a firefighter but at 18 years old, his life was cut short.

“As soon as she said, ‘I’m sorry’ I knew what she was saying, ‘I’m sorry’ too," Jennifer said.

In October, a police officer knocked on Jennifer's door to tell her that her son had died from a fentanyl overdose at a house in Indio.

“From my understanding, from one of the boys that was there; there were three people with him that night," she said. "A 19-year-old, a 17-year-old and a 23-year-old. They knew he was in distress. They knew he was struggling to breathe. They knew he was unconscious. The 17-year-old repeatedly asked them to call 911 and the 19-year-old who lived at the residence refused," she added.

Four months later, Riverside County announced they were cracking down on fentanyl overdose cases.

“Every death caused by fentanyl toxicity is being investigated as a potential homicide," Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said.

After watching our report, Jennifer contacted News Channel 3's Caitlin Thropay to help bring justice to her son’s case.

Read article: Murder charge announced in fentanyl drug overdose case

“My son is responsible for what my son chose to put in his body," she said. "That is my son’s responsibility. However, there were three people there. To me, the crime should be and it should be a crime if you are partaking in these activities with someone and you do not call for help out of fear for getting in trouble; that is the crime," she said.

We asked the Indio Police Department and Riverside County District Attorney, Mike Hestrin why no charges were filed in Steven’s case.

“When I said to you in February that every case would be investigated as a homicide, I believe that’s true across this county every fentanyl poisoning case is being investigated as potential homicide charges," Hestrin said. "That’s not to say that every case is going to get filed as a homicide. We have to be able to prove in court the charges that we file," he added.

“Was Steven’s case investigated as a potential homicide?” Thropay asked Indio Police public information officer, Ben Guitron.

“Yes, it was," Guitron said. "We looked at what we had in the potential case and there was not enough evidence to do a filing so that doesn’t mean it ends there. If something develops in the future that has enough evidence or we discover that there’s more than what we had and it could lead to a filing then we’ll be visiting with the district attorney’s office again," he added.

Unfortunately, Hestrin said situations like Steven’s are all too common.

“The number of cases we’ve looked into are numerous, probably dozens of cases that are coming in or being investigated," Hestrin said.

Since the announcement in February of 2021, Hestrin has heard of many related tragedies. Riverside County prosecutors have brought four of those cases in front of a judge.

“If they’re charged with homicide and they’re convicted of a second-degree murder they’re looking at life in prison," Hestrin said.

Hestrin told News Channel 3 it takes two milligrams of fentanyl to be a fatal dose. There are 5,000 milligrams in a teaspoon of fentanyl.

“Over the last four months or so we have; the DA’s office is involved in task forces, but law enforcement in Riverside County has taken easily more than five kilos of fentanyl off the streets," Hestrin said.

In the past three to four years, Hestrin said the percentage of fentanyl-related deaths has gone up 800 percent in Riverside County. In 2020, 227 people died from fentanyl.

“I’m talking to parents every day that are losing their kids to fentanyl, to drugs, to mental health, these kids are cutting, they’re depressed, they’re full of anxiety," Jennifer said. "We’re tackling things from the wrong way. We’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s just not making sense and it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse," she shared.

The kind of pain from the loss of a child is a kind that doesn't easily fade away.

“What would you say to this mother who is in so much pain, still seeking justice for her son?” Thropay asked.

“I would say don’t give up," Hestrin said. "I would say first of all know that you’re not alone. There are so many families unfortunately that are going through this and I've gotten letters since we've come out and had the press conference on our tough stance on fentanyl poisonings," Hestrin went on to say. "I've gotten many letters, many phone calls, emails. This is a huge problem and family members all over this county, all over the state are grieving; they're losing sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and it's heartbreaking it really is. Every time I talk to a family my heart breaks for them because the anguish that they feel at the loss is, it's got to feel like it's endless. You know day in and day out this horrible anguish of losing someone and the problem is that it happens so fast you know someone goes to a party or ends up taking a pill. Some of these are people that have drug addiction issues and some aren't. Some are people that they tried a pill one time or two times and it's a fatal dose. What I would say to her is to find other people, build a network of people," he said. "There are Facebook groups out there of grieving parents. Our office can help. We have victims services we can put you in touch with or counselors or support groups so we want to get that family help as best we can even in this case we're not prosecuting the case yet but we'd love to help if she wants to contact us," Hestrin added.

Jennifer has decided to turn her grief into something positive.

She started a nonprofit called ‘Ronnie's House for Hope’ helping others deal with the loss of a loved one.

For more information on her nonprofit visit: https://www.ronnieshouseforhope.org/

For resources for those struggling with mental health and/or a drug addiction visit: https://rcdmh.org/ and https://www.rcdmh.org/Substance-Use-Services

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Caitlin Thropay

Caitlin Thropay is the Weekend Morning Anchor and Lifestyle Reporter for KESQ News Channel 3, The Desert’s News Leader. Learn more about Caitlin here.

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