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I-Team: Coachella Valley has more fentanyl-related deaths than anywhere in Riverside County

Our extensive coverage on the fentanyl crisis continues with some explosive new information from the  Riverside County Sheriff's Office.

So far this year, there have been more fentanyl-related deaths in the Coachella Valley than in any other part of Riverside County. 

I-Team Reporter Karen Devine speaks with the people on the front lines of the fentanyl fight in her special report:  Fentanyl Flashpoint.

The Coachella Valley, a known vacation hot spot with a lot to offer including nearly year-round sunshine, top-notch entertainment, and sporting events.  But, there is a darker side. Right now, Riverside County Sheriff's Investigators say increased fentanyl use has dealt the valley a deadly 2023. 

According to Sheriff's Investigator Danny Hollingsworth, between January and April of this year, there have been 57 fentanyl-related deaths in the Coachella Valley. That's more than any other area in the county. 

Hollingsworth says that the  Valley is probably on pace for about 170 deaths this year. That's compared to 140 in the valley last year. 

Hollingsworth says he's not sure why this area has more, he does say that it might have to do with being along the Interstate 10 corridor and the access to it.  He says he sees a jump in fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths also along the Interstate 15 corridor.

Hollingsworth is a part of the county's Overdose Death Investigations Narcotics Unit, a five-member team called to the scene of fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths. The unit covers the entire county working to identify the drug dealers and to make a case for second-degree murder charges. 

“Frankly a lot of people dying, a lot of people dying from Fentanyl,” said Hollingsworth.

Including 26-year-old Maryfer Diaz of La Quinta who was found dead in June of fentanyl poisoning.  Investigator Hollingsworth was called to that scene, collected evidence, and is hoping to build a case against the person who provided Diaz with the drug. 

Devine asked, “How has the unit evolved since it got up and running in 2021? We have now seen drug dealers convicted in fentanyl-related deaths but in Riverside County that's been at the federal level. 

“Some are more suited to go Federally, if we don’t have the implied malice in which we’re able to determine that person knew the dangers of fentanyl a lot of times we can take that case to the feds and file it,” said Hollingsworth. 

While there have been a number of convictions federally, California’s first successful state case was earlier this month in Placer County, near Sacramento. Nathaniel Cabacungan, 21, pleaded guilty to second degree murder for providing fentanyl to a 15-year-old girl who died.  He’s facing between 15 years and life in prison.

“It sets a good precedence for us, you know moving forward with our county, because it’s largely unknown what’s going to happen, how a jury is going to look at these cases,” said Hollingsworth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States in 2022 there were 109,000 overdose deaths with fentanyl accounting for most of them.    

In California, for the first 9 months of the year, there were 4,466. Riverside County saw 503 and, right here in the Coachella Valley there were 144 deaths.

Debbie Bennett is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Her company contracts with treatment facilities doing intakes, detox protocols, medication management and harm reduction. She says 80 to 85 percent of her patients are abusing fentanyl.

“I have heard from patients that it is a higher high, takes less to get the same high, it’s cheaper, unfortunately, it’s more accessible these days than other opiates and your body becomes physically dependent faster,” said Bennett.

And she says the withdrawal process is brutal.

"They explain it as it's the flu times 100, just nausea, vomiting, body aches, chills, runny  nose and sometimes patients can start to experience those withdrawals as soon as 6 hours after their last use," Bennett said.

With decades of experience in the field of drug addiction, Bennett says fentanyl has taken heroin's place as the opioid of choice among users and that has led to a big increase in overdoses. 

"I feel that more and more other substances are laced with fentanyl and my patients sometimes don't even know they're using fentanyl," said Bennett.

She told Devine a story about a patient who was in a car accident and was put on Percocet by a doctor.  After a while he would no longer prescribe it so she went to find it on the street. 

"I always like for patients to do a urine drug screen so I can see what's in their system before I start to prescribe and she came back negative for all opiates," said Bennett.

"So I said to her, is there any chance that you are actually doing fentanyl? And she said "Absolutely not!"  Well, we ran the fentanyl test and she was positive and she's like, okay now that makes sense why I was having to take more and more often and felt worse if I did not take them."

Both Bennett and Investigator Hollingsworth see firsthand, on a daily basis, how fentanyl use is infecting our communities. While they deal with the harsh reality there is still a lot of compassion. 

"One of the most difficult aspects of this position is, I feel for these families, you know, they've probably dealt with their children struggling with with addiction for many years. And, so now this is the, I guess you could say, the end to it. And now they want some closure and justice for their kids," Hollingsworth said.

When asked if he believes the fentanyl crisis will end anytime soon, Hollingsworth says he believes he's starting to see it plateau but, that doesn't mean we're done seeing record fentanyl overdoses or deaths. 

If you or someone you know has an addiction problem and is looking for some help, we've included some information on local resources for you. 

RECOVER - Online addiction treatment for alcohol and opioid use

In May, Karen Devine investigated local efforts to combat the fentanyl crisis in the Coachella Valley. Hear from Riverside County DA Mike Hestrin and State Assemblymember Greg Wallis, as well as a parent who lost their child, in her special report, "Fatal Flaw."

Be the first to know when news breaks in Coachella Valley. Download the News Channel 3 app here.

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Karen Devine

Karen Devine is celebrating her 29th year delivering the local news as an anchor and reporter in the Palm Springs television market. Learn more about Karen here.


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