First Look Into LA County Sheriff's New Task Force Going After Fentanyl Dealers

Across Los Angeles County, at least one person a day is dying from ingesting fentanyl. It is a powerful drug intended for those with severe pain, like cancer. However, a synthetic form of the drug, made illegally, is showing up on streets across the country, including here in Southern California. Federal investigators say it is found in drugs like cocaine and heroin, but also in counterfeit pills that look real and can be ordered on social media apps.  

The I-Team was on call with a new Los Angeles County Sheriff Task Force designed to focus exclusively on investigating drug overdose deaths, from the suburbs to the central city. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office and law enforcement are responding to a record number of fentanyl-related deaths. 

One mother explains how her family has been impacted.  

Perla Mendoza lost her only child to an overdose death: her 20-year-old son Elijah in September of 2020. 

She says he was spending the night at his grandmother’s house in Long Beach. Unable to sleep, he asked a friend where he could find some medicine to help. The friend told Elijah to check out a person selling pills on a social media app.  

“He thought he was going to a trusted source because it was recommended to him by a friend,” she said.

My son ordered 15 Percocet that night. The day that we found him, there were 14 Percocet’s left. We know that he took one and that one pill had so much fentanyl that could have killed at least four healthy adults from that one pill.

Perla Mendoza

The new task force is led by Los Angeles Sheriff Department Captain Brandon Dean. He is a veteran law enforcement officer with experience in narcotics investigations and homicides. The task force is made up of 10 experienced homicide, narcotics, and cyber-crime investigators working in two person teams.  

Our first call-out in late September was to a suburban home in a nice upper-middle class neighborhood in Canyon Country. A man in his 30’s was found dead. Our next call came a few days later to an apartment in Compton. A brother and sister, both in their 20’s, were found dead.  

Neighbors are shocked and grief stricken as members of the task force talk to them on the scene. 

“We’re canvassing the scene just like any other homicide scene,” Dean said. “We’re not treating these as narcotics investigations; we’re treating these as death investigations.”

It is all part of an effort to go after dealers with serious charges like murder or manslaughter. Deputies tell us they are in the process of turning over their first cases to both federal and local prosecutors. The evidence they collect at these scenes helps determine which agency will prosecute.  

The number of fentanyl-related deaths have increased by 2,500%, according to the NBC4 I-Team’s analysis of data from the Los Angeles County Coroner. 

“On a busy week, we’ll get to three or four a day. It could be as many as 10 to 15 a week,” another member of the task force, LASD Sergeant Jason Viger, said.

Mendoza says she had talked to her son about the dangers of illicit drugs. 

Mendoza now works to educate parents, kids, and teachers about the dangers of illegal fentanyl and counterfeit pills. She speaks to classes and has a website with information called Project Eli.  

“Unless [you] can absolutely guarantee that your kid is never going to try a drug or something, then you need to have these conversations about fentanyl with as many people, with as many young people, parents, grandparents — people that you care about,” she said.