Two jail inmates face murder charges for supplying the fatal fentanyl that killed a fellow inmate at the Miami-Dade County Jail, authorities said Thursday.
A Miami-Dade grand jury this week indicted the two men under a new state law that makes it easier to charge murder if someone provides a lethal hit of fentanyl, the powerful opioid that’s hooked addicts across South Florida and the United States.
The accused: Nathaniel Vargas, 36, and Carlos Martinez, 41. They also face charges of introducing contraband into a corrections facility, a problem that has plagued Miami-Dade troubled jails for years. The grand jury indicted them on Wednesday, but the records were not unsealed until Thursday.
For now, the men are only charged with the overdose death of Jesus Perdomo, who collapsed inside the jail last December. But the same batch of fentanyl is believed to killed a second inmate, Juan Salgado, and led to the hospitalizations of two other inmates from the same jail wing on the same day.
Fentanyl and its synthetic variants — which can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin — have decimated communities across Florida, where a crackdown on prescription painkillers such as Oxycodone is believed to have led to the spike in opioid abuse.
While a legal painkiller, the fentantyl on South Florida streets is believed to an illicit strain that originates from clandestine labs in China, which often sells the product to U.S. dealers through the mail. The new form of drug dealer was chronicled in the Miami Herald’s 2015 Pipeline China series.
Miami, like other parts of Florida, has been particularly hard hit. The impoverished Overtown neighborhood has become ground zero for Miami’s opioid crisis. The University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine now runs a lauded needle exchange program in Overtown, and authorities have targeted for cleanup a homeless encampment underneath the Dolphin Expressway that is rife with opioid addicts.
So far this year, preliminary statistics show fentanyl or its variants have caused 120 deaths, a dramatic decrease from 251 for 2017, according to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.
Florida law has long allowed state prosecutors to charge someone with murder if they provide a fatal dose of heroin or cocaine. In Miami-Dade, a handful of people have been charged with murder over the past 15 years in connection with deaths associated with those drugs.
But the law did not specify fentanyl overdoses. Last year, the Florida Legislature finally passed a law allowing prosecutors to charge dealers with murder if they provide a fatal dose of fentanyl — and key for prosecutors, drugs mixed with fentanyl.
The indictments of Vargas and Martinez mark the first time prosecutors in Miami-Dade have charged someone under the new law. The first such case came in Palm Beach County, where prosecutors charged a Boynton Beach man with murder for the death of a 28-year-old woman.
In the Miami-Dade case, Salgado, 24, and Perdomo, 25, died Dec. 6 after collapsing inside the Pretrial Detention Center, commonly known as the Miami-Dade County Jail, 1321 NW 13th St. Two other inmates, Joseph Del Valle, 49, and Miguel Tamayo, 27, were also hospitalized after falling ill from drugs. They survived. All four were housed on the fifth floor of the jail.
According to a search warrant filed in Miami-Dade circuit court, Del Valle snorted a line of the suspected fentanyl he got from Vargas, who had just been transferred from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, another Miami-Dade jail.
Vargas was booked into TGK a few days earlier on a cocaine charge. According to the warrant, he showed off eight to 10 “small black bags ... believed to be heroin, but was more than likely fentanyl.” He claimed that he wanted to use the bags, each worth about $50, to “barter” for goods while in jail — and he was even going to peddle some through a jail “trustee” who is allowed to roam the hallways, according to police.
Details of the allegations against Martinez were not released . Vargas remains jailed on his original charge.
“For people wheeling and dealing in this death drug, be aware you are subject to murder charges,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said on Thursday. “We are going to prosecute people to the fullest extent of the law.”
The two inmate deaths — and a third, unrelated inmate overdose death in February at TGK — increased scrutiny on contraband at Miami-Dade jails. The long-troubled corrections system, which remains under federal supervision because of shoddy conditions for inmates, responded by installing high-tech body scanners to check for inmates suspected of hiding contraband on their bodies.
Vargas is believed to have smuggled in the drugs in his anal cavity.
The scanners, by law , cannot be used on corrections officers, who themselves are sometimes suspected of bringing in contraband for inmates. Last month, a Miami-Dade corrections officer was arrested and accused of accepting cash to smuggle in a cell phone and fast food for an inmate.