As CA Families Grieve, Feds Probe Snapchat’s Role In Fentanyl Deaths
CALIFORNIA — As several California families mount lawsuits accusing Snapchat’s Santa Monica-based parent company Snap Inc. of enabling drug dealers to peddle deadly fentanyl to their kids on the social media platform, federal authorities have launched a probe into the company.
According to a Bloomberg report published Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times, FBI agents and U.S. Justice Department attorneys are focusing on fatal fentanyl poisoning cases in which drug sales were arranged on the Snapchat platform.
The probe includes interviews with parents of children who died from fentanyl poisoning, and investigators are trying to access the victims’ social media accounts to identify the drug suppliers, sources told the news agency.
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Snapchat’s disappearing messages “encourage, enable and facilitate” illegal drug sales to youth users on the social media platform, according to a complaint filed Oct. 13 in Los Angeles Superior Court, on behalf of the families, by the Seattle-basedand New York-based C.A. Goldberg, PLLC. The suit is one of four brought by the c against Snap, and several California families are represented.
Federal authorities declined to comment publicly about their investigation, but Bloomberg cited sources who said Snapchat records obtained through subpoenas showed that teens using the platform thought they were buying prescription pills, but what they received were either drugs laced with fentanyl or pure fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid. The alleged fraudulent behavior by drug dealers is why families and many law enforcement agencies have adopted the phrase “fentanyl poisoning,” instead of fentanyl overdose, in death cases.
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In a statement to City News Service about the federal probe, a Snap representative said the company is “committed to doing our part to fight the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using cutting-edge technology to help us proactively find and shut down drug dealers’ accounts.
“We block search results for drug-related terms, redirecting Snapchatters to resources from experts about the dangers of fentanyl,” the representative continued. “We continually expand our support for law enforcement investigations, helping them bring dealers to justice, and we work closely with experts to share patterns of dealers’ activities across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior. We will continue to do everything we can to tackle this epidemic, including by working with other tech companies, public health agencies, law enforcement, families and nonprofits.”
According to the company, it has made “significant operational improvements to better detect and remove drug dealers from our platform,” and works closely with law enforcement organizations, experts in counter-narcotics and groups dedicated to raising awareness of drug issues and the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit pills. The company said its work with law enforcement includes frontline agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Laura Marquez-Garrett, an attorney with Social Media Victims Law Center, told Bloomberg her organization represents more than two dozen families of children who died from fentanyl poisoning, and almost all of those victims purchased the drugs via Snapchat.
The lawsuits allege Snapchat provides drug dealers with a never-ending source of vulnerable customers, purposefully obstructing parental supervision with disappearing messages. Snapchat also enables dealers to find nearby minors and young adults, connecting them to drug menus and other information that disappears — erasing all evidence of the crime, according to the suits.
In the Bloomberg article, Marquez-Garrett specifically cited the deaths of Alexander Neville, 14, of San Diego, and Daniel Elijah Figueroa, 20, of Seal Beach, saying both died after buying what they thought were prescription painkillers but turned out to be pure fentanyl.
According to the Oct. 13 complaint, on June 22, 2021, Alexander went to get a haircut, have lunch and hang out with his friends. He returned home just before 9 p.m. and went up to his bedroom to go to sleep. When his mother, Amy, went to wake him up the next morning for an orthodontist appointment, she found her son laying lifeless on his bedroom floor.
Alexander Neville, 14, died of fentanyl poisoning in June 2021. (Photo: Social Media Victims Law Center; socialmediavictims.org)
San Diego authorities told Alexander’s parents that the pills their son took were 100 percent fentanyl. Snap was unresponsive to multiple subpoenas; it took three subpoenas for the company to respond, the complaint alleges.
Only then was it discovered that Alexander connected with a Snapchat dealer called “Smokxy” who sold fentanyl pills instead of the oxycodone that Alexander believed he was purchasing, the complaint continued.
While it was Alexander’s mother who found her dead son, the grim discovery of Figueroa’s lifeless body was made by his grandmother. On September 15, 2020, the young man went to stay at her home to keep her company because she was nervous about protests taking place nationwide, the Oct. 13 complaint states.
Early the next morning, she woke up to use the bathroom and walked past her grandson’s room. She noticed his lights were on and saw his body atop the bed with his knees on the floor like he was praying. He was unresponsive, and she immediately called 911. When police arrived, Figueroa had no pulse and could not be resuscitated, the complaint alleges.
Daniel Elijah Figueroa, 20, died of fentanyl poisoning in September 2020. (Photo: Social Media Victims Law Center; socialmediavictims.org)
Detectives served Snap with two subpoenas in the Figueroa case. The company failed to comply with the first subpoena, claiming it was too broad. The second time police requested information, Snap complied, though it took the maximum time allowed — one month — to do so, according to the complaint.
Detectives learned that Figuroa had connected with Snapchat drug dealer “Arnoldo_8286” purportedly selling Percocet. Figueroa attempted to buy Percocet from the pusher and received 100 percent fentanyl instead, the complaint alleges.
The California Department of Public Health tracks fentanyl deaths through the state’s Overdose Surveillance Dashboard. During 2021 — the most recent year for which comprehensive figures are available — 5,961 people died from fentanyl poisoning, dashboard data show. Nationwide, more than 70,000 fentanyl deaths were reported for the same year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2022, the DEA’s Los Angeles Field Division seized over seven million fentanyl pills and more than 1,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. The DEA estimates the seizures represent more than 38 million potentially deadly doses of fentanyl, which could be enough to kill the entire population in Southern California’s seven largest counties, according to DEA spokesperson Nicole K. Nishida.
Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl is considered a lethal dose.
Just 2 milligrams (shown next to penny) of fentanyl is considered a lethal dose. (Photo: DEA)
Multiple awareness campaigns have been launched around the nation to warn of fentanyl’s danger. For example, federal and local authorities Thursday announced a “Death in Disguise” fentanyl awareness campaign in Riverside County.
“It’s the number one cause of death [in the United States] among those 18 to 45 years old,” U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Martin Estrada said during a Thursday news briefing. He was on hand at the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office to launch the campaign.
“It’s a public health crisis,” he said. “It’s imperative that we take action.”
Estrada was joined by Riverside County D.A. Mike Hestrin, San Bernardino County Assistant D.A. Simon Umscheid, U.S. DEA Special Agent Bill Bodner, and Steve Filson, whose adult daughter died from fentanyl poisoning.
“Fentanyl changes everything,” Filson said. “Fentanyl has flooded our society. Added to other drugs, the risk of death is ever present.”
“This epidemic must be stopped,” Estrada added. “It requires our full attention.”
—Patch Editor Toni McAllister and City News Service contributed to this report.
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