A federal grand jury has indicted a man on charges that he supplied the counterfeit pills made of fentanyl that killed one of two Portland high school students in March.
Manuel Antonio Souza Espinoza, who a prosecutor has described in court records as a “merchant of death,” is suspected of being two people removed from a teen who delivered the drug to 16-year-old Griffin Hoffmann, according to prosecutors and Hoffmann’s parents and friends.
Hoffmann’s father found his son unconscious at the desk in his bedroom when he went to wake him for school on the morning of March 7. He had his earbuds in and his laptop open to the TV series he had been watching, “The Sopranos.” Hoffmann had gone out with friends the night before to see a movie at the Century 16 Eastport Plaza, his mother said.
Hoffmann had ingested a counterfeit M30 oxycodone pill made with fentanyl, according to prosecutors. Autopsy results showed he died from the toxic effects of fentanyl, according to his family and prosecutors.
Souza Espinoza, 24, of Vancouver, Wash., pleaded not guilty in late April to charges of possession with intent to distribute 40 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing fentanyl and possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime.
A new indictment unsealed Tuesday adds a third charge - conspiring to distribute and possession with intent to distribute fentanyl resulting in death.
It accuses Souza Espinoza of supplying the fentanyl that caused Hoffmann’s overdose death under the federal Len Bias law. The law holds suppliers of drugs that lead to overdose deaths responsible and can bring a stiff sentence of 20 years to life. It was named for the University of Maryland basketball star who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986.
“The defendant, an armed drug dealer, is responsible for selling fentanyl that resulted in the death of a child,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Kerin wrote in a memo seeking Souza Espinoza’s continued detention.
Prosecutors haven’t identified the other two people arrested in the alleged drug trafficking scheme. The other two are expected to face less severe charges as they have assisted investigators in identifying the alleged larger fentanyl supplier.
The Portland Police Bureau’s Narcotics and Organized Crime Unit, working with federal Homeland Security Investigations agents and the Multnomah County District Attorney’ Office, identified Souza Espinoza as the “originating source” of the counterfeit pill that “started this tragic cascade of death and destruction and killed the victim,” Kerin wrote in his memo.
Investigators also suspect Souza Espinoza was the “source of supply for another drug overdose that occurred this year” involving an unidentified man, Kerin wrote in his memo. That case remains under investigation, pending toxicology test results.
Souza Espinoza has been identified as a “very large drug dealer” with ties to Mexico suppliers by an alleged street dealer caught with 137 counterfeit M30 pills on March 31, Portland police Officer Randy Castaneda wrote in a court affidavit. Castaneda works as part of a federal drug interdiction task force with Homeland Security Investigations agents.
The man told police that he had been buying pills from “Manny” for a couple of months, generally paying $2,500 for increments of 1,000 pills and arranging the deals over the encrypted site Telegram, according to the affidavit. The buyer told police he knew the pills were fake and made of fentanyl, the affidavit said.
When arrested, the man told investigators he had arranged to buy more pills from his supplier that night. He agreed to go through with the deal while police monitored it.
Around 8 p.m. on March 31, federal agents watched a silver 2016 Chrysler 300 pull up by the TriMet Cascade MAX Station near the Portland airport and arrested Souza Espinoza, the driver.
Beneath the driver’s seat, police found a plastic bag with 1,000 counterfeit blue M30 pills of fentanyl, they said. Between the driver’s seat and the center console, they seized a loaded Glock .40-caliber handgun with an extended magazine holding 15 rounds. In a fanny pack in the back seat, police found another loaded .40-caliber gun. Police examined Souza Espinoza’s phone and found the Telegram messages he exchanged with their informant, the affidavit said.
Souza Espinoza also was one of four people present when police raided a Gresham home with a search warrant in November. At that time, agents found more than 12,000 counterfeit M30 pills believed to be made with fentanyl, nine guns including two modified to fire fully automatic, cocaine, body armor and more than $35,000 in cash. It’s unclear if Souza Espinoza was arrested at that time.
Souza Espinoza appeared briefly by video before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jolie Russo Tuesday afternoon. Attorney Larry Roloff, retained to represent Souza Espinoza, entered a not guilty plea to the new charge on Souza Espinoza’s behalf. A trial is set for June 28.
Kerin was set to argue for his continued detention pending trial, but Roloff asked to schedule a detention hearing at a future time, considering the new charge.
“The defendant is a merchant of death and destruction – he sells pills, for a profit, that kill people,” Kerin wrote in a memo to the court. “The defendant’s possession of a loaded firearm in connection with his drug dealing is also extremely serious. His offenses warrant his pretrial detention.”
Hoffmann was discovered dead about 24 hours after another McDaniel High School student, Olivia Coleman, had been found unconscious in the bedroom of her home and died of an accidental fentanyl overdose from a counterfeit pill. She had turned 17 in January.
The two students didn’t know each other. No one has been publicly identified as the source of Coleman’s fatal pill.
After Hoffmann was discovered dead and a fentanyl overdose was suspected as the cause, Portland detectives went to his high school and alerted Hoffmann’s friends who had been with him at “The Batman” movie the night before about the danger of the counterfeit pills and tried to learn more about their source.
Some students gave investigators the street name “Pebbles” for a suspected dealer seen hawking the counterfeit pills on Telegram, according to two parents.
Hoffmann’s mother Kerry Cohen told The Oregonian/OregonLive in March that she hoped whoever supplied the fentanyl-laced pill to her son would be held accountable.
Hoffmann was a star tennis player on his high school’s varsity team who aimed to one day win a scholarship to play tennis in college. He had a sharp wit and sophisticated taste in movies, his family and friends said. He was a big gamer, often walking around his house with his gaming headphones on, and loved the family’s black-and-white tuxedo-colored cats, Arnold and Ethel Rosenbaum, and their dog Betty.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said he was grateful for the investigative help from federal partners and the Clackamas County Interagency Task Force.
“All overdose cases are tragic, but this one involving a person so young was heartbreaking, and our sympathies are extended to his loved ones,” Lovell said in a statement Tuesday. “Any time an arrest like this is made, our city gets a little bit safer. However, addressing this issue is going to take more than law enforcement. We need the community to recognize this problem and help us promote awareness that these fentanyl pills and powder are lethal and are a significant threat to our community.”
Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Scott E. Asphaug and Robert Hammer, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge of the Pacific Northwest region, urged residents to recognize the lethal risks of taking pills that aren’t prescribed by a medical professional.
“Please help to protect those closest to you while we in law enforcement continue to battle this urgent public health and safety crisis,” Asphaug said in a statement.
After the two McDaniel students’ back-to-back deaths, Portland Public Schools, the Multnomah County Health Department and the Oregon Poison Center all issued a rare public warning about a surge in the deadly drug.