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'It can happen to anyone;' SLO County parents speak out after teens die from fentanyl

Courtesy of the Sarantos, Velci, Puerta familes.
(Left to right) Cindy Sarantos and son Dylan; Jaimie Puerta and son Daniel; Cammie Velci and her son Emilio.

Two San Luis Obispo County moms lost their sons this year after their teens took counterfeit pills that turned out to be fentanyl. Now, they are warning other families it’s not only people with addiction who fall victim from the dangerous synthetic drug. 

Atascadero mother and nurse Cindy Sarantos said one morning this past May, she walked into her 18-year-old son Dylan's room to find him not breathing.

“When I walked in to his room, I knew he was gone," Sarantos said. " I’m a nurse, and I saw him, I felt him cold, and I knew I couldn’t save him.”

Sarantos says the investigation turned up that her son purchased what he thought was an ecstasy pill, but it was fentanyl. She was shocked when she found out. 

“My son had so much going for him," Sarantos said. "I am so angry and I do not want this to happen to anybody else.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic drug used in pain medication, but drug dealers are known to lace or make counterfeit recreational drugs with the opioid because it's cheaper and easier to get than heroin.

Frank Warren with San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health said even small amounts can prove fatal.

“Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potentant than heroin," Warren said. "So it’s a really dangerous drug.”

Atascadero mother Cammie Velci says her 19-year-old son Emilio had tooth pain, and told his roommates he got a Percocet to numb the pain. He was found dead the next morning on the couch.

“This is not an alley in Detroit or anything," Velci said. "This is a completely different problem.”

The moms are now taking part in a campaign, advocating to educate families about their experience, to prevent this from happening to others.

“I don’t think you’ve realized the problem," Velci said. "Until it happens to you.”

Santa Clarita resident Jaime Puerta also lost his 16-year-old son, Daniel, to fentanyl in April. He’s joined Velci and Sarantos in the campaign, but is also advocating for stronger statewide laws to hold drug dealers accountable. 

“California is not a state that has drug-induced homicide statues on the books,” Puerta said. "These drug dealers need to be held accountable."

Instead, prosecutors seek a second degree murder or mansalughter charge with a negligence or reckless element.

In May, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow announced his office is seeking a murder charge for a 19-year-old Paso Robles man who sold counterfeit pills which led to a fatality, under the theory that when he sold the pills he knew, or should have known, the pills contained fentanyl and were extremely dangerous to human life.

The case is still pending.

Angel Russell is a former KCBX News reporter who started her career in journalism as a reporter and producer for KREX on Colorado's Western Slope; she later moved to the Central Coast to work for KSBY as weekend anchor and weekday reporter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, and playing guitar and piano.
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