California Attorney General Rob Bonta praised Placer County’s prosecution of a fentanyl supplier responsible for the death of a teenage girl, but was AWOL when the Legislature was considering bills to address the fentanyl crisis.
Something unusual – perhaps even historic – happened this month in Placer County, in the foothills northeast of Sacramento.
A man named Nathaniel Evan Cabacungan was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison after pleading guilty to second degree murder in the death of Jewels Marie Wolf, a 15-year-old girl he had supplied with a fake Percocet pill containing a lethal dose of fentanyl.
Cabacungan is the first person to be convicted of murder for a fentanyl death – a milestone that the victim’s family and law enforcement officials somberly marked in a post-sentencing news conference.
“This is not an honor we wanted, nor one that Jewels’ family deserved,” Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire said. “I think for those of you that witnessed in court the impact statements of Jewels’ parents and loved ones, we truly saw the strength of the human spirit today.”
Prosecutors said that after Cabacungan gave the girl the fentanyl-laced tablet, he left her alone dying in her bed without calling for help and later sold the deadly pills to someone else.
“He had the opportunity to intervene. He had the opportunity to save her life, and he chose to watch her die instead,” Gire said of Cabacungan.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta was one of the officials who spoke at the news conference, telling reporters, “This historic sentencing, again not something that we wanted to happen here, but it is historic. And to me, it’s an example of good law enforcement at its finest, working together, following the facts, building the case.”
Bonta cited the alarming increase in fatal fentanyl overdoses among young people, saying, “It’s cheap, it’s potent and it’s lethal.”
Superficially, having Bonta, the state’s top law enforcement official, at the news conference was quite understandable, even commendable.
However, it had the trappings of publicity mongering and image-building by an ambitious politician who wants to become governor because Bonta was missing-in-action this year when the Legislature was considering bills to crack down on fentanyl abuse – and rejecting many of them.
Bonta’s praise of Placer County’s fentanyl murder conviction implied that he supports tougher sentences for those who distribute the deadly drug, but neither he nor his office supported bills that would have implemented even lesser punishment.
In April, the Assembly Public Safety Committee considered seven fentanyl bills and rejected three that would have increased penalties for fentanyl suppliers. One would affect dealers whose customers die or are seriously injured such as Wolf, one that would punish using social media to sell fentanyl, as Cabacungan did, and a third that would increase penalties for possessing large amounts of the drug.
The committee, which is notorious for rejecting legislation to enhance criminal punishment, shunted aside broad support for the measures from law enforcement groups and emotional pleas from families of fentanyl victims.
Bonta could have appeared to voice his support for the bills, but did not. Nor did he list himself as a supporter.
The committee passed four bills, only one of which would increase penalties for fentanyl possession by raising its classification to that of heroin and other deadly drugs. It was later signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Placer County is trying to crack down on the deadly fentanyl trade.
“Let me be clear: For those that come into our county and knowingly sell their poison, we will come after you,” District Attorney Gire said. “We will prosecute you, and we will do our best to separate you from society for as long as we possibly can.”
Bonta apparently wants the voters to know that he supports that get-tough attitude, but so far he’s been all talk and no action.