NJ/PA State Police Investigation Led to Charges of ‘Strict Liability for Drug Induced Death’
TRENTON – New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin today announced that an Atlantic County, NJ man was ordered detained pending trial on charges of selling fentanyl-laced imitation Percocet pills that killed two teens in Pennsylvania in August 2022. The charges are the result of a joint investigation by New Jersey State Police (NJSP) and the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP).
Elias A. Santiago-Vera, 25, of Egg Harbor Township, NJ, is charged with two counts of strict liability for a drug-induced death – a first-degree crime that carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison – and numerous other related drug offenses. Santiago-Vera, who was charged by indictment on March 15, 2023, allegedly fled to Mexico and had been sought as a fugitive until surrendering to authorities in Texas on March 31, 2023. Santiago-Vera was extradited to New Jersey last week and, following a hearing before Superior Court Judge Todd Miller in Atlantic County yesterday, ordered detained pending trial.
The charges against Santiago-Vera stem from the deaths of a 17-year-old Sea Isle City, NJ teen, identified in the indictment as “M.M.”, and a 14-year-old Landenberg, PA teen, identified in the indictment as “A.P.”, who died of drug overdoses on August 17, 2022. The teens died after ingesting pills that Santiago allegedly sold to M.M. as the prescription opioid pain medication Percocet, but in reality, were unlawfully manufactured counterfeit pills containing fentanyl – a far more powerful opioid drug – as well as para-flurofentanyl and audespropionyl fluorofentanyl, two unlawfully manufactured fentanyl analogs.
“The defendant callously passed off powerful, illegal drugs as legitimate prescription medication, directly resulting in the overdose deaths of two teenagers,” said Attorney General Platkin. “This kind of reckless disregard for public safety will not go unpunished. We will continue to work collaboratively with our law enforcement partners in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to hold drug dealers accountable.”
“Santiago and drug dealers like him prey upon some of the most vulnerable victims in an attempt to profit from the sale of illegal narcotics which demonstrates their heartless disregard for the lives they destroy,” said Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “The relationships we share with our law enforcement partners extend beyond the borders of New Jersey. The collaboration of multiple agencies that resulted in this indictment is indicative of our commitment to holding these criminals accountable for their actions and bringing justice to the family of the victims.”
“Our zero-tolerance approach toward illegal drugs and the criminals who sell them to our youth goes beyond the boundaries of state lines,” said Colonel Christopher Paris, Commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police. “We are thankful for the law enforcement partners who share our commitment to justice in these cases.”
“We are working closely with law enforcement partners across the state and beyond to hold drug dealers liable when the dangerous narcotics they traffic cause overdose deaths,” said Director Pearl Minato of the Division of Criminal Justice. “New Jersey’s strict-liability statute is especially applicable in cases where drug dealers profit from pushing lethal pills disguised as legitimate medications to unsuspecting buyers, with tragic results.”
According to information contained in the indictment, Santiago allegedly traveled to M.M.’s home in Sea Isle City on August 16, 2022 and sold him a variety drugs, including 24 pills he claimed were Percocet. M.M. allegedly ordered the drugs from Santiago using the instant messaging app Telegram and paid him using the mobile payment service Cash App. Later that night, M.M. traveled to A.P.’s home where both teens ingested several pills. The following day, A.P.’s father went into his child’s bedroom and found the 14-year-old unresponsive in the bottom bunk of his bunk bed. M.M. was found unresponsive in the top bunk. The teens were transported to a hospital in Delaware, where they were pronounced dead. According to autopsy reports, the teens died from intoxication by the combined effects of fentanyl and para-flurofentanyl, drugs later found to be in the pills allegedly sold by Santiago.
PSP detectives executing a search warrant at the home of A.P. recovered M.M.’s bookbag which held a cache of pills packaged in bright blue resealable bags labeled “Gelatti.” One bag held 18 round, white pills marked as oxycodone, but lab tests determined to be fentanyl and methamphetamine. Sixteen of those pills also contained para-flurofentanyl and audespropionyl fluorofentanyl. Another bag held 17 green pills marked as Xanax, but were analyzed and found to contain clonazolam, a benzodiazepine not approved for medical use in the United States.
Through their initial investigation, PSP detectives found that M.M. appeared to have purchased the drugs in New Jersey prior to his death. PSP detectives reached out to NJSP and, working together, detectives from both law enforcement agencies used various investigatory means to identify and locate Santiago as the source of the pills.
On September 7, 2022, NJSP and PSP personnel executed a search warrant at Santiago’s residence and recovered numerous drugs, including pills marked as oxycodone that tested positive for xylazine, a veterinary drug used as a sedative/anesthesia for horses and cows. They also recovered the same type of bright-blue bags marked Gelatti that were used to package the counterfeit pills recovered from M.M.’s bookbag.
In addition to two counts of first-degree strict liability for drug-induced death, Santiago is also charged with the following offenses, all in the third-degree: distribution of imitation CDS (2 counts); possession of CDS; distribution of CDS (3 counts); and possession with intent to distribute imitation CDS.
Deputy Attorney General Evgeniya Sitnikova is prosecuting the case for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Valerie Butler.
New Jersey Attorney General Platkin commended all of the attorneys, officers, investigators and detectives who investigated the case for the New Jersey State Police, Pennsylvania State Police, and the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. He also thanked the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Department for their assistance.
In addition to carrying a sentence of 10-20 years in state prison, the first-degree strict liability for drug-induced death charge also carries a fine of up to$200,000 and a mandatory period of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000. The charges are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until he is proven guilty.
As part of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987, New Jersey enacted a provision making it a first-degree crime to unlawfully distribute a controlled dangerous substance that results in death. The statute prescribes strict liability, and it is no defense that the drug user contributed to his or her own death by voluntarily ingesting the substance that caused death. The statute applies to every person along the drug distribution chain, not just the dealer who may have personally interacted with the decedent.
Defense Attorney: Andrew Imperiale, Esq.