A Riverside man who supplied a lethal dose of fentanyl to a young Temecula woman home from college pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute fentanyl, prompting a judge to remand the defendant into custody and schedule a sentencing hearing.
Brandon Michael McDowell, 23, admitted the federal charge under a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In exchange for his admission, prosecutors dropped a related felony count.
U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal set a sentencing hearing for the afternoon of Nov. 7 at the federal courthouse in downtown Riverside. He also ordered McDowell held without bail at the federal detention center in San Bernardino. McDowell had been free on bond.
The parents of the victim, 20-year-old Alexandra Capelouto, as well as other relatives, friends and supporters, were on hand for the change-of-plea hearing Monday afternoon.
“On the night of Dec. 22, 2019, Alexandra asked the defendant if he could sell her Percocet pills, a prescription painkiller,” according to the plea agreement. “The defendant agreed … and sold her what turned out to be approximately 11 counterfeit Oxycodone pills that he later described as `M30s.’ The defendant knew it was illegal for him to sell the pills and that they contained fentanyl.”
The narrative states that Capelouto “ingested half of one of the pills” just prior to turning in for bed.
“The fentanyl entered her system, poisoning her body and causing her death,” according to the prosecution.
According to prosecutors, Capelouto was a student at Arizona State University and had returned home for the Christmas break, during which time she contacted McDowell via Snapchat.
Capelouto’s father, Matt Capelouto, said his daughter did not realize she was ingesting fentanyl-laced pills.
“My daughter didn’t want to die,” he said during a news briefing in January. “She took one pill, and it was not a wise choice. Everybody in the supply chain needs to be held accountable. The drug dealers, the cartels in Mexico, right back to China. This war is not fought with bullets. They’re poisoning us from within.”
Capelouto is the founder of the Fentanyl Awareness Coalition. We’ve spoken with Capelouto in the past about the case and his fight for legislative change to prevent more fentanyl deaths.
“I do know my daughter’s case set a precedent. I would never have wanted it to happen this way…but she’s saving lives,” he told News Channel 3 in December.
The case generated wide publicity and prompted Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, to introduce “Alexandra’s Law,” Senate Bill 350, which failed in committee earlier this year. It would have mandated that under state law, anyone convicted of dealing fentanyl or other potentially deadly drugs be issued a written warning that an overdose death resulting from providing such drugs in the future could result in the party being prosecuted for murder.
The intention was to facilitate prosecutors’ efforts to file murder charges against dealers. Some prosecutors are pressing ahead with murder filings anyway.
In Riverside County, more than a dozen criminal complaints alleging murder from “fentanyl poisoning” have been lodged in the last 18 months.
A federal grand jury returned an indictment against McDowell in December. He has no documented prior felony convictions and is facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Fentanyl is manufactured in overseas labs, including in China, and according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, it’s smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border by cartels.
The substance is 80-100 times more potent than morphine and is a popular additive, mixed into any number of narcotics and pharmaceuticals. The ingestion of only two milligrams can be fatal.
In 2021, there were nearly 400 fentanyl-induced deaths throughout Riverside County, representing a 200-fold increase from 2016, when public safety officials say that only two such fatalities were documented.
Statistics published in May by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed there were roughly 108,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2021 and fentanyl poisoning accounted for over 80,000 of them.
So far this year, there have been 118 fentanyl overdose deaths in Riverside County, that’s according to county data from Jan. 1 to April 30. From just March 30 to April 30, the county reported 39 additional fentanyl overdose deaths.
The majority of fentanyl overdose deaths are unintentional. Hestrin told News Channel 3 in May that unintentional fentanyl deaths are growing more common.
“What’s really, so different about fentanyl, it’s the process of overdose, it’s not really overdosing anymore,” Hestrin added, “It’s not a long process that involves addiction and using the drug routinely. It’s happening a lot on the first time or the first second time that someone is taking one of these pills and death is occurring.”
Hestrin also noted that the DEA estimates that 40% of counterfeit pills on the street contain a fatal dose of fentanyl.
In May, a Palm Desert woman accused of selling fentanyl that led to a man’s death was charged with one count of murder. Loved ones told News Channel 3’s Samantha Lomibao that the man said he took a pill for pain relief, following a recent dental procedure.
Stay with News Channel 3 for continuing coverage.
Be the first to know when news breaks in Coachella Valley. Download the News Channel 3 app here.