Investigators find fentanyl overdose killed OC inmate whose death generated controversy

An Orange County inmate whose death last year prompted protests and a claim against the county by his family was determined to have died of an accidental overdose after eating a fentanyl-laced “cookie” inside his cell, the District Attorney’s office said.

The D.A.’s office said Friday it found the O.C. Sheriff’s Department was not culpable for the death of 37-year-old Anthony Aceves, according to a letter and seven-page report submitted to Sheriff Don Barnes on April 10. Prosecutors said video showed another inmate passing an object under Aceves’ cell door at 8:12 p.m. on May 22.

The video from inside Theo Lacy Jail in Orange showed Aceves up and walking around his cell late the same night, but by 4:52 a.m. the next morning, when deputies checked on him, they found the man unresponsive. When they entered his cell minutes later, Aceves was “cold and without vital signs.”

Sheriff’s deputies later said they determined that Aceves ate the object — a cookie made with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiod. An independent forensic investigator later determined Aceves’ death was the result of an accidental fentanyl overdose.

Prosecutors said they found no evidence that sheriff’s deputies in the jail “failed to perform a legal duty causing the death of Aceves.”

“The evidence shows that Aceves died as a result of an accidental drug overdose and that the death was a natural one,” the prosecutors wrote in the report.

Humberto Guizar, an attorney for the mother of Aceves, who filed a $5 million wrongful-death claim against the county last year, disputed the D.A.’s office findings. He said deputies in the jail ignored Aceves’ severe mental health issues, including his diagnosis for schizophrenia, and that they “acted with deliberate indifference to a known medical condition.”

After Aceves was arrested for violating his probation in Santa Ana on April 22, he was taken to a mental health facility. Two days later on April 24, the custody officials at the O.C. Inmate Reception Center cleared him to be transferred to regular housing. But he was still under protective custody until his death about a month later, according to the D.A.’s report.

Guizar said Aceves should never have been allowed to return to the jail’s regular housing. He said sheriff’s deputies “in an indirect way caused (Aceves’) death.”

The D.A.’s office laid out the timeline of the events leading to the death of Aceves.

In the afternoon and into the evening of May 22, Aceves was walking around his cell and sector, talking to other inmates. By 8 p.m., Aceves took medication for seizures, depression and anxiety.

The report said Aceves was seen walking around his cell at around 11 p.m., hours after the other inmate passed the cookie to him.

His cellmate heard Aceves snoring loudly throughout the night, according to the report. After the deputies found Aceves unresponsive during a regular check at 4:52 a.m., they performed CPR on him.

The report doesn’t state the timeline of the deputies’ response, but says that at 5:05 a.m. — 13 minutes later — Orange Fire Department paramedics reached him. The paramedics determined Aceves was in cardiac arrest, and took him to the UCI Medical Center Emergency Room. He was pronounced dead at 5:47 a.m.

In its report, the D.A.’s office said there was no evidence of criminal negligence in sheriff’s deputies’ handling of Aceves’ death. That was despite the presence and distribution of drugs within the cell block.

“There is certainly evidence supporting a conclusion that drugs were unlawfully present inside the jail, and that certain inmates were involved in providing such drugs,” the D.A.’s office wrote.

They said O.C. prosecutors wouldn’t “be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt criminal culpability” in the Sheriff’s Department failing to confiscate the drugs that killed Aceves.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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