A federal prosecutor’s groundbreaking case against a Lake Worth drug dealer charged with selling the drugs that killed an addict began Wednesday with the tearful sobs of the mother and the calm testimony of the father, whose own investigation uncovered evidence left behind by detectives.
The case against Christopher Massena, 24, charged with selling the drugs that led to the death of Christian “Ty” Hernandez, 22, of Wellington, is the first of its kind in Palm Beach County despite hundreds of overdose deaths in recent years. If convicted, Massena faces 100 years in prison. He already has pleaded guilty to four counts of selling drugs to an undercover officer during the investigation.
The case hinges on text messages between Hernandez and his drug dealer, “Slim.” None of the messages identify Massena by name. However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Nucci told the jury that the text messages will prove that Massena is “Slim.”
An undercover officer set up four drug buys with “Slim” using the contact information for “Slim” found in Hernandez’s phone, Nucci said. Massena always responded when the officer called him “Slim” and sold him the drugs, Nucci said.
Massena’s attorney, Jack Fleischman, said Massena has never gone by the name “Slim.” As for the text messages, other people “likely used” the same phone, Fleischman said.
Hernandez’s mother, Margaret, testified that she had no idea that her son was smoking heroin. He had told his parents he had been smoking marijuana while he lived with his ex-fiance in Maine but stopped when he moved back to Florida.
Still, his parents insisted that he undergo random urine tests while living at home. Hernandez, who had been enrolled in an ROTC program in high school, also was tested for drugs when he applied for a job at G4S Security, where his father worked.
On Feb. 19, Margaret Hernandez said she came home from work and found her son cold, stiff and “purple” in his bed. She screamed for her husband, Frank, saying Ty was dead. Her husband and their 14-year-old daughter insisted that Ty, who had been sick, was just sleeping.
“No! He’s dead!” Margaret recalled saying, as she shouted and sobbed in the courtroom. “He’s dead! I know dead! He’s dead!”
Frank Hernandez, a 20-year Navy veteran and manager at G4S, testified that he called 911 and comforted his wife. For hours, a detective and a crime scene investigator took photos and scoured the room for evidence. They found three capsules containing a white powder, which tested positive for heroin and fentanyl.
They left behind Ty’s cellphone, which was charging next to his bed. For several days it rang. The caller was “Slim.” No one answered it.
Frank Hernandez said he asked his son-in-law, Thomas Rollins, a Navy communications specialist, to look at the phone. Rollins found numerous text messages between Ty and “Slim” with the details of the buy Ty made the night he overdosed. He took screen grabs — photos of the text messages — and saved them.
Frank Hernandez went to JFK Medical Center, where his son worked as a security guard, and asked to see security video. He also gave his son’s phone to an officer, explaining that there were text messages between his son and the dealer.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation. Nucci expects to call witnesses today who she said will describe the six-weeklong undercover investigation, which also included the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
According to Nucci and court records, an undercover officer posed as Ty’s friend and contacted “Slim.” The officer told “Slim” that Ty was not answering his phone because his parents had sent him to rehab.
Four times the undercover officer bought drugs from “Slim” — and four times Massena was the dealer. When the undercover officer said he wanted to sell drugs, Massena set him up with small plastic bags and a larger amount of heroin, according to court records.
Massena laughed when the undercover officer told him that one of his clients had overdosed. “That’s a good thing when they call to say that,” Massena told the undercover officer, according to Nucci. It meant the drugs he is selling are powerful.
Also on Wednesday, Ty Hernandez’s ex-fiance, Katie Ames, testified that she and Ty had a video chat using Skype the night he overdosed. Ames said she watched Ty smoke the drugs during their hourlong conversation. She said he eventually became so high that she decided to end the conversation. An autopsy report revealed Hernandez died of an accidental fentanyl overdose.
At roughly 100 times more powerful than morphine, fentanyl, a synthetic drug, can be deadly even in small doses, and it has become common for drug dealers to combine it with heroin. But while some local police have made a point of arresting dealers for selling heroin, Massena’s is the first case here of a dealer being held responsible for an overdose death.
Unlike cases in which physicians are charged with prescribing painkillers that result in fatal overdoses, there are no prescription pill bottles to link the provider to the addict in cases like Massena’s. Even when that evidence exists, convictions are rare.
In February, a physician in Southern California became the first doctor in the United States to be convicted of murder for recklessly prescribing drugs. Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng, 46, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.