For the first time in Palm Beach County, a drug dealer has been found guilty of selling the drugs that killed an addict.
A federal jury deliberated two and a half hours Monday in the groundbreaking trial of Christopher Massena, a drug dealer who sold fentanyl to Christian “Ty” Hernandez. Within hours of the drug deal, Hernandez overdosed on the powerful painkiller, about 100 times more potent than morphine.
Massena, 24, faces up to 100 years in prison when he is sentenced in October for selling drugs to Hernandez, 23, and an undercover officer.
Hernandez’s family entered the courtroom shortly after the verdict was read. His mother, Peggy Hernandez, wiped tears from her eyes. After jurors left the courtroom, she hugged Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Nucci and thanked the undercover officers and DEA agents.
“We’re hoping and praying this is going to be groundbreaking for all offenders selling and tying it into a murder,” Hernandez said. “They are peddling death and I’m going to stop it.”
Police who responded to the 911 call at the Hernandez family’s Wellington home on Feb. 19 thought they were dealing with an overdose and not a criminal investigation. They found three capsules of heroin and fentanyl in a box near Hernandez’s body but they did not take his cellphone into evidence.
Typically, in the increasing number of heroin overdose cases investigated by local police, little effort is made to tie the death to the dealer. However, in this case, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, working with federal investigators, pursued the evidence after being spurred on by Hernandez’s father.
For days after Hernandez’s death, a caller named Slim repeatedly called the phone. His family did not answer. However, Hernandez’s father, Frank, and his brother-in-law — a Navy communications specialist — went through the phone.
The phone revealed 65 calls and 270 text messages between Hernandez and Slim during the month before Hernandez overdosed. There were no other calls or text messages to other dealers.
Among the messages, a deal Hernandez made with Slim the night before his death to buy four capsules of heroin. They turned the phone over to detectives, who launched an investigation.
“He left us such a perfect trail,” said Hernandez’s father, Frank, a 20-year Navy veteran and security officer.
While Massena’s attorney, Jack Fleischman, argued that the evidence against Massena was circumstantial and that there was no way to prove he sold the drugs that caused the overdose, the federal prosecutor painstakingly laid out the connection between Hernandez and Massena.
An undercover officer dialed the number for Slim found in Hernandez’s phone and made four purchases. Massena showed up for each deal and sold the drugs to the undercover officer. Massena always answered to the name “Slim” and acknowledged to the officer that he had sold drugs to Hernandez before.
During a secretly recorded phone call Massena made from jail to his girlfriend, he admitted that investigators learned about his connection to Hernandez from Hernandez’s cellphone.
“There is just no doubt here,” Nucci said. “There is simply no doubt here that the defendant is Slim and no doubt that those capsules killed Hernandez.”
Peggy Hernandez said she had heard the argument that her son was to blame because he willingly bought and used the drugs.
“The drug addict has to take responsibility also,” Hernandez said, adding that dealers don’t know exactly what drugs they are selling. The only drug in her son’s system was fentanyl. “They poisoned him.”
Massena’s case is different from those of pill mill doctors and operators convicted of providing drugs that killed addicts. In those cases, prosecutors had evidence, such as prescriptions and medical records, that linked the addict to the clinic and doctor.
In 2012, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra — the judge also presiding over Massena’s case — sentenced more than two dozen of the 32 people charged as part of pill mill crackdown called Operation Oxy Alley.
Among those sentenced were brothers Jeff and Christopher George, the masterminds behind a massive pain clinic in Broward County that provided prescription drugs to as many as 500 addicts and drug dealers a day. Marra sentenced Jeff George to 15½ years and Christopher George to 17½ years.
In 2013, Sergio Rodriguez, a West Palm Beach pediatrician, was sentenced to 27 years for the overdose deaths of four people.
Unlike those cases, Massena’s case is the first in which a local street-level dealer was convicted of selling the illicit, nonprescription drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl, that killed an addict.
To see comments by Peggy Hernandez after her son’s drug dealer was found guilty in federal court, go to myPalmBeachPost.com.