Temecula man sentenced to prison in first fentanyl-related murder trial

Kelsey King as seen in an undated photo. (Riverside Co. District Attorney's Office) On Aug. 31, 2023, jurors at Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta found Vicente David Romero, DOB: 2-20-89, guilty in the fentanyl-related death of Kelsey King on June 16, 2020, in Temecula, California. (Riverside Co. District Attorney's Office)
Kelsey King as seen in an undated photo. (Riverside County District Attorney's Office)

A Temecula man who gave a pill laced with fentanyl to a 26-year-old woman who died from the drug was sentenced Friday to 15 years to life in prison in the state's first jury conviction of a fentanyl-related homicide, Riverside County prosecutors said.

Vicente David Romero, 34, was convicted in August in the 2020 death of Kelsey King in what Riverside County Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin called a landmark case, though it was not the first fentanyl-related murder conviction in the state.

A Placer County man pleaded guilty earlier this year to the second-degree murder of a 15-year-old girl who died shortly after he gave her the synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is believed to be 50 times stronger than heroin but less expensive to manufacture.

The drug is so potent that even a trace amount in a pipe or several puffs of secondhand smoke can make someone pass out or become extremely ill, especially if they’ve never taken the drug before, authorites said.

Romero's conviction and sentence comes as Riverside County has seen more than 1,400 fentanyl-related deaths since 2020. As a result, prosecutors have vowed to be more aggressive in taking fentanyl deaths to court for prosecution.

After Romero's conviction, Hestrin said the case established precedent for future cases.

"This verdict is a testament to our unwavering commitment to protecting our communities, providing justice for victims, and holding those accountable who engage in the distribution of illicit fentanyl resulting in death," he said in a press release at the time.

Romero's five-day trial was the first of 23 active homicide cases related to fentanyl poisonings in Riverside County, according to prosecutors.

In order to obtain the conviction, prosecutors set out to prove Romero knowingly supplied King with the drug, knowing it could be deadly, prosecutors said in a news release. Ten witnesses were called to the stand in the five-day trial. Body-cam video showed Romero talking about splitting and sharing a pill, known as a "blue," with King while knowing it contained fentanyl.

Romero's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

So far this year, Riverside County has seen 208 fentanyl-related deaths, according to data from a county campaign, Faces of Fentanyl, which tracks overdoses and is intended to draw more attention to the crisis.

Hestrin's office has prioritized fentanyl deaths, tackling the issue with what it called a three-pronged approach: prosecution, education and prevention.

On its website, the prosecutor's office notes that it is among the first, and few, district attorney offices in the state looking to charge drug dealers with murder in such cases.

"Our office is taking a tough stance on prosecuting fentanyl drug dealers," the site reads.

Widespread use of the drug has been a persistent problem in California and elsewhere for years, particularly among the most vulnerable populations. In 2021, fentanyl was implicated in 58% of deadly overdoses among unhoused people in L.A. County — nearly three times the percentage in 2019.

In July of this year, citing a “grave and growing” danger, President Biden's administration announced plans to join dozens of countries in a coalition to battle the production and trafficking of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs responsible for the deaths of thousands of people here and abroad.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.