LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. — Kara Gorman, 24, was found dead Sept.1 in her Fort Collins apartment of a fentanyl overdose, and the woman accused of giving her a pill is the only person so far in Colorado to face a new state charge aimed at drug dealers – distribution of fentanyl resulting in death.
Andrea Branco, 39, was arrested in Fort Collins in September on suspicion of giving a fentanyl pill to Gorman. She faces a charge that became available to state prosecutors only about two months before, in July, when a new state statute allowing the charge took effect.
Since then, at least 115 people have died after taking a drug with fentanyl in it, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE).
Court documents say Gorman's boyfriend woke up the morning of Sept. 1 and noticed her in an odd position on the couch. He called 911. An autopsy found she died of a fentanyl overdose around midnight.
Gorman couldn't tell officers who gave her the pill, but her boyfriend could. An arrest affidavit says police found a text message Gorman sent a few days before she overdosed. She asked Branco for "blues" which is short for fentanyl pills, according to court documents.
Gorman's phone records didn't show that she tried to contact anyone else to purchase drugs during that timeframe. Branco was arrested and is being held at the Larimer County Jail.
Caity Stewart met Gorman at a rehab center in Loveland earlier this year. They quickly became best friends. Stewart, 23, went in for an addiction to cocaine, and has stayed sober. Gorman did not.
"She was the most bubbly person ever," Stewart said. "Me and her connected like no one I had connected with before. She was like my soul sister."
Stewart said Gorman struggled with an addiction to fentanyl. Her boyfriend told police Gorman would sporadically use fentanyl every other month when she would relapse, according to court records.
"There were times I knew she was using, and I would ask her – I know something is off," Stewart said. "We actually had a conversation one night where I was like – I am terrified you are going to die. Every time I leave or every time I see you using, I am scared the next time I see you it will be in a body bag, and it eventually happened."
The coroner believes Gorman passed away shortly after receiving the fentanyl pill.
Gorman's mom described her daughter as kind and someone who could make everyone smile. She said Gorman was an honor student in high school, and was team captain of the soccer team. She always strived to help others.
Gorman's battle with addiction began in college, according to her mom.
Federal prosecutors had already been able to charge someone for distributing fentanyl resulting in death, but before July, that statute was not available to state prosecutors.
District attorneys could only charge dealers with distribution. Some district attorneys charged dealers with manslaughter after a fentanyl death.
In Arapahoe County, a 25-year-old man was charged with first-degree murder after a 16-year-old girl died from a fentanyl and alcohol overdose at his Aurora apartment in 2020. He was convicted on some counts in May, including manslaughter, but not the murder charge.
Brian Mason, the 17th Judicial District attorney, said to prove murder in a fentanyl case, prosecutors have to prove the dealer deliberated about it and then intentionally killed one of his or her clients.
"That is counter intuitive," Mason said. "Dealers don’t deliberately try to kill their customers. They want to continue to sell to those customers."
The new statute – fentanyl distribution resulting in death – was part of a bill Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in May. It took effect on July 1.
Mason supported the fentanyl bill. He said the new statute gives prosecutors a tool they didn't have before.
"Now there is a steeper cost," he said. "If you sold a drug and it kills somebody and what you sold was fentanyl, you can be held accountable for that death."
If someone hands out a fentanyl pill and it kills someone, the dealer could face eight to 32 years in prison. A dealer is eligible for probation if he or she distributes less than four grams. Judges have discretion in those low-end distribution cases.
If the dealer has more than four grams but less than 50, he or she would face a minimum of eight years in prison. If the dealer has more than 50 grams and it leads to a death, the minimum prison sentence is 12 years.
"I have to make sure I can identify the dealer, identify that that dealer sold the drugs that the victim took that actually killed the victim. That is a lot," Mason said. "I think these are going to be very tough prosecutions, but now that we have this tool, we can give every effort and every resource we have to hold these drug dealers accountable."
In Denver County, the medical examiner's office has recorded more than 40 fentanyl-related overdose deaths since the new law took effect. The district attorney's office has not filed a case with this new state charge. Prosecutors have filed more than 160 cases with other statutes included in the fentanyl bill, such as possession with intent to distribute.
"It’s also hard to prove that the narcotics the drug dealer handed the victim are the same narcotics that the victim ingested and caused their death," said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann. "Also, it is often difficult to identify which dealer sold the fentanyl to the person who died – particularly if there are no living witnesses to the exchange. We can examine cellphone records for possible clues, but sometimes we cannot identify the dealer."
20th Judicial District Attorney Michael Dougherty in Boulder County believes this new law will prove to be effective over time. He pointed to a $7 million grant program created under this law that will be given to law enforcement agencies to investigate deaths caused by fentanyl. Applications for the grant program have not yet opened.
"These investigations are resource-intensive and almost always require a complete forensic analysis of cellphones, computers and social media posts. That takes a lot of time and resources," Dougherty said. "We just secured a guilty verdict in a fentanyl manslaughter trial. The evidence from the phones and computers is what enabled us to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. But that forensic analysis takes time."
Mason doesn't believe this new statute will fix the fentanyl problem, but he said it gives prosecutors tools they need to hold dealers accountable.
This effort is personal to him. In his district, five people died in an apartment in Commerce City in February after police say they overdosed on fentanyl. Mason said the victims thought they were ingesting cocaine.
"If we had been able to charge someone in that case, which we couldn't, we wouldn't have been able to charge a person with distribution of fentanyl causing a death," Mason said. "We didn't have it in the statute books."
Branco couldn't talk to 9NEWS for the story but her cellmate, who is also a fentanyl addict, could.
"She is not, you know, someone who sells hundreds of pills a day and survives on that," Alandra Telles said about Branco. "She is an addict like I am and helped some girl out and now this is happening to her."
Telles isn't sure the higher penalty will be enough to persuade people to stop dealing fentanyl. She wonders whether the new law in this case is penalizing the right person.
"If there is an addict out there who says they haven’t helped another fentanyl addict out when they are sick, I would say they are a liar," Telles said. "No one wants to see them sick. I would hope somebody wouldn’t let me be sick."
Stewart, Gorman's friend from rehab, said she struggles with this new law, too.
"This is hard for me because ultimately it is the addict's choice or the person experimenting with drugs," she said. "It is their choice to take the pill, so I don't feel like all the blame is on the drug dealers."
Gorman lost her battle with addiction, but Stewart believes Branco should still be held accountable for her death.
"Knowing what you are doing is killing people, why be the person to do that?" Stewart asked.
When officers arrested Branco on suspicion of dealing a deadly pill, they found her with another man. Police said he had roughly 600 fentanyl pills and a handgun. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute, which is a felony.
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