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Murder, manslaughter charges after overdose deaths are uncommon in Colorado

Police in Commerce City are searching for the person who supplied fentanyl to five people who died on Sunday.

COLORADO, USA — On Sunday, five people were found dead inside a Commerce City apartment. The district attorney believes they died after accidentally inhaling fentanyl when they thought it was something else, possibly cocaine.

17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason said police are now trying to find out where the fatal drugs came from.

Investigating these cases takes a lot of resources, and it's rare for murder charges to be filed after fatal overdoses in Colorado.

In Boulder County, 20th Judicial District Attorney Michael Dougherty recently filed a manslaughter charge after a fatal overdose.

"If they knew how many pills they were taking and they took those pills intentionally, that is different than someone who takes one Xanax pill thinking they are going to have a minimal effect and never wake up," Dougherty said. "That is poisoning."

Dougherty's office recently charged a man with manslaughter. He's accused of supplying a pill laced with fentanyl that killed a woman.

He said there are several active investigations in Boulder County looking into drug dealers.

"For criminal charges, we are looking at individuals who died not knowing they were taking fentanyl," he said.

According to Dougherty, prosecutors have to prove two things -- the dealer knew the drug contained fentanyl and then failed to tell the person. 

"Statewide, they have been rare," he said. "We have seen more cases brought in the last year in the face of the crisis that we are all trying to grapple with."

There were 1,072 drug overdose deaths of all types in Colorado in 2019. Those deaths spiked to 1,477 in 2020 and 1,659 in 2021, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

CDPHE said 803 of the deaths in 2021 involved fentanyl. That is 49% of the overdose deaths that year, up from 37% of overdose deaths in the state in 2020.

In Commerce City, the five people who died were between the ages of 24 and 32. Police said a 29-year-old woman was taken to a hospital and is receiving medical care. A 4-month-old was also found inside the apartment. The baby has been released from the hospital with no known issues, according to investigators.

RELATED: Fentanyl caused 5 deaths in Commerce City apartment, DA says

"The tragic events from [Sunday] night just demonstrate the need for us to do better and do more as a state in fighting an epidemic," Dougherty said. 

Dougherty wants to see stiffer penalties against people who distribute fentanyl. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis is joining bipartisan calls to reevaluate the state's drug laws to hold dealers to harsher penalties.

Three years ago, the governor supported changing state law to make the possession of small amounts of certain drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony. 

"While there is no guarantee that increased penalties would have prevented this tragedy, we clearly need real consequences and harsher sentences for those involved with dealing or possessing enough fentanyl to kill people," a spokesperson for Polis said. 

RELATED: Colorado attorney general seeks more resources, stronger penalties to combat fentanyl

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