Florida Keys prosecutors pursue traffickers for murder amid rising overdose deaths
The Florida Keys isn’t immune to the drug overdose crisis gripping the nation or the rest of the state, including the latest threat of fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid often mixed with other drugs like heroin and cocaine.
In each of the last two years, Monroe County has recorded 32 drug overdose deaths, with the vast majority — 26 — linked to opioids. The deaths are up from 17 overdose deaths in 2015,according to state records.
As fatalities have climbed, Monroe law enforcement authorities have been pursuing those who sold illicit drugs to victims of overdose deaths — and charging them with murder.
The latest arrest happened last month when Monroe deputies charged 23-year-old Alexis Joy Sather, from the Middle Keys city of Marathon, with second-degree murder after they said she provided a dose of fentanyl that caused a Keys resident to fatally overdose.
Sather is accused of selling the fentanyl that killed Amanda Roberts, 53, who was found dead at her home on Grassy Key, about six miles from Marathon, on Sept. 2, 2022. According to deputies, the autopsy report showed Roberts died from an overdose of fentanyl and diazepam, a medication used to to treat anxiety.
In announcing Sather’s arrest, Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay’s had a direct warning to drug traffickers:
“I hope this message is very clear; quit selling this poison in our community, it is ruining lives and killing people,” said Ramsay in a statement. “If you sell these drugs and someone dies, we will pursue murder charges against you.”
"It's like handing a loaded gun to a child," said Joseph Mansfield, the Chief Assistant State Attorney in Monroe County. "You hand drugs to somebody who's addicted or they're suffering from addiction. That drug is a dangerous cocktail that you're supplying them with that is ultimately going to cause their death."
Sather was already in jail on other drug charges when she was charged with Roberts' murder. Last year, she was charged with possession with intent to sell 2.9 grams of fentanyl. She also has a pending case for possession with the intent to sell under 3 grams of heroin.
She remains locked up in the county jail without a bond for the second-degree murder charge.
She has her own history of drug use. Last year, she violated conditions of her pre-trial release by testing positive for "opiates, fentanyl and cocaine," according to an affidavit by a pretrial services officer.
"I don't know that she is the top dog in the organization, but her role in the organization is to help facilitate the distribution of the drug," Mansfield said of Sather's arrest for murder. "So to me, under the eyes of the law, she's a drug dealer."
Sather is one of three people charged in three separate overdose death−related cases over the past year and a half. A fourth suspect is being sought in one of the cases, as well.
In February, Monroe County prosecutors charged Ronald Gene Meyers III, 40, a former Marathon resident, with second-degree murder. They accused him of selling the cocaine that led to the death of Keys resident, Brandon Marr, 42.
Marr was found dead Feb. 14, 2022. The cause of death was a mixture of alcohol and cocaine, according to a Monroe County Sheriff's Office arrest warrant.
Meyers, who is awaiting trial, bonded out of jail in March, court records show.
A push for prosecutions
The Keys murder case that started the push toward homicide prosecutions for alleged drug dealers was made against Anthony Fuller, 53, of Key Largo. Fuller, who remains jailed, is accused of selling the cocaine that killed Jennifer Winslow, 51.
Winslow was found dead at a Key Largo home on Aug. 14, 2021. "The investigation revealed Winslow had ingested crack cocaine just prior to her death," the Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokesman Adam Linhardt said in a statement.
Deputies said Fuller provided or sold Winslow the drugs. They arrested Fuller on a charge of negligent manslaughter in August 2021. But in January 2022, Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward's office charged Fuller with second-degree murder.
Mansfield acknowledged prosecuting alleged drug dealers for murder isn't going to stop traffickers, but he said it could be a deterrent "if they're aware that they could be setting themselves up for a long prison sentence if what they sell causes death."
Grappling with overdoses
Florida state criminal law has allowed homicide by drug overdose cases since the 1980s. But in 2017, with the fentanyl epidemic erupting, part of then-Gov. Rick Scott’s response included adding the deadly opioid to the list of drugs available to prosecutors to seek murder charges.
Prosecutors can file homicide charges up to second-degree murder. But only a grand jury can charge someone with first-degree.
That happened in Miami in 2021, when two men from North Carolina were charged with first-degree murder for the death of a tourist, who police said died in part because of fentanyl and alcohol. The case is pending.
Fentanyl, cheap to produce, visibly similar to other white powders and lethal in tiny doses, is commonly mixed in with other drugs to pad the weight.
Fears of addicts unknowingly ingesting other drugs, such as cocaine, "cut" with fentanyl has become a major concern.
In July 2022, police in a small, rural Florida Panhandle county blamed fentanyl for the deaths of nine people over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. The farming community had 10 overdoses in all of the previous year.
The Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office put out an alert warning the public of a possible polluted drug supply, the Tallahassee Democrat reported at the time.
"I’m really treating this like we had a hurricane coming into town," Gadsden Sheriff Morris Young told the Associated Press. "It means that much to me that we could lose people in such a short period of time."
Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature imposed tougher penalties against drug traffickers. One law that went into effect in October increased the mandatory minimum sentences for people found guilty of trafficking four to 14 grams of fentanyl. It went from three to seven years. Trafficking 14 to 28 grams increased from 15 to 20 years.
DeSantis wants lawmakers in the current legislative session to pass more laws against drug traffickers, especially those involved with fentanyl.
“We need to increase penalties for fentanyl dealers, especially those who target our children,” said DeSantis in state of the state speech before the Legislature convened in early March. “And to do that we must treat them like the murderers that they are.”