WICHITA FALLS, Texas — With a deep breath, the prosecutor rose from his chair and turned to face the jurors, first thanking them for their time and their service. It was the least he could do before asking them to join him in pursuing a verdict unlike any the county had tried.
It’s a moment his office had been preparing for since last August, when his boss, District Attorney John Gillespie, announced that they, alongside the police department, were committed to investigating every fentanyl-related death as a homicide.
“We are sick and tired of seeing these in the community,” Gillespie, 49, said back then. “We want to send a message to the people who deal it: We are going to target you.”
Fentanyl had killed 15 people in seven months in Wichita Falls. Overwhelming grief left parents desperate to assign blame and police and city officials vying for a chance to prove how tough they could be on crime.
In opening statements last Tuesday, the prosecutor said the crime played out like this: In the early morning of July 15, 2022, Jasinto Jimenez sold what appeared to be two Percocet pills to a woman named Leigha Smith.
Smith testified she swallowed one of the pills while her friend Andres Diaz rolled up a $1 bill and snorted his from the passenger seat of her car. Smith and Diaz then smoked marijuana and drove through Wichita Falls, a “big small town” of about 103,000, roughly 15 miles south of the Oklahoma border and 125 miles northwest of Dallas.
Somewhere along the way, Diaz began to snore, but when Smith nudged him, he didn’t wake. It would be hours before he was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead, and much longer before an autopsy would declare his cause of death to be the “toxic effects of fentanyl.”
The unprecedented nature of this case stems not from its circumstances but from how the DA’s office responded. It charged Jimenez with murder.
Jimenez showed a disregard for human life the moment he handed over the pills, the prosecutor argued, an act that proves murder. Jimenez’s defense attorney acknowledged what happened to Diaz was a tragedy but said his client’s culpability ended with distribution, not death.
Wednesday afternoon, the jury found Jimenez, 22, guilty of murder. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
The verdict — believed to be the first of its kind in Texas — is a testament of how far a community is willing to go to hold dealers accountable.
“The jury spoke loud and clear that dealing fentanyl shows depraved indifference to human life because of the extreme lethality of fentanyl,” Gillespie told The Dallas Morning News.
“Texans are sick of fentanyl homicides and eager to hold accountable those who peddle this poison for profit in our communities.”
‘They knew the rules’
It’s a fervor more defendants increasingly will face since House Bill 6 became law this month. The law defined knowingly manufacturing or distributing fentanyl that results in death as murder. It also requires fentanyl-related fatalities to be classified on death certificates as fentanyl “toxicity” or “poisoning” rather than an overdose.
Gillespie found a route to conviction: a definition of murder that applies when someone commits — or attempts to commit — a felony and, in the process, also performs an act “clearly dangerous to human life” that results in death, and it doesn’t require proving intent.
Gillespie has used this strategy before.
In December 2019, Migel Matthew was driving drunk in Wichita Falls when she crashed, killing a 4-year-old boy.
Gillespie knew it fit the criteria. Driving while intoxicated with a child passenger was a felony, taking a steep curve at 103 mph was clearly dangerous to human life, especially in a car carrying five children, none of whom were in car seats.
Gillespie took the case to trial last April. The defense ridiculed his application of felony murder, but the jury took only 55 minutes to find Matthew guilty.
In opening statements of the punishment phase, Gillespie said he relied on a go-to story.
In the late 1970s, when Lou Holtz was the football coach at the University of Arkansas, the Razorbacks went to the Orange Bowl in Miami.
Holtz had a rule: If a player broke curfew, they wouldn’t play in the next game. While in Miami, three of his star players stayed out too late. When word got out that they wouldn’t play in the big game, fans protested.
When asked why he would bench them, Holtz reportedly replied, “They knew the rules. They chose the conduct. I didn’t bench them. They benched themselves.”
Matthew, then 32, was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
‘We were hit hard’
The victory this week of the first verdict in a fentanyl case was profound and personal for Gillespie, who had repeatedly promised he would lead a countywide crackdown on the drug after the “floodgates of fentanyl” opened last year. From January to July 2022, Wichita Falls police chief Manuel Borrego said, his department investigated at least 53 overdoses involving fentanyl, including 15 that were fatal.
Gillespie was born and raised in Wichita County. If he can’t rein this drug in, it’s his community at risk — the people he grew up with, the ones he runs into at the grocery store. He knows what it would do to them. Gillespie saw it firsthand in 2020, when his cousin Lisa lost her 22-year-old son to a fentanyl overdose.
After last year’s news conference, Gillespie couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was listening. Less than a month later, three people were found dead of fentanyl overdoses over the course of a single weekend in September: 21-year-old Adam Sattler, 19-year-old Alizé Martinez and 13-year-old Kaysen Villarreal.
“We were hit hard,” said Sgt. Charlie Eipper, a Wichita Falls police spokesman. “Losing a 13-year-old to pills that are made to look like something else? It placed a lot of fear in our community.”
Brandi Melo didn’t want to send her 13-year-old to the sleepover where he died, but on Sept. 17, 2022, he begged until she caved.
Melo’s understanding is Kaysen told the friends he was staying with that he had a headache. She believes they gave him a Percocet that was actually a fake pill that contained fentanyl and told him it was an Aleve.
The next morning, Kaysen’s older brother, Jason, got a call that a photo of Kaysen lying on the floor was being sent around on Snapchat. Kaysen’s mom said he was dead for 12 hours before someone called for help.
“That’s what wrecks my brain,” Melo said. “If the shoe would’ve been on the other foot, Kaysen never would’ve done that.
“He wouldn’t have cared if he could’ve gotten in trouble — he would’ve taken the blame for everything.”
Kaysen was an old soul who dreamed of becoming a preacher, a kid so in tune with God he could quote scripture from memory. He used his faith to guide Melo through her meth addiction, which she had struggled with on and off since she was 14.
“Mom, God’s always gonna make a way,” Kaysen would tell her. “He’s already walked this path, and He’s sitting there waiting on you.”
A man faces a charge of delivery of a controlled substance to a child in Kaysen’s death, which authorities have told Melo they will review in an attempt to push for murder.
Police made the same promise to Silvia Martinez, who found her 19-year-old daughter Alizé dead of an overdose in her bedroom the morning before Kaysen’s body was found.
“When that happened back to back like that, knowing how young [Kaysen] was and knowing how much life Alizé had, I think that’s when the community decided it couldn’t look away,” Silvia said. “I just feel like no one talked about it before then, like they were embarrassed to admit what was really going on.”
Alizé, Silvia said, was loud and hilarious and loved making people feel good about themselves. She was weeks from graduating cosmetology school.
She had grappled for months with an addiction to Percocet pills. Silvia did her best to help, keeping her focused on recovery by taking away distractions such as her phone and closely monitoring whom she spent time with.
Before she took the pill that killed her, Alizé had been clean for almost a month.
“I’ve never been a Greg Abbott fan, but I’ll tell you what, passing these laws made a huge difference, and it’s going to make an impact on a lot of families,” Silvia said. “For every mom out there who’s lost somebody, or for every daughter who’s lost a parent, you know it’s not just an overdose.
“It’s poison. It’s murder — regardless.”
It was important for Gillespie to be present during Jimenez’s trial, even though prosecutor Matt Shelton was trying the case. So last Monday, he spoke to a panel of 80 people who had been pulled as potential jurors. He explained the definition of murder he was using and how it fit, but when it came time to persuade them of this moment’s gravity, it seemed they already knew.
Parents and grandparents in the jury pool told him their concerns about what they had seen unfold in the community and how it shaped the conversations they were having with their children about the risks and realities of drugs.
In the punishment phase, Gillespie said, an informant testified that it had become increasingly difficult to buy Percocets off the street in Wichita Falls; nobody wants to risk a murder charge.
“I do think that we are seeing some progress,” Gillespie said, “but we are in for a long-term battle.”
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the past week for Gillespie came just before the verdict.
He watched as the prosecutor turned to the jury and rolled a piece of paper into a funnel. What he was holding was their verdict form, he told them, but it was also a megaphone, a chance to send a message.