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A Heroin Case With ‘Breaking Bad’ References Ensnares a Small-Time Dealer

Dennis Sica struggled with substance use disorder and sold small amounts of heroin that prosecutors connected to overdose deaths. Because of an 1980s-era federal law, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Illustrations by Cameron Wray.

Cathy Seibel, a U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, sounded ambivalent on Oct. 8, 2015, as she sentenced Dennis Sica in a courtroom in downtown White Plains.

“I think the one thing we can all agree on is that this whole case is a tragedy of immense proportion,” she said. “The defendant is not a high-level drug dealer. He’s by no means a kingpin or a dealer who is living a life of luxury off his profits. He’s a small-time, small-town drug dealer.” 

Sica, then 35, had struggled with heroin use for nearly 15 years when he was arrested by the Dutchess County Drug Task force on Feb. 2, 2014. He’d been living in a modest condo in Hopewell Junction, a semi-rural community in the Hudson Valley, and selling heroin to friends and acquaintances. 

Federal prosecutors alleged that in just over one month in late 2013 and early 2014, Sica sold heroin to three customers who overdosed and died. Prosecutors said he was remorseless about the deaths, and that he sold drugs to others even after he knew his customers died. When a task force detective arrested Sica in February 2014, he allegedly possessed three bags of heroin, or about $40 worth of the drug. Later, law enforcement claimed that text messages and informant testimony linked Sica to the three deaths. 

On July 14, 2014, a grand jury in the Southern District of New York, then led by high-profile federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, charged Sica with distributing more than 100 grams of heroin and 40 grams of fentanyl, a low-level trafficking offense under federal law. On April 27, 2015, Sica changed his plea from not guilty; he entered the guilty plea just before jury selection was set to begin.

As Sica listened to the judge during his October 2015 sentencing, he feared he faced serious prison time. Bharara’s office had chosen to prosecute him under a special sentencing enhancement that allows for severe penalties for even low-level drug trafficking when death results. 

When Seibel rattled off several mitigating factors in Sica’s case, he allowed himself a bit of hope. The judge talked about the ways in which drugs had upended Sica’s life from a young age, and acknowledged that he was not getting rich from drug sales. Sica struggled to hold down steady work, and he told The Appeal that at the time of his arrest, he didn’t own a car and had to ask for rides to make sales. Seibel mentioned the death of Sica’s mother when he was a young man, a tragedy that splintered the family and sent him into a spiral from which he never recovered. Not long after his mother’s death, Sica lost a good union job and dropped out of his college courses.

Lost in a moment where it appeared that the judge could grant him mercy, Sica misunderstood what Seibel said next. He thought he heard her say 240 months.

“I thought she was going to give me somewhat of a break,” Sica said in a Jan. 29 phone call from FCI Ray Brook, a medium-security facility in the Adirondack Mountains. 

Those 240 months would have worked out to 20 years, the minimum sentence allowed for the charge to which Sica pleaded guilty. But Sica had the numbers reversed: he would not serve 240 months, but 420 months. Thirty-five years. Sica would be “an old man” when he got out of prison, Seibel said. Sica, now Bureau of Prisons Register Number: 71171-054, will be 66 when he is released on July 31, 2044.

The “death results” enhancement used by Bharara was established in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and carries a sentence of 20 years to life. The legislation was written by then Senator Joe Biden and his legislative partner Strom Thurmond, a segregationist senator from South Carolina. It also included the notorious 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was not changed until 2010 with the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity to 18:1. 

But while some elements of the 1986 law have fallen out of favor, the death results enhancement, and the approach it represents, is ascendant at the state and federal levels. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, federal drug-induced homicide prosecutions increased from 34 in 2012 to 91 in 2018, the last year for which data is available. And a United States Attorneys’ Bulletin published in July 2018 highlighted the 1986 sentencing enhancement as a “strong statutory tool” for prosecuting distributors of fentanyl, and noted that federal prosecutors “and their partners have bolstered their investigations of overdose cases, identifying and pursuing traffickers and street distributors responsible” for deaths.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky, in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration, launched its own formal overdose prosecution initiative in 2015. And as far back as 2013, Kathleen Bickers, then an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, garnered media attention for her “pioneering” use of the statute to target dealers in her jurisdiction.

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia now have so-called drug-induced homicide laws or equivalents. According to the the Health in Justice Action Lab at the Northeastern University School of Law, which tracks cases through a database of news accounts, prosecutions at the federal and state levels increased from just 25 in 2007 to 717 in 2017. The findings track with a similar study by the Drug Policy Alliance, which found a 300 percent increase in media coverage of drug induced homicide prosecutions between 2011 and 2016. An analysis by The Appeal in 2019 found that in Pennsylvania, such prosecutions had more than doubled in just one year, from 77 in 2016 to 184 in 2017.  

Drug-induced homicide laws were enacted in response to the sharp rise in opioid deaths over the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the combined rate of overdose deaths related to heroin and synthetic opioids septupled between 2010 and 2017, before declining slightly between 2017 and 2018. Overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., according to the agency.

It’s the impulse to do something to combat the opioid crisis that has fueled the recent increase in drug-induced homicide prosecutions nationwide, says Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University.

“The crisis is an opportunity for them to kind of increase their footprint and increase their funding and increase their influence,” Beletsky says of law enforcement officials. “All of those things play into this pattern of high-visibility actions, whether it’s drug interdiction, or whether its drug-induced homicide prosecutions.”

Drug policy experts say a fear of prosecution can make witnesses reluctant to call emergency services when someone suffers an overdose, and that investigating often complex criminal cases can divert financial resources away from far more effective interventions, like ensuring access to drug treatment. They also say that drug-induced homicide cases attempt to draw a bright line between drug users and dealers. But people who sell drugs are often users themselves, as was the case with Sica.

A Minnesota woman was charged with manslaughter in 2016 when she and her fiancée used fentanyl together and he died. Likewise, a Pennsylvania man was charged under that state’s version of a drug-induced homicide law in 2017 after sharing heroin with a friend. In some cases, the connection to an overdose can be even more tenuous. In 2016, a Colorado man was charged with manslaughter for merely discussing fentanyl with his roommate before an overdose, though he had neither sold the drugs to him nor helped him obtain them. He was eventually acquitted.

What makes Sica’s case unusual is the length of his sentence. According to Northeastern’s Health in Justice Action Lab, the median sentence for drug-induced homicide convictions is five years in cases when the defendant is white, like Sica, and eight years for nonwhite defendants. Sica’s sentence is longer than a sentence for a typical murder conviction, which averages 24 years in the federal system, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

At sentencing, Seibel acknowledged the severity of Sica’s punishment, but she also noted the magnitude of the tragedy: three people were dead. “The sentence here probably will do little to nothing to solve the drug problem that we have in this country,” Seibel said. “Fortunately, it’s not my function to solve the drug problem that we have in this country.” 

Her job, she said, was to set a penalty within the parameters set by Congress 30 years before “for whatever political or nonpolitical reasons they had.”

Illustrations by Cameron Wray.

Sica’s case was part of a spate of similar prosecutions pursued by Bharara’s office between 2014 and 2016. On June 19, 2014, Bharara personally announced the Sica case to the media during a 20-minute press conference.

“This is not a case involving a complex scheme carried out by sophisticated white-collar criminals, or an organized crime family,” Bharara said, speaking to reporters in White Plains. “It is not about the overseas arrest of a high-level terrorist. But it is vitally important. It is as important as any case that our office does.”

Under normal circumstances, the arrest of a “small-time, small-town” drug dealer, as Judge Seibel described Sica, might not have earned an appearance from Bharara, who was perhaps the most high-profile prosecutor in America at the time. Even as he appeared at Sica’s press conference, he was embroiled in a showdown with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo over a scuttled corruption investigation. He had also become a superstar at the Department of Justice by prosecuting malfeasance on Wall Street.

But Sica’s prosecution came with salacious, media-ready details. Sica was accused of distributing heroin that was stamped with the brand “Breaking Bad,” complete with the TV show’s logo, a detail that was highlighted in several publications, including the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Law enforcement also said Sica’s supply was mixed with what was then a relatively unknown synthetic opioid called fentanyl. 

Bharara compared the mixture of fentanyl with heroin to “adding bullets to a revolver before playing Russian roulette” and said it was evidence of Sica’s disregard for the lives of his customers.

“We in law enforcement are committed not only to putting away those who break the law,” Bharara continued, “but also to saving lives. That is why we hope that the case we announce today might help sound the alarm about heroin and opioid abuse.”

It wasn’t obvious in 2014, but what may have seemed like reckless conduct by Sica would soon be routine as the opioid crisis grew. Fentanyl began flooding the U.S. drug supply in 2013, almost exactly when Sica was arrested, and millions of bags of heroin in the U.S. would soon be contaminated with the powerful opioid. Neither the fentanyl nor the “Breaking Bad” branding were Sica’s innovations; prosecutors later acknowledged in court filings that he bought his bags of heroin pre-bundled from a supplier in the Bronx. Sica told The Appeal that he didn’t know the bags contained anything but heroin.

At the 2014 press conference, Bharara said Sica’s prosecution would “send a message” about the opioid crisis.

“Although the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic may be ‘Breaking Bad,’ we must aggressively make good on our collective obligation to stamp out this affliction. No more half measures,” he said, invoking a phrase used 30 years earlier by U.S. Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings when he argued in favor of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. “The lives of our children and the vitality of our communities depend on it.”

Accompanying Bharara at the press conference that day was Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady. Grady, who has served as DA for nearly 40 years, spent much of his time at the dais decrying the legislature’s recent failure to pass a drug-induced homicide statute. A drug-induced homicide bill has been introduced in the New York legislature every year since 2013, so far without success, though some prosecutors have brought manslaughter charges in overdose cases.  

Grady had sought help from the federal government on Sica’s case, he told reporters, because existing New York law was “totally inadequate.”

“The option available under state law, if these offenders were prosecuted at our level, allows the court to impose a sentence of either probation, rehabilitation in a diversion program, or simple county jail time,” Grady said. “This is simply not enough.”

When Sica was indicted, his prosecution was rare and headline-making. But in the years since, cases like Sica’s have become commonplace, particularly at the state level. “They’ve literally hired or reassigned, hundreds of prosecutors” to the opioid crisis, Beletsky says, giving them a wide range of duties, including shutting down pill mills and making cases against distributors. Federal prosecutors can bring investigative muscle and, in a state like New York, which doesn’t have its own drug-induced homicide statute law, it can bring decades-long prison sentences. Beletsky contends that these prosecutions take resources away from more effective interventions such as the wide distribution of naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdose, and expanding access to effective drug treatment. There’s also little evidence that long sentences act as a deterrent.

Five years after Sica’s prosecution, overdose rates continue to climb in Dutchess County, as in much of the rest of the country. Incarcerating Sica didn’t make a significant dent in the heroin supply, nor did it deter others from getting involved in the drug trade.

Matthew Weishaupt worked on the Sica case as the senior assistant DA in Dutchess County. 

Weishaupt told The Appeal he has no regrets about the case. He thinks it’s important to hold people like Sica accountable. Although the quantities he sold may not seem like a lot in some parts of the country, Weishaupt said, Sica affected a lot of lives in Dutchess County.

“Has it resolved the problem?” Weishaupt asked. “No, it has not.” 

Weishaupt said that people who sell drugs—regardless of what problems they might have with substance use—are a danger to their communities when they prove to be incorrigible. He said his office had for years offered diversion and other programs for those with substance use problems, but that some need severe punishment.

“I get more out of helping people, and putting them on the right path, than I get out of sending them to prison. But what has to be recognized on the other side of this argument, is that there is that small segment that needs to go to prison, for the protection of all of us,” Weishaupt said.

According to a post-conviction memorandum to the court filed by his former attorney on Dec. 26, 2018, had Sica’s case gone to trial, his defense team would have introduced evidence casting doubt on the links between the victims and the drugs Sica sold. 

In one case, a victim was suffering from a severe heart condition that could have made him more susceptible to cardiac arrest. He and a second victim also tested positive for multiple drugs, including benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives that can sharply increase overdose risk.

He also tested positive for multiple drugs, including benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives that can sharply increase overdose risk. The third victim was found with multiple bags of heroin with various stamps, and the defense was prepared to argue that it was impossible to know which drugs had led to her death, nor who supplied them.

But those arguments have not proved successful in court. Sica has exhausted most of his appeals. A petition alleging ineffective assistance of counsel—Sica maintains that his attorney didn’t fully inform him of the penalties he might face if he went to trial—was dismissed in November. Sica says he is trying to make the best of a very long bid. He earned a certification to become a drug counselor, and he’s taking college classes and hoping to study business management. That’s the degree he was working on when his mother died in 2002 and he began using heroin. 

He knows his chances for a reprieve are limited, and he takes some comfort in the fact that, unlike some other incarcerated people, he doesn’t have children. 

“That’s what’s making it harder for most people in here,” Sica said. “But that’s what bothers me the most. I planned on having kids. I just wanted to make sure I was on the right path.”