Caleb Smith was an overwhelmed but idealistic 26-year-old with a master’s degree in biomedical science, studying for medical school entrance exams. When he wasn’t learning about the human body, Smith, a resident of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, worked on his car, watched anime cartoons, and played with his beloved Siberian Husky.
But Smith’s dream of becoming a doctor was abruptly cut short when he killed himself last September, less than one month after federal prosecutors charged him with the death of his girlfriend, 26-year-old Amanda Leach, who fatally overdosed in May 2016 on illicit fentanyl he accidentally purchased online. Smith, grieving the death of his girlfriend and feeling the weight of the federal government bearing down on him, fatally shot himself on September 1, 2016, one day after he was released from jail. His trial date had been set for the following October.
Smith thought he had purchased a popular ADHD medication from an online vendor to help him study, his mom told local news, but the pills, which he received by mail, instead contained illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Leach repeatedly asked Smith for some of the Adderall he thought he had purchased, Smith’s mom, Kathy Smith, said. Soon after Smith gave Leach the pills, she was found dead in her apartment. Three months later, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania charged Smith with distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death, otherwise known as “drug-induced homicide.”
The guilt over his girlfriend’s death — and the specter of a minimum 20 year prison sentence — proved too much for Smith, who had no prior criminal history. Smith’s mother told local newspapers that he fell into a deep depression after his girlfriend died. “He told us every day, ‘I want to blow my head off,’” she told local media. “I said, ‘please, Caleb. Please don’t do this. I love you.’” (The Smith family and friends did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.)
Smith’s mom said the he repeatedly called himself a murderer. “I said, ‘No you are not. A murderer is someone who meant to do it.’ I couldn’t get that through his head.”
But federal prosecutors thought otherwise.
Smith’s case illustrates a new trend of prosecutors at both the state and federal level turning accidental drug overdoses into homicides. Born out of the “tough on crime” crack-cocaine era of the ’80s and ’90s, “drug-induced homicide” statutes hold dealers legally responsible for the deaths of their customers who overdose on the drugs they sold. Although the statutes went unused for decades, state and federal prosecutors now deploy them as a desperate attempt to mitigate the toll of the opioid crisis that killed over 40,000 people in 2016, according to the CDC. Severe penalties will deter dealers from dealing, prosecutors’ thinking goes; but there’s scant evidence supporting that notion. The Appeal recently reported on research by the Drug Policy Alliance that found that the number of drug-induced homicide prosecutions increased by 300 percent from 2011 to 2016. Yet fatal heroin and fentanyl overdoses more than quintupled during that same window. Heroin contaminated with fentanyl, which is many times more potent than heroin, is as cheap and accessible as its ever been.
Not only are these prosecutions ineffective in alleviating the epidemic; prosecutors’ definition of “dealer” stretches the word nearly beyond recognition. Originally crafted to target major traffickers, the majority of drug-induced homicide prosecutions target friends, family, and romantic partners — like in Smith’s case — who do not fit the traditional profile of a dealer, according to research by Northeastern University’s Health In Justice initiative (which I’ve contributed to). Instead, these defendants are drug users themselves, who gave or sold a small amount of drugs to their peers or loved ones.
Smith wasn’t the only target in the death of Amanda Leach. A review of the evidence in Smith’s case by The Appeal reveals that the investigation also focused on an alleged major drug trafficker, 26-year-old Aaron Broussard of Hopkins Minnesota, operator of PlantFoodUSA.net (which has since shut down) — the website from which Smith purchased the drugs that killed his girlfriend.
Three months after Amanda Leach’s overdose, the FBI arrested Broussard in Hopkins, Minnesota. Federal prosecutors charged him with distributing fentanyl resulting in death. According to the government’s legal documents, Broussard ordered drugs online from “international sources” and repackaged the drugs himself. He then shipped “hundreds of Priority Mail” parcels from a post office in Hopkins, Minnesota, to customers across the country who died after using them.
Illicitly manufactured fentanyl killed nearly 20,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The deadly opioid is the number one driver of overdoses in America. A particularly insidious trend of today’s overdose crisis is the shipment of black market fentanyl by mail. Packages containing illicit fentanyl are small and innocuous, creating a needle-in-a-haystack situation for law enforcement trying to intercept dangerous packages. Broussard allegedly used PlantFoodUSA.net — named to deceive authorities into thinking the site sold dietary supplements — to sell powerful synthetic drugs like fentanyl to customers by mail. Federal prosecutors alleged that Broussard’s scheme was linked to 10 fatal overdoses, including Leach’s.
“In all cases, the victims had ordered less dangerous drugs but, unbeknownst to them, received fentanyl instead,” according to the government’s court filings in Broussard’s prosecution.
One of Broussard’s alleged victims was a woman who overdosed on April 8, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A plastic bag of white crystalline powder was found in her bedroom, and the victim’s mother discovered a package that had a return address to a post office box linked to Broussard in Hopkins, Minnesota. The woman survived the overdose, but with potentially life-long neurological damage caused by a lack of oxygen flowing to the brain.
Another alleged victim was 41-year-old Jason Beddow, professor of economics at the University of Minnesota. Beddow was found dead in his office in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 14, 2016. Once again, a bag of white powder was found at the scene. An investigation by the United States Postal Inspection Service found that Beddow received a parcel from a “ClickN-Ship” account allegedly used by Broussard. A coroner determined that Beddow had an “elevated level of fentanyl” in his system at the time of his death.
Following his indictment by a federal grand jury on December 6, 2016, Broussard pleaded not guilty, and is awaiting trial.
“My client may have sent this [chemical] out, but he didn’t send it to them with any idea of what their purpose was for,” says Broussard’s attorney Bernard J. Brown, “the (government’s) case is circumstantial, and I think it’s a far leap that the government is trying to make in this particular case.” Brown adds that his client did not intend in any way to harm the recipients of the chemicals.
From the government’s allegations, Broussard seems more culpable than Smith; he was an actual drug dealer, and his alleged customers were unaware of the contents and potency of the drugs he allegedly shipped. But had Smith not killed himself, he and Broussard would have been charged as co-conspirators in the same indictment, a spokesperson for Middle District Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney David Freed told In Justice Today. And Broussard’s alleged drug-dealing by mail scheme carries the same 20 year mandatory minimum sentence that Smith was facing for ordering the drugs.
“[Smith’s] case illustrates the senseless ensnarement of partners or friends of drug users who are being charged with really heinous crimes for actions that do not reflect the severity of punishment that’s being applied to them,” says Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. Beletsky, who is also the principal investigator at Health In Justice, a group of researchers and journalists tracking public health policy, added that there was no intention of harm in this particular case. “No reasonable person would frame Smith as a murderer or killer — it’s an example of a total accident,” he said.
The aggressive prosecution of Smith recalls that of digital rights activist Aaron Swartz, who faced 35 years and up to $1 million in fines for allegedly downloading thousands of academic articles with a secret computer connected to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network. Swartz committed suicide in 2013. His girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, contended, “Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice.”
Prior to ordering what he thought was Adderall, Smith, like Swartz, was an overachiever who loved science and technology. But in the eyes of federal prosecutors, none of that mattered: They believed Smith murdered his 26-year-old girlfriend. The result is a tragic and avoidable loss of life, all because of prosecutors who pride themselves on a “public health response” to addiction but actually deploy punitive and carceral measures. One life was lost to an accidental overdose. Another was lost to seeing no way out of an aggressive federal prosecution.