Las Vegas Sun

October 27, 2021

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She was fearless’: Arrest made in fentanyl overdose death of Vegas teen

Fentanyl Overdose Arrest

Yasmina Chavez

Lee Gugino speaks during a press conference at Metro Headquarters Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Gugino’s 17-year-old daughter, Mia Gugino, died of a fentanyl overdose in February 2021.

Fentanyl Overdose Arrest

An image of 17-year-old Mia Gugino, who died of a fentanyl overdose in February 2021, is displayed during a press conference at Metro Headquarters Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Launch slideshow »

Lee Gugino held back tears Thursday afternoon at Metro Police headquarters as he spoke in a somber tone about “who we lost.”

His teary-eyed parents held hands nearby, with his mother shaking her head in disbelief.

Gugino was referring to his daughter Mia, who he said came into this world to change his life for the better. She helped transform him from an “irresponsible teenager into a responsible adult,” and inspired him to attend college to become a teacher.

But one morning earlier this year, Lee Gugino woke up to find Mia dead in her bedroom. Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, is to blame. And according to Metro Police, so is Joshua John Roberts, 22.

Mia, 17, was one of five children to die from a drug overdose in Clark County this year, four of whom were killed by fentanyl. She died Feb. 18 from an intoxication of fentanyl, MDMA — also known as the party drug “ecstasy” — and alcohol, the Clark County Coroner’s Office said.

Last year, the county experienced 12 fatal overdoses in children, 10 due to the synthetic opioid, said Capt. John Pelletier, the head of Metro’s major violator and narcotics section.

Mia’s last internet search logged was her trying to determine the effects of MDMA, her father said at a news conference at Metro headquarters.

Roberts was arrested in Utah and extradited here Friday. He was booked into the Clark County Detention Center on one count each of first degree murder, second degree murder, and illicit drug sale, according to Las Vegas Justice Court logs.

Earlier this week, a Las Vegas Justice Court judge ordered Roberts released on a $200,000 bond on the condition that he doesn’t stay with siblings. It wasn’t clear if he’d been able to post bail Thursday.

The suspect and victim knew each other, but police haven’t shared details to explain how. A copy of Roberts’ arrest affidavit wasn’t immediately released.

“For me, personally, she was everything,” Gugino said. “She was fearless and she made me so much better than I actually am.”

“This drug, fentanyl, it doesn’t give you any chance,” said Gugino, explaining how tormenting Mia’s death has been. He’s cried in the shower, wondering; asking over and over what he could’ve done differently to avert this tragedy.

He said he drives alone at night, hearing the voice of Mia telling him, “relax, daddy. Relax.”

***

Fentanyl is a rising threat that’s driving spikes in fatal overdoses in the Las Vegas Valley. The drug, described as being up to 100 times stronger than morphine, had killed 144 victims from January to July, excluding five people killed over a 24-hour period last month, according to Metro figures.

The 219 fatal fentanyl overdose deaths reported in 2020 were about triple the deaths reported the previous year. Clark County was on track to pass the grim number in 2021.

To keep costs down for drug peddlers, fentanyl is increasingly being pressed into pills and cut into other drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine, according to law enforcement officials. In Mia Gugino's case, apparently it’s also being mixed into MDMA.

“Fentanyl is a crisis that is plaguing our society and our community,” Pelletier said.

The pills, he noted, are being pressed into copycat versions that “look like, feel like and appear to be the real thing. In fact, they’re killers, and a small amount, the size of a granule of salt, will kill you.”

Metro’s Overdose Response Team, a taskforce with local and federal officers formed earlier this year, has put together seven cases going after alleged drug dealers whose product is connected to fatal overdoses.

“No arrest, no justice is going to bring Mia back,” Pelletier said. “But if it causes people to take a moment and think about what they’re taking, and if we can send that message to have you second guess and say, ‘should I do this? Should I do this, because it can kill me.’”

He said he hopes the message also resonates with drug dealers. “If you sell a drug and it kills someone, we will be relentless,” he said. If that means charging someone with murder counts, “so be it,” he added.

Asked how prevalent the fentanyl issue is locally, Pelletier likened it to placing 144 people in a room and killing them. And if occupancy is increased to 1,000, there’s a good chance a lot more would die, said Pelletier, likening it to “Russian Roulette.”

***

Mia Gugino was a well-rounded athlete and played soccer for the College of Southern Nevada. Her father would coach her in soccer, and soon enough, the father-daughter duo were teaching neighborhood kids in soccer, swimming, track and field and basketball.

They trained hundreds of children, her father said.

She was the type of swimmer who would inspire the newbies. “She was just so beautiful and elegant gliding in and out of the water that you could just see the kids’ nervousness just fall away,” Lee Gugino said.

She was the type of soccer player who was gracious in victory, always thinking about the losing team, telling her father, “How do you think the goalie is feeling, dad? I felt bad when we scored,” he said.

She graduated from Centennial High School as a junior and enrolled at CSN. After a knee surgery last year, she told her father she wanted to become a physical therapist because “she liked the Idea of helping people.” At home, she was the head of the household, having an input on the smallest details, including on dinner plans. She loved her younger siblings unconditionally.

Mia’s last day alive, she played with her little sister, doing her hair and nails and cooking dinner, her father said.

When he woke up, “everything was gone,” Lee Gugino said. “Every day after, I check my kids to see (if they’re) breathing.”