DENVER — Some of the worst drug dealers in the Denver metro area are essentially getting a hall pass from the courts, according to data uncovered in a Denver7 investigation.
A data review found that a high percentage of accused drug dealers are not returning to court hearings.
Records show 1,581 Coloradans died from drug overdoses last year, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of those deaths, 767 were attributed to fentanyl. In Denver, law enforcement sources say more than 440 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2021.
“It ruins people. It ruins families,” said a veteran Denver undercover police officer. He spoke with Denver7 on the condition of anonymity to protect his undercover status.
The officer said he is frustrated to see some of the suspected criminals he arrested back on the street quickly.
“It’s ruining our city, it’s ruing our state,” he said.
Over the past several months, Denver7 Investigates has reviewed thousands of cases and police records involving the most serious drug offenses from 2021.
Data obtained through Colorado’s open records laws from the courts by Denver7 Investigates shows 1,298 arrests for felony drug offenses. The data also showed that 69% of all accused individuals arrested for those drug offenses were granted personal recognizance (PR) bonds at some point in the legal process.
Those decisions by judges allowed the accused drug dealers to walk out of the courtroom without putting up any monetary guarantee that they would return to face their charges.
“I am shocked, I’m shocked that that many people are being able to escape the system and not being held accountable,” said Matt Riviere, who lost his two sons to fentanyl overdoses on the same day in July 2021.
Riviere’s sons, Andrew, 21, and Stephen, 19, both thought they had purchased oxycodone.
“It’s definitely the worst day of my life,” the father said. “At 2 a.m., I got a bang on my door (and was told that) both boys just passed away."
Records from 2021 in Denver also show that 45% of individuals arrested for felony drug offenses and granted a PR bond failed to appear for at least one court hearing.
One suspect who failed to appear is Martin Gonzalez-Pena, who was arrested by undercover cops in October 2021 on drug dealing charges that included peddling fentanyl and heroin. Records show he did not show up for his court hearing after receiving a PR bond from a Denver judge.
In another example, Erasmo Fernandez was arrested by undercover Denver cops earlier this year. Records show he was arrested in possession of a loaded weapon, was wanted on prior warrants and was carrying 20,000 fentanyl pills. In his case, the judge issued a $10,000 bond, which means he was required to post $1,000 before he got out of jail. Fernandez failed to appear for his next court hearing.
“We had the opportunity to take one of the highest-level dealers in the city of Denver and keep him locked up so they can’t sell fentanyl so more people don’t die,” the undercover officer said. “They didn’t even put an ankle monitor on this guy … They failed to do their job.”
Using hidden cameras, Denver7 found multiple examples of individuals smoking fentanyl in and around Denver’s Union Station. The hidden camera video shows individuals using aluminum foil, a lighter and what appears to be a hollowed-out pen to ingest the fumes from a substance on the foil.
The undercover police officer confirmed that drugs are a common sight around Union Station and an example of the growing popularity of fentanyl in the community.
“I’ve seen entire families torn apart,” the officer said.
Riviere does not know who sold his boys fentanyl, but says he will fight with every ounce of his being to keep them of the streets. He said he keeps a picture of his sons by a lamp that he turns on every morning.
“And I sometimes shake my head, and I look at that picture and say, 'This can’t be true,'” he said.
Now, Riviere says he is speaking out because he doesn’t want another parent to experience what he has had to endure, and he’s frustrated that so many drug dealers are returning to the street.
“This is awful, this is broken. This is not just about me, I lost both my boys. I have to live with that pain and suffering,” he said. “We’re letting these murderers, in many cases, go. That’s absolutely wrong.”