GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Joshua Elbaz said his family had no idea his brother Alex Elbaz struggled with an addiction to pain pills until a fateful day in February.
“I was at school, and my father had texted me that he had walked in on Alex in his bedroom. And he was unresponsive,” Joshua Elbaz recalled.
Alex Elbaz, 20, just three months from graduating from Georgia Gwinnett College, died of an overdose. Tests later revealed that the painkillers he had taken were laced with fentanyl.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Some dealers mix fentanyl with other drugs to stretch their supplies and cut costs, putting unknowing buyers at increased risk for fatal overdose, according to NIDA.
“It just didn’t make sense to me,” said Joshua Elbaz, a second-year law student.
He pushed authorities to investigate further and turned over evidence to the district attorney’s office.
“We have just seen an explosion of these fentanyl-laced products,” Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter remarked.
Porter said that of the 66 overdose deaths in Gwinnett County in 2019, 25 were directly linked to fentanyl.
Porter told Channel 2 Action News that Gwinnett will treat each overdose death in the county as a potential murder, including in the Elbaz case.
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Porter said he was preparing to indict Phillip Patterson, Alex Elbaz’s alleged supplier, with felony murder. He said drug agents made several undercover buys from Patterson before arresting him.
Eric Moore was jailed in January on drug charges after allegedly supplying a 51-year-old Loganville man with a fentanyl-laced product. Prosecutors planned to seek a murder indictment for him as well.
A grand jury indicted Dustin Bazzle in June 2018 for the fentanyl-laced heroin overdose of a 24-year-old woman in a restaurant parking lot in Norcross.
Porter also planned to pursue an indictment against a fourth dealer, who was not yet in custody at the time of publication.
“We are dealing with organized crime. We are dealing with people who are dealing poison for profit,” said Porter.
Gwinnett appeared to be the first county in Georgia to pursue murder charges in multiple cases.
Channel 2′s Tony Thomas asked legal analyst Esther Panitch if those types of cases might be harder to prove than other murders.
“You need to be able to prove a few things,” Panitch said. “One, that the dealer knew this was laced with fentanyl — that I think is going to be the harder element. But you are also going to have to show that it was this dealer that sold to this victim.”
Panitch expected at least one of the cases to reach the Georgia Supreme Court as defense lawyers tested out this new way of handling some drug cases.
In the Elbaz case, Gwinnett prosecutors interviewed family members, friends and dug into cellphone records.
Joshua Elbaz hoped to continue helping with cases like his brother’s after he graduates from law school.
“For $150, my brother is now dead,” Joshua Elbaz said. “If you’re going to sell somebody poison, knowingly, you need to be prosecuted for it.”
Thomas reached out to the lawyers for all defendants mentioned in this story.
In Moore’s case, the attorney did not want to comment. Lawyers for Bazzle and Patterson could not be reached.