NEW YORK (AP) — The owner of a New York City day care center where a 1-year-old child died after being exposed to fentanyl took steps to cover up her involvement in a sprawling drug operation, even as medics rushed to treat several children in her care who were poisoned by the opioid, federal prosecutors said.
The day care owner, Grei Mendez, and a man who rented a room from her, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, were hit with new federal narcotics conspiracy charges Tuesday. They were previously charged in state court with murder of “depraved indifference” in the death of 1-year-old Nicholas Dominici.
Authorities said they are currently seeking a third suspect, Mendez’s husband and a cousin to Brito, who fled shortly after learning of the apparent exposure.
Officials say they discovered a kilogram of fentanyl stored on top of playmats used by children who attended the day care, which was run out of a small Bronx apartment. They also found multiple devices for mixing the powder with other narcotics and pressing it into bricks.
The fentanyl is believed to have sickened four children, including Dominici, who died Friday afternoon. Three others — ranging in age from 8 months to 2 years old — were hospitalized.
Appearing in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday, a distraught Mendez held her head in her hands and cried out for her daughter and mother, both in attendance, while denying any knowledge of the drug operation.
The allegations, Mendez’s attorney said, were related to her husband's actions, not hers.
Federal prosecutors have accused Mendez, 36, of playing a role in both the drug distribution ring and her husband's escape. On Friday afternoon, after discovering the three children in her care were not waking up from their nap, she made three calls, including two to her husband, before dialing 911, prosecutors said.
Within minutes of those calls, the husband was seen entering the Bronx apartment, then whisking at least two full shopping bags out of the building through a back alley. Emergency personnel arrived shortly after to find the children showing signs of opioid intoxication.
The phone calls, along with the apparent deletion of thousands of texts between Mendez and her husband, suggested an effort to cover up the narcotics operation inside the apartment, according to Brandon Thompson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
Thompson described Mendez’s conduct as “truly galling” and “unspeakably dangerous," adding that “her husband has already fled and there’s no reason to believe she wouldn’t also.”
Clay Kaminsky, an attorney assigned to represent Mendez, said the government had tried to pin the “sensational case” on his client without evidence that she had any knowledge of the drugs inside her day care center.
A mother of four with no prior arrests, Mendez has worked in restaurants and as a home health aide since moving to New York from the Dominican Republic nine years ago, Kaminsky added. He denied the allegations of cover up, saying she panicked after finding the sick children and only spoke to her husband for 10 seconds before calling 911.
The federal judge, Jennifer Willis, sided with the prosecutors, ordering Mendez held in federal custody without bail. She is expected to be transferred from Rikers Island to the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail.
Brito, a 41-year-old tenant of the apartment for the last two months, was charged alongside Mendez for his alleged role in the drug operations. New York City police said they recovered a kilogram press device inside the closet of an adjoining room occupied by Brito.
He did not speak during the court proceeding. A message left with his attorney wasn’t returned.
Both Brito and Mendez face the possibility of life in prison if convicted on the federal charges.
At a news conference on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Damien Williams said the news of Dominci’s death had “shocked the conscience of a city already reeling from the devastating effects of the fentanyl crisis.”
He noted that New York, like much of the country, has seen rising levels of opioid-related deaths, with the vast majority of fatalities now attributed to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be more than 50 times stronger than heroin.
At an unrelated briefing on Tuesday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams offered a blunt description of the tragedy.
“We’ve just become so screwed up as a society. We got to get our acts together," he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with us. We had fentanyl in a day care center.”