THE BRONX - The owner of a Bronx day care center where a 1-year-old child died after being exposed to fentanyl, as well as her alleged co-conspirator, are expected to be arraigned in Federal court on federal murder charges. The feds have now taken over this case that has broken the hearts of people everywhere.
Prosecutors said 36-year-old Grei Mendez allegedly called a third co-conspirator - believed to be her husband - before calling 911 on Friday for the poisoned children. He ran out of the daycare with two shopping bags filled with fentanyl kilos.
"We alleged that they poisoned four babies, killing one of them because they were running a drug operation from a day care center," said Southern District of New York (SDNY) US Attorney Damian Williams.
Armed with a search warrant, NYPD detectives and DEA agents made a startling discovery at the day care.
"There we discovered a kilogram of fentanyl in an area that was used to give children naps. It was laid underneath a mat where the children had been sleeping earlier," NYPD Chief of Detective Joseph Kenny said.
Mendez and a man who rented a room from her, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, 41, were hit Tuesday with new federal narcotics conspiracy charges. They were previously charged in state court with murder of "depraved indifference" in the death of 1-year-old Nicholas Dominici.
Mendez discovered Friday afternoon the young children were not waking up from nap time. She then made three calls, including two to her husband, before dialing 911, the criminal complaint alleged.
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Surveillance footage showed him entering the Bronx apartment and whisking at least two full shopping bags out of the building through a back alley. Minutes later, emergency medical personnel arrived 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, federal authorities alleged.
Mendez’s husband was not named in the complaint. It wasn’t immediately clear whether he had spoken with police since the incident.
Brito, a tenant of the apartment and a cousin to Mendez’s husband, was charged alongside Mendez for his alleged role in the drug operations. Police said they recovered a kilogram press device inside the closet of an adjoining room occupied by Brito.
Both Mendez and Brito have denied knowing anything about drugs in the center. An attorney for Mendez, Andres Aranda, said his client was "terrified" upon discovering the unresponsive children and acted immediately to get them care.
A message left with Brito’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned.
The day care facility opened in January of this year. It passed both of its inspections, authorities said, including a surprise visit made by inspectors on Sept. 6.
New York City, 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.
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."
At an unrelated press conference on Tuesday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the incident should serve as an "indictment on our society."
"I don’t know what’s wrong with us," he added. "We had fentanyl in a day care center."
DEA agents were among the first responders to the Divino Nino day care center which was actually inside Mendez's apartment. Authorities said they also found 3 kilo presses inside.
The DEA Special Agent in Charge of the New York Field Division, Frank Tarentino said, "Fentanyl is a killer. Fentanyl crept into our illicit drug supply like a cancer, slowly and deceptively, and is now in everything and everywhere, killing victims instantly and indiscriminately."
Fentanyl is extremely dangerous and when inhaled or touched and put into the mouth can cause someone to stop breathing. It is even more of a threat to small children, said Dr. Joshua Rocker, Chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Cohen Children's Medical Center, part of the Northwell Health Care System.
Rocker said parents should consider having Narcan on hand in their homes, as accidental fentanyl poisoning is possible anywhere.
The missing piece of the investigation is the husband of the daycare center owner. Sources told FOX 5 New York that the Joint NYPD - US Marshals Fugitive Apprehension Task Force is searching for him. If convicted on the federal charges, the U.S. Attorney (SDNY) said the defendants would be looking at a minimum of 20 years to a maximum of life behind bars in federal prison.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.