CHICAGO (CBS) — Life changed forever when Theresa Almanza’s stepdaughter Sydney died of a drug overdose in 2015. The 18-year-old had gone to a party, bought ecstasy, returned home and went to bed.
“The next morning my husband went to check on her and she was cold—she was gone,” Almanza said. “Our lives are changed forever.”
Almanza, a police officer, set out to find justice for Sydney.
She turned to Illinois’ 1989 drug-induced homicide law. The legislation was was created as a means to prosecute someone who sells drugs that lead to someone’s death.
The law was rarely enforced until recently, when opioid overdose deaths began to spike.
Supporters of the law believe the prospect of homicide charges could deter would-be drug dealers and be used as a tool to persuade someone caught selling drugs to give up information on their suppliers in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Critics say proving the charge can be challenging and time-consuming for prosecutors.
“The Chicago police department told me they don’t investigate these cases criminally,” Almanza said. “That Sydney made a choice and they weren’t going to investigate it.”
After Almanza hit a wall with Chicago police, she turned to the suburbs for help.
Patrick Kenneally, McHenry County State’s Attorney, said his office has brought charges on at least 20 cases during the past three years.
“Every single overdose case that happens in McHenry County, we assign a lawyer to work with police,” Kenneally said.
In 2017, 80 people died from drug overdoses in McHenry County.
Eight drug dealers faced drug-induced homicide charges that year.
In 2018, the number of deaths dropped to 51 and 15 drug dealers were charged, records show.
“This, we truly believe, is tangibly resulting in lives being saved,” Kenneally said.
In Chicago, 2,600 people have died from drug overdoses since 2015, including Almanza’s stepdaughter.
It took 16 months until Brent Tyssen and Cynthia Parker were charged with drug-induced homicide in her stepdaughter’s case.
In the last four years, hers was the only case where drug dealers faced felony charges.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson admits law enforcement decided against investigating drug-induced deaths a few years ago.
“It’s becoming an epidemic, so we need to do what we can to reduce that,” Johnson said.
Chicago police plan to create a task force to start handling the cases.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to model what they have out in McHenry County,” Johnson said. “Our children, their lives matter too, and these cases must be investigated criminally.”
A spokesman for the Cook County State’s Attorney said the prosecutor’s office willingly responds to police requests to pursue criminal charges for drug-induced homicides.
Six cases have led to felony convictions since 2014, records show.