By Mark Morales, John Miller and Holly Yan, CNN
(CNN) — The suspects charged with murder at a Bronx day care center after several children were exposed to opioids are believed to be mid-level drug distributors, a federal law enforcement official told CNN.
Grei Mendez, 36, and Carlisto Acevedo Brito, 41, face federal and state charges in connection with the suspected overdoses at Divino Niño day care.
They were arrested Saturday, a day after 1-year-old Nicholas Dominici died after suspected fentanyl exposure. Two 2-year-old boys and an 8-month-old girl were also exposed to the suspected fentanyl and suffered acute opioid intoxication.
According to court documents, Mendez is the owner and operator of the day care, and Brito is her husband’s cousin and a tenant who lives in a bedroom within the day care.
Investigators are also looking for a third male suspect who has not been publicly named. Another law enforcement official told CNN the third suspect is believed to be Mendez’s husband.
Authorities have recovered video of that man leaving the center carrying plastic bags that appeared to contain three large square items, which investigators suspect were remaining kilos of fentanyl, that official said.
Authorities believe he has not left the country and is still in the Northeast, the federal law enforcement official added.
Investigators believe the suspects were mid-level drug distributors tasked with cutting fentanyl with other drugs or even household items like baby powder, the first federal law enforcement official said.
They then gave the pressed product to others, who got it into the hands of street sellers, the official said. None of the suspects was previously on law enforcement’s radar, the official said.
Mendez and Brito face state charges of murder, manslaughter, assault, endangering the welfare of a child and criminal possession of a controlled substance, court documents show. They were arraigned and remanded without bail Sunday night.
They also face federal charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics resulting in death and possession with intent to distribute narcotics resulting in death. If convicted on the federal charges, the defendants could be sentenced to up to life in prison.
Mendez’s defense attorney, Andres Manuel Aranda, told CNN his client plans to fight the charges.
“We feel that she doesn’t have… anything (to do) with this case besides taking care of the kids,” Aranda said. “She has no previous knowledge of any contraband in the apartment. None whatsoever.”
Mendez “feels horrible about what happened” and was the one who called the police and ambulance, her attorney said.
CNN has reached out to Brito’s attorney for comment.
Children napped near a kilo of fentanyl, police say
A kilogram of fentanyl was discovered in an area where children napped at the Bronx day care center Friday, said Joseph Kenny, the New York Police Department’s chief of detectives.
Officials also found three kilogram press devices – two inside the hallway closet, and one inside Brito’s bedroom.
The fentanyl was “laying underneath a mat where children had been sleeping earlier,” Kenny said.
“The residue itself … it’s that strong,” Kenny said. “One grain, two grains of fentanyl can take down a grown man. So even the residue itself for a small child, would cause the death.”
The investigation turns international
Authorities believe the fentanyl at the day care center came from international drug cartels, a federal law enforcement official said.
About 90% of the fentanyl distributed in New York comes from either the infamous Sinaloa Cartel or the Jalisco New Generation Cartel – one of which is believed to be the source of the fentanyl that killed the 1-year-old boy last Friday, the official said.
Because of the international ties, federal law enforcement agencies – such as Customs and Border Protection – along with Drug Enforcement Administration officials in the Dominican Republic are also involved in the search for the third suspect.
Drug overdose deaths reached a record level in the US this spring. Recent data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows more than 111,000 people died from a drug overdose in the 12-month period ending in April.
And research shows opioid-related deaths among children have increased significantly, mirroring trends among adults.
A surge starting in 2018 led to a nearly threefold increase in deaths among older adolescents and a nearly sixfold increase among children younger than 5.
In 2021, 40 infants and 93 children ages 1 to 4 died from an overdose of the powerful opioid fentanyl. Although deaths among teens are typically related to drug use, deaths among younger children are believed to be related to drugs left within reach.
In another recent case, authorities executed a search warrant on a fentanyl operation in Queens where a 10-year-old child was found sleeping on the premises, New York police said Wednesday.
Investigators recovered three kilograms of heroin and fentanyl, six kilogram presses, an AK-47 and three pistols during the search Wednesday, police said.
Authorities said the child was sleeping near the equipment.
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CNN’s Celina Tebor, Artemis Moshtaghian, Lauren del Valle, Kara Scanell and Maria Sole Campinoti contributed to this report.