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In deadly day care fentanyl case in NYC, 2 men plead guilty as trial was set to start

Four children under the age of 3 were poisoned — one fatally — by opioids at a day care in the Bronx, N.Y. Here, a "trap," a hidden compartment holding drugs under the day care's floor, is seen in an image from a Drug Enforcement Administration affidavit. Official say a search turned up fentanyl and drug-processing equipment at the day care.
Screenshot by NPR
Four children under the age of 3 were poisoned — one fatally — by opioids at a day care in the Bronx, N.Y. Here, a "trap," a hidden compartment holding drugs under the day care's floor, is seen in an image from a Drug Enforcement Administration affidavit. Official say a search turned up fentanyl and drug-processing equipment at the day care.

The case quickly became notorious, after a 1-year-old boy died and three other young children became dangerously ill — poisoned last fall by a trove of illegal opioids that were stored at their day care in New York City. Two men accused of playing key roles in the drug scheme have now pleaded guilty.

Officials said they found more than 22 pounds of narcotics in the Divino Niño daycare in the Bronx, including a one-kilogram cake of fentanyl that had been stored on top of children's playmats. Authorities alleged that the facility — a licensed day care — was being used in off-hours as a processing center for deadly drugs such as fentanyl, para-fluorofentanyl, and heroin.

When 22-month-old Nicholas Dominici fell ill on Sept. 15, 2023, medical teams had to use Narcan, the nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose, as they worked to save him, an 8-month-old girl and two other children. But authorities said that before calling 911, the day care's operator, Grei Mendez, made three other calls, including to her husband, Felix Herrera Garcia.

Investigators said that Herrera arrived at the day care shortly before emergency personnel — but that he was not there to help the children. They said surveillance footage showed Herrera leaving via the facility's back alley, carrying shopping bags weighted down with items. 

Herrera, 35, who fled to Mexico but was taken into custody there, pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy resulting in death and serious bodily injury, along with two counts related to possession with intent to distribute, prosecutors announced on Monday. The news came on the same day Herrera's trial was to start.

Herrera's guilty plea comes roughly two weeks after another main defendant, Renny Antonio Parra Paredes, 38, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute narcotics resulting in death and serious bodily injury.

Parra, who used the nickname "El Gallo" (the rooster), was found to have drug-processing and packaging tools in his apartment, including strainers, scales and baggies — and a stamp bearing the words "Red Dawn." The "Red Dawn" branding was on glassine bags found in the apartment and at the day care.

"We said at the time that this case shocks the conscience of the City, and now Herrera Garcia and Parra Paredes have been brought to justice for this heinous crime," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a news release.

 A man, identified by authorities as Felix Herrera Garcia, was seen on surveillance video footage carrying items out of a day care moments before emergency personnel arrived.
Screenshot by NPR /
A man, identified by authorities as Felix Herrera Garcia, was seen on surveillance video footage carrying items out of a day care moments before emergency personnel arrived.

Under federal guidelines, the two men face a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, with a possible maximum sentence of life in prison. As Judge Jed S. Rakoff accepted Herrera's guilty plea, he set a sentencing date for Sept. 16.

Three other people — including Mendez, Herrera's wife — have also been charged. Mendez faces the prospect of a separate jury trial, after her case was severed from her husband's last month. Herrera's cousin, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, was also charged. He had been renting a bedroom inside the day care; in it, police found one of several "kilo presses" used to recompress drugs in powder form.

The stunning and disturbing case played out in a day care that had been, according to city records, appropriately licensed and registered, with a listed capacity of eight children, from ages 6 weeks to 12 years old.

The Divino Niño day care comprised a one-bedroom apartment on Morris Avenue with a bedroom, a playroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. It had been inspected days before the tragic poisonings, in what records described as an unannounced annual inspection. Many of the drugs found at the location had been hidden in "traps" — secret compartments under the floor of the day care's playroom.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.