For the first time in New York State, a defendant has pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing someone by selling him drugs.
James Fava, 29, of Ronkonkoma admitted in a Riverhead courtroom on Thursday that last year he sold the deadly opioid fentanyl to Bryan Gallagher, 28, of Bohemia even though he knew it was stronger than anything Gallagher had ever used before and could kill him.
Sure enough, the day after Gallagher bought the fentanyl from Fava and exchanged text messages about how much is safe to use, he died of an overdose on July 18, 2016, Suffolk County prosecutors said.
Fava pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance as his trial on those and other charges was about to begin before state Supreme Court Justice William Condon in Riverhead. In return for the plea, Condon said he would sentence Fava to 4 to 6 years in prison in January.
Before he accepted the plea, Condon asked Gallagher’s older sister, Heather Lucca of Bohemia, if the family supported the plea deal.
“We’re willing to accept the terms,” she replied. Condon then asked her if the two men were friends.
“My brother viewed Mr. Fava as a friend,” Lucca said. “He viewed Bryan as profit.”
After the plea, Condon thanked attorneys on both sides for settling “what was a difficult case and a case of first impression,” meaning nothing like this had taken place in a state court before.
Fava faced up to 18 years in prison on two drug counts. The maximum for second-degree manslaughter is 5 to 15 years, but former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota backed adding the charge to increase pressure on drug dealers.
Laws in federal courts and 20 other states make it easier to charge drug dealers who cause the deaths of their customers. Spota took the step last year of seeking manslaughter charges — the highest possible homicide charge — against Fava and, in a separate case, Roxy Headley Jr., whose case is pending.
“We will hold you accountable,” Assistant District Attorney Tanya Ricoff said of her office’s push to charge drug dealers with manslaughter. “Maybe this will send a message to Albany.”
She hoped legislators would make it easier to bring such charges to combat the opiate plague on Long Island and elsewhere. For now, to get a manslaughter conviction in such a case prosecutors must prove that drug dealers were aware of the risk of death by selling drugs and recklessly disregarded the risk.
In this case, Ricoff said text messages between Fava and Gallagher recovered from Fava’s cellphone established his knowledge of the risk. “Be careful,” he advised Gallagher in one text.
Fava also admitted selling heroin and fentanyl to Gallagher and numerous others.
Defense attorney Noel Munier of Mineola declined to comment.
Records show that Gallagher was one of 349 people who died of opioid overdoses last year in Suffolk.
Outside court Thursday, Lucca said her brother, who worked for the family’s research company, had struggled with addiction for years. He seemed to beat it, but slid back into old habits and trusted Fava more than he should have.
“He was a good kid,” Lucca said of her brother. “I think he was naive.”
She and her parents were pleased with the manslaughter plea.
“We’re happy with the decision of the court today,” said Gallagher’s father, Michael Gallagher of Bohemia. “There was a precedent set today.”
He thanked prosecutors and said his family now would focus on running the Bryan Gallagher Memorial Foundation in his son’s memory, which would pay for young addicts to get inpatient treatment.
“It just gives us peace of mind,” he said of the foundation. “It gives our family something live for. There’s too many kids dying.”