18 Jun Jason Vanderee in fentanyl blackout in Wayne NJ crash at gas station
Three people died when an out-of-control SUV careened off Route 23 and into a Delta gas station where pumps are less than 25 feet from the road.
Sean Oates, NorthJersey
PATERSON — Jason Vanderee, the Vernon man accused of killing three people when he crashed into a Route 23 gas station in Wayne while high on drugs, claims he bought heroin that was laced with fentanyl, a potent synthetic that caused him to pass out behind the wheel, his attorney said.
Vanderee, who was indicted last month by a Passaic County grand jury on multiple counts of aggravated manslaughter, death by auto, vehicular homicide, drug possession and other charges, maintains that he didn’t know the dope he used on the morning of the crash had been cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that experts say can be 50 times more powerful than heroin.
His attorney, John Latoracca, sent notice to the Superior Court that he plans to use fentanyl as a defense should the case go to trial. Vanderee is due back in court before Judge Ernest M. Caposela on July 15 for a status conference.
“He didn’t knowingly ingest fentanyl,” Latoracca said Monday. “It’s a tremendously powerful drug. That’s what caused him to lose consciousness and go off the road.”
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Plea bargain negotiations have just begun and, in the meantime, Vanderee’s attorneys have begun to lay the groundwork for their defense if the case goes to trial. To gain a conviction on the most serious charge, three counts of aggravated manslaughter, the state would have to prove that Vanderee acted with “extreme indifference to human life” — a tougher sell if the defense can convince the jury that Vanderee didn’t know he was taking fentanyl.
Fentanyl abuse has risen dramatically in recent years and is a sign that the opioid crisis is getting worse. It’s an end-stage cancer drug frequently manufactured in labs in Mexico and China and smuggled into the country. On the street, it is used to cut heroin, and only a few grains are enough to kill.
In 2013, only 46 of New Jersey’s 1,336 drug overdose deaths were attributed to fentanyl, or less than 4 percent, according to state statistics. But in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, fentanyl accounted for 1,429 of the state’s 2,737 drug overdose deaths, more than 50 percent of the total.
Authorities say Vanderee was high on the morning of Feb. 19 when he veered off the road and crashed into the Delta gas station on Route 23 north. The horrific crash sheared off the roof of a Chevrolet Camaro that stopped to get gas, killing Jon Warbeck, 50, of Fair Lawn, his son, Luke Warbeck, 17, of Lincoln Park, and the station attendant, Lovedeep Fatra, 22, of Pequannock.
After the crash, Vanderee was given a dose of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose. Police searched the car and found several empty glassine bags that later tested positive for heroin, plus nine bags of heroin and a used syringe.
A toxicology test of Vanderee’s blood and urine showed cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines, which are anti-anxiety medications, in his system at the time of the crash, authorities said. Latoracca said the test indicated that fentanyl was among the opiates.
“There’s no question that the heroin he used was laced with fentanyl,” Latoracca said.
Assistant Prosecutor Julie Serfess declined to comment on the case.
Vanderee, 29, is being held in the Passaic County Jail, under indictment on three counts of aggravated manslaughter, three counts of vehicular homicide, three counts of death by auto, one count of possession of a controlled dangerous substance, and two counts of assault by auto. The assault by auto counts stem from another vehicle that Vanderee hit just before he plowed into the gas station, Latoracca said.
The aggravated manslaughter charges are crimes of the first degree, which would expose Vanderee to 10 to 30 years behind bars on each count if he is convicted.
Vanderee had a history of drug abuse that had gotten him in trouble before the deadly crash. In November 2016, he crashed into a guardrail on Route 80 in Fairfield, and when police arrived, they found him passed out behind the wheel. They searched his car and found 20 bags of heroin and syringes, authorities said.
Vanderee pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in 2017, and the judge suspended his license for seven months. As part of a plea bargain, the drug charges were dropped.
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