Jose “Pepe” Rodriguez rolled up to a McDonald’s on Lapalco Boulevard in Harvey on a Sunday night in October, parked his bicycle and headed for the restroom.
The cleaning staff found him there about 9:45 p.m., lying on the floor. A burnt spoon, a used syringe and a dusty sandwich bag lay beside him, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. Rodriguez was dead of an overdose at 41, the Coroner’s Office later ruled.
Now, federal prosecutors are going after his suspected dealer, Bryan Joseph, in what has become an increasingly common approach to holding drug traffickers to account when their product turns deadly.
Rodriguez’s phone held clues, and an FBI investigation led to Joseph, 43, an admitted heroin dealer who had been paroled from state prison in May after close to a decade behind bars.
A grand jury on Thursday indicted Joseph on a count of distributing heroin resulting in death, three additional counts of heroin distribution and a charge of possession with intent to distribute the drug.
Joseph faces 20 years to life in prison if he’s convicted on the first charge, under a statute that raises the penalty for drug dealers when death or serious injury results from their drugs.
Such prosecutions remain rare but are growing more frequent. There were 52 criminal defendants in the U.S. who were handed federal prison terms last year under the same or similar statutes, U.S. Sentencing Commission data show.
That’s an increase from 43 such sentences in 2015 and from 29 in 2013.
The pursuit of higher penalties in those cases tracks a spiraling opioid epidemic that claimed more than 64,000 lives in 2016, up 21 percent from the previous year.
In March, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the nation’s federal prosecutors to pursue “every lawful tool at their disposal” to prosecute dealers of fatal drugs, including use of the death penalty in some cases.
Whether that directive played a role in Joseph’s indictment is uncertain.
Joseph, who also goes by the names Nathan St. Brice, Necole Kelson and “Ras,” was living a few blocks from the McDonald’s where Rodriguez died.
According to a federal complaint filed last month, the FBI’s New Orleans Gang Task Force obtained a warrant on a phone number they found in Rodriguez's call and text logs, suspecting it belonged to his dealer.
They tied the number to Joseph, then set up a pair of heroin buys through a confidential informant about a week after Rodriguez’s death, FBI Special Agent Sheila McMillan wrote in an affidavit.
Agents then got search warrants for an address on Bellaire Lane in Harvey and for Joseph’s 2004 Hyundai Santa Fe.
Authorities spotted Joseph making a $20 drug deal in the car on Oct. 31 and arrested him in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Gretna.
In a search of the house in Harvey, agents turned up more than two ounces of heroin, 156 grams of marijuana, digital scales, and little else. It appeared to be a “stash house,” according to the feds.
Joseph allegedly boasted that he would beat the charges.
“Joseph concluded the interview by saying that he had been in the ‘game’ since the 1990s, he was not a ‘snitch’ or a ‘freshman’ ” and was refusing to talk, McMillan wrote.
Joseph is due to be arraigned on Jan. 7.
His defense attorney, Jeff Hufft, did not return a message seeking comment.