After a year of pleading not guilty to 16 felony counts including sex crimes against multiple minors and providing them drugs, 24-year-old Michael Russell, originally from San Jose, agreed to a plea deal Tuesday.
Russell, who is currently in custody awaiting sentencing, is now pleading no contest to seven similar felony charges involving 16-year-old Lace Price from Santa Cruz and another minor girl. These are condensed versions of the original charges, according to the prosecutor on the case.
Under the plea deal, Russell will serve 10 years in prison, register as a sex offender and have two strikes on his criminal record.
But none of the charges he is responding to criminally link him to Price’s death.
On Nov. 12, 2021, Price was found dead in Russell’s Corralitos, Calif. home with him there with fentanyl and other substances in her system. Earlier this year, Russell was charged with giving Price narcotics, such as hydrocodone, Xanax and Percocet. He was also accused of later destroying her cellphone.
A teenage girl died after taking fentanyl and other drugs and on Tuesday, her accused drug dealer took a plea deal that includes 10 years in prison. Investigative Reporter Candice Nguyen has the details.
“It’s not easy for me to sit in court. It’s not easy to look at Michael Russell and think he spent more time with Lace at the end than I did,” Jill Price, Lace Price’s mother, said outside of court Tuesday. “I will never stop fighting for her or the truth.”
But, still hanging over the case is the question of whether prosecutors could have charged Russell for Price’s death if the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office had immediately started investigating it as a crime, rather than just a tragic overdose for the first four days. According to court testimony by a sheriff’s official, the Department did not assign a crime scene investigator to the case until four days after Price’s death. That delay potentially compromised key evidence, such a Price’s cell phone.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to the Investigative Unit’s repeated questions about its investigation into Price’s death.
“I’m really frustrated about that … I don’t think there’s an excuse for that,” said Price’s mother.
As for Russell, Jill Price said she is starting to feel some closure and even compassion.
“I am ready to forgive him if he comes and asks me for that. I do not hate him,” Price said. “Justice is when people become restored in the heart.”
Russell’s sentencing, which will include victim impact statements, is scheduled for Feb. 8 at 10 a.m.
To catch up on all of the Investigative Unit’s reports on Lace Price’s case and law enforcement’s response to our fentanyl crisis visit: www.nbcbayarea.com/fightingfentanyl