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Man sentenced in federal fentanyl case stemming from fatal overdose in Cheyenne

Ewing T. Kerr Federal Building, Casper, Wyoming (Library of Congress, Carol Highsmith)

CASPER, Wyo. — A Colorado man was sentenced Thursday at the federal courthouse in Casper for conspiracy to deliver fentanyl in a case that resulted in the death of a Cheyenne resident last year.

Abel Michael Salazar was sentenced by Chief United States District Court Judge Scott W. Skavdahl to 71 months in prison, the highest penalty available given the charge and the plea agreement. 

There is a federal charge for drug distribution cases that result in death or serious bodily injury, and it carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. 

“This sentence is certainly less than what you could be facing,” Judge Skavdahl said.

Judge Skavdahl opened by asking Government Prosecutor Jonathan C. Coppom to explain why the government had chosen not to pursue the enhanced charge.

“I thought everyone took the same oath as I did,” Judge Skavdahl said. ”We have an obligation to enforce the laws.”

On Jan. 29, 2022, Cheyenne Police Department officers found a 39-year-old dead of a fentanyl overdose at a residence in the city, according to the federal complaint. A search of the phone records led investigators to determine that a man identified as J.A. had supplied the drug.

While investigating J.A.’s phone records, law enforcement identified Salazar as J.A.’s source of supply. Cellphone records indicated J.A. had traveled to Greeley and bought 200 fentanyl pills and one ounce of methamphetamine from Salazar the day before the overdose.

On Thursday, Coppom told Judge Skavdahl that J.A. had been charged and sentenced without the resulting-death enhancement. 

“It’s a selection of [what laws] are enforced versus applying the law to what happened,” Judge Skavdahl said. He added that he wasn’t impugning Coppom’s prosecutorial integrity: “I understand the decision comes from higher up.”

Coppom also noted that Salazar had never spent more than a month in prison on any of his previous criminal charges, which he said mainly showed “a pattern of recklessness” and “lack of general direction” in Salazar’s life.

Both Coppom and Defense Attorney Eric Palen noted that Salazar had come from an intact family and had a robust support network that would help keep him on track in the future. Salazar is married and a father of four.

Salazar’s mother spoke before sentencing, recounting her son’s achievements and commendations in school for sportsmanship, academics and excellence in wrestling.

She said Salazar had cared for his father after a diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia. She said Salazar tended to his father’s bathing and hygiene for six years before his death. She said he was also proficient in landscaping and auto repair, and frequently helped those in the community in these areas for free.

She noted that Salazar had turned himself in to authorities following the indictment and has been in jail for about 100 days.

“It seems he had — or has — a lot going for him,” Coppom noted.

When rendering the sentence, Judge Skavdahl noted that fentanyl, in its unregulated form, is causing increasing havoc in society, and users have no idea of the quantity or quality of the synthetic opiate they are getting.

Skavdahl urged Salazar to take full advantage of the substance abuse programming available in the prison system. He recommended Salazar be detained in Englewood, Colorado, close to his family.

“You were devoted to your father and family; unfortunately, you were not as devoted to your sobriety,” Judge Skavdahl said. “One of the persons who consumed what you were selling got a life sentence.”