SANTA ANA — A 48-year-old former security manager for a Newport Beach bar was acquitted Wednesday of distributing fentanyl that killed a man at the club six years ago, but convicted of dealing other drugs.
Sean Robert McLaughlin was acquitted of one count of distribution of furanyl fentanyl resulting in death and serious bodily injury. Jurors deliberated for about a day.
McLaughlin was convicted of a count of distribution of cocaine, and four counts of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA and hydrocodone.
McLaughlin would have faced 20 years to life in prison if convicted of dealing fentanyl leading to death, his attorney, Dan Chambers, said.
McLaughlin had been accused by prosecutors of selling the lethal dose of fentanyl to 25-year-old Ahmed Said of Santa Ana on Nov. 18, 2016.
“We were really confident he was not responsible for his death,” Chambers said after the verdict. “My hope is they will find out who gave those drugs to Mr. Said. I want closure for his family. Somebody handed him those drugs.”
Chambers argued that there was a “mystery man” at the bar that night who likely gave the drugs to the victims. He said the lack of fentanyl in the bar and at McLaughlin’s home complicated the argument that is client was the dealer.
Chambers said he was “disappointed” his client was convicted of dealing the other drugs, but credited the jury with “working hard on the case.”
McLaughlin was “vindicated on the fentanyl OD and that was a big deal to him,” Chambers said.
“Sean has an incredibly big heart,” Chambers said. “He never believed he killed anyone.”
McLaughlin was hit hard by COVID-19 and uses a wheelchair now, so Chambers said he hopes U.S. District Judge David O. Carter takes that into consideration when sentencing the defendant April 3.
“We have to help him get his life back on track,” Chambers said.
McLaughlin, a recovering addict, has helped many other addicts over the years, Chambers said, adding that he expects many of those the defendant has helped will write letters to Carter seeking leniency.
In closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Rabbani argued that while there was a “mystery man,” who was also dubbed “the haircut guy” at the bar that night, two of the overdose victims who survived testified that McLaughlin sold them the fentanyl.
Said and two other men who overdosed had the “designer drug” in their system, Rabbani argued.
“They told you who gave them those drugs,” she said.
The prosecutor said McLaughlin was an “amateur” drug dealer, who looked up online how to “cut cocaine,” which is how dealers add in other drugs.
“He was selling cocaine, he was doing Google searches and watching videos on how to cut cocaine,” Rabbani argued. “There’s absolutely no reason to watch a video on how to cut cocaine other than you’re getting started as a drug dealer.”
Rabbani also pointed out how McLaughlin deleted messages from his phone after the investigation began and had an iPad wiped.
Another man also overdosed at the bar that night, but he was not a charged victim in the case. Rabbani suggested that perhaps he got drugs from the “haircut guy.”
Rabbani argued that investigators did not find fentanyl in searches of the bar or defendant’s home because he had time to dump them.
“In November of 2016, defendant Sean Robert McLaughlin worked at a bar in Newport Beach known as American Junkie,” assistant U.S. Attorney Bradley Marrett told jurors in his opening statement. “He had two jobs — head of security… and he was also the bar’s resident drug dealer.”
McLaughlin kept his “stash” in a locker at the bar on Newport Boulevard, Marrett said. When Newport Beach police conducted a search warrant on the bar after the overdoses, “They found a pharmacy of drugs” in the locker McLaughlin allegedly used, Marrett said.
There were “baggies of cocaine ready to be doled out to customers,” the prosecutor said.
Police also found he searched for small glass vials such as the ones “loaded with cocaine” that were found in his locker, the prosecutor said.
Investigators also recovered text messages from patrons to McLaughlin, Marrett said. In one exchange, a patron allegedly messaged the defendant, “need a bag,” and McLaughlin responded, “bathroom.”
The bathroom was the one place in the bar without surveillance cameras, Marrett said.
“It was the defendant’s preferred location to distribute drugs to his customers,” according to the prosecutor.
After seeing news reports about the overdoses, Mahtab Massoodnia came forward to investigators saying that she received an envelope from McLaughlin on Sept. 18, 2016, that contained cocaine, Marrett said.
The prosecutor showed jurors surveillance video at American Junkie from when the victims overdosed. The video was accompanied by audio of a 911 call in which a dispatcher attempts to coach security guards to do CPR on the victims as paramedics raced to the scene.
In addition to Said, patrons Joshua Selley and Daron Muratyan overdosed, but they were revived with Naloxone, a drug that can block opioids and save the lives of overdose victims, Marrett said. Another patron, Francisco Alvarado, also overdosed at the bar, but not as a result of the drugs McLaughlin is alleged to have distributed, the prosecutor said.
“This is a case of a second job… with tragic consequences,” Marrett said.
Chambers said surveillance video shows the “mystery man” going into the bathroom with the four overdose victims, Chambers said.
The unnamed suspect is also seen at the tables of the men, Chambers said. The “mystery man” is seen again returning to the bathroom with the victims and when they exit he returns to their table to resume partying, according to the defense attorney.
Alvarado happened to be partying with a different group of people, Chambers said.
Just before the men overdosed, “Who slinks out? That’s right, the mystery man,” Chambers said.