“HEARST” for Borderland Beat
On Friday, three families dropped off their toddlers at a daycare in the Bronx, unaware that the space was being used to package fentanyl at night. Somehow four toddlers came into contact with fentanyl powder, causing the children to overdose.
One of the four children died and the three others were only saved because Narcan was administered to them by EMTs.
During the spring of 2023, Grei Mendez de Ventura fixed up a basement apartment on Morris Avenue, in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City, planning to turn it into a childcare space. The apartment, which consisted of a bedroom, a playroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen, was directly under her own apartment, where she lived with her husband. Both are originally from the Dominican Republic.
The city allows home-based day care centers to operate, as long as they are licensed and they undergo unannounced inspections every year they operate.
Once the apartment was up to code, Grei Mendez applied for a daycare license and her request was approved in May 2023. Soon after, she officially opened the doors of Divino Niño Daycare, which had the capacity to care for up to 8 children.
Locals are divided on whether the daycare seemed safe. Neighbor Anna Ortiz Irving, 73, said “It’s a legit day care. It’s brand new. Just a few kids, mostly babies. They’re such decent people. I watched them fix the whole place up. It was beautiful, all according to city code. If I had a baby, I would send it there.”
A different neighbor (who declined to be named) claimed the daycare seemed to have been open for a year prior, with adults coming in and out of it, but no children were seen at the apartment until recent months. This neighbor said “We knew something, something not good was happening there.”
In July 2023, Grei Mendez, her husband, and others began conspiring “to distribute fentanyl,” according to phone data mentioned in a federal complaint.
At some point during this summer, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, who is the cousin of Grei Mendez’s husband, began living in the bedroom of the apartment used for the daycare. The couple agreed to let Carlisto Acevedo rent out the bedroom for $800 a month.
Phone data suggests that, in August 2023, Grei’s husband and his cousin Carlisto exchanged encrypted messages with a third party in which they discussed narcotics and warned each other when police were nearby.
On September 6, 2023, a city inspector arrived at the daycare for an unannounced inspection.
The inspector found the daycare to be fully in compliance with a 40-point checklist and noted that “all medications, toxic substances” were being “used and stored so no hazard is created” and that “poisonous, toxic, flammable and dangerous items are inaccessible to children.” No code violations were found.
On September 11, 2023, a new student named Nicholas Feliz Dominici joined the two other students at the daycare.
Nicolas’s parents had been waiting for over a year to find a suitable daycare. His father, Otoniel Feliz, worked as a maintenance man at a golf course in Westchester, and his mother Zoila Dominci, worked as a caregiver for the elderly.
After a long wait, they selected a childcare center that, according to CBS, their community center recommended: Divino Niño Daycare.
On Nicholas’s first day at the daycare, his mother Zoila toured the apartment and spoke with Grei Mendez. Zoila told the New York Times that she “didn’t see anything that looked out of the ordinary. Just little beds and toys.”
Zoila said Grei Mendez “appeared to be a responsible woman who played soothing music to get the children to nap.”
On September 12, another new student, two year old Jaziel Lino, joined the daycare.
Later that same day, Carlisto Acevedo Brito exchanged encrypted messages with a third party who alluded to having just dropped off a kilo of narcotics for Carlisto.
On September 15, 2023, a normal day at the daycare began. Four children were dropped off in the morning:
Nicholas Feliz Dominci, 1 years old
Jaziel Lino, 2 years old
An unnamed boy, 2 years old
The boy’s younger sister, an unnamed infant, 8 months old
Most of what happened inside the daycare during that morning is unknown. Grei’s lawyer alleges she brought the children upstairs, where she read and cooked for the children. The following is the version of events of that afternoon, as far as the information available:
Grei Mendez’s husband is seen on surveillance camera entering the daycare empty-handed.
Her husband leaves the daycare, while appearing to carry a bowl.
Jaziel Lino was picked up from the daycare by one of his parents.
The other three children at the daycare finished eating a snack and were put down for a nap by Grei Mendez.
Sometime between 2:30 to 2:38 pm
Grei Mendez attempted to wake up the sleeping children but they were unresponsive. Mel Ramirez, who lives next to the daycare, told the New York Post that around that time she heard Grei Mendez screaming. “She was yelling for help. She was screaming and saying, ‘The kids are dead! The kids are dead!’ multiple times. They were just pale and unresponsive. [One of the boys’] mouth was, like, open.”
Grei Mendez called another employee of the daycare. This call presumably went unanswered. Grei then called her husband. This call went unanswered. She called him again and a ten second call occurred.
Grei Mendez called 911 and reported that “all three children in her care were unresponsive.” She spoke with the 911 operator for approximately 6 minutes and they dispatched EMTs to the location of the daycare.
Grei Mendez called her husband multiple times. Eventually he picked up. Grei and her husband had a minute long phone call.
Surveillance video shows that Grei’s husband approached and entered the daycare, empty-handed. Two minutes after entering, he exited the daycare, carrying what appears to be two shopping bags weighted with contents, taking the back alley exit.
The federal complaint describes “the timing of CC-1’s entrance and then swift exit out a back alleyway from the Daycare, where the Minor Victims were unresponsive and waiting for emergency assistance to arrive, and while carrying shopping bags, is consistent with the behavior of an individual attempting to remove materials from the Daycare to avoid their discovery by law enforcement.”
EMTs arrived at the daycare. They noted that the bedroom in the apartment was locked. The EMTs determined, based on their symptoms, that they should administer naloxone to all three children.
Naloxone, which is more commonly known as Narcan, is a drug which can help to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose but if it’s administered too late, an overdose (or poisoning) can still be fatal.
After administering Narcan, the EMTs loaded the children into ambulances which rushed them to the nearest hospital for further treatment.
Two year old Nicholas Feliz Dominici was pronounced dead upon reaching Montefiore Medical Center.
The siblings, 2 years old and 8-months old, managed to slowly recover and they eventually regained consciousness.
The parents of Jaziel, who had been picked up early, tried waking him up but he seemed unable to wake up fully. His parents, Jose and Josselin Lino, said they tried to get him to walk but he fell down and he seemed unresponsive, which alarmed them so they drove him to BronxCare hospital.
At the hospital, Narcan was also administered to Jaziel and he managed to recover from the fentanyl poisoning. Jaziel’s case was quickly linked to the other three children when his parents told doctors the name of the daycare he attended.
Medical tests showed that Jaziel Lino, Nicholas Feliz, and the two siblings were exposed to lethal-levels of fentanyl at the daycare.
Once the EMTs had left the daycare with the children, law enforcement personnel took over the scene.
Police officers applied for a search warrant and spoke to Grei Mendez. She told officers that Carlisto Acevedo lived in the locked bedroom. Upon their request, she called Carlisto and asked him to return to the apartment, which he did shortly after.
Both Grei and Carlisto were brought to police headquarters for the 52nd Precinct, where they were questioned.
Officers asked Grei about her husband. What she told them is unclear. Later on, Grei texted her husband and told him that the officers were asking questions about him. Her husband told her to say that he was “working.”
The area of the daycare was cordoned off and guarded by officers while they awaited the approval of a judge on the pending search warrant.
Eventually, the search warrant was granted and officers began looking through the daycare.
Officers opened the hallway closet, which is located next to the bathroom and inside they found a green bag with a plastic wrapped kilo of “a white powdery substance”, which field tested positive for fentanyl. The bag with the kilo “was stacked on top of pieces of a children’s playmat.”
A kilo of fentanyl, in its purest form, can kill up to 500,000 full grown adults.
The bag with the kilo “was stacked on top of pieces of a children’s playmat,” according to the federal complaint. The NYPD Chief of Detectives described the location of the kilo slightly differently, saying “It was laid underneath a mat where the children had been sleeping earlier.”
Officers also found in the closet “two ‘kilo press’ machines and accompanying machine parts.” Kilo presses are devices which compress powder narcotics into kilogram-sized bricks. Carlisto’s bedroom was searched and a third kilo press was found inside the bedroom closet.
Law enforcement officers spoke further with Grei Mendez. She denied there were any drugs inside the daycare. She also claimed she cleaned the entire daycare, top to bottom, 6 times a week.
She denied that her husband entered the daycare on the day the children were poisoned, despite surveillance footage showing he had. She suggested that “the kilo presses could have been left inside the daycare by a prior occupant.”
Grei later informed her husband that she told cops how he had been “down there” [in the daycare earlier] and that he should “look for a lawyer.”
She then deleted “approximately 21,526 messages from an encrypted messaging app” and gave law enforcement consent to search her cellphone. This was futile, however, because law enforcement was able to restore these deleted messages during a forensic extraction of her phone.
Carlisto was questioned further. He said he had been renting out the apartment bedroom for only two weeks prior. Denied having any knowledge of drugs or kilo presses, while also admitting he was the sole occupant and maintained sole access to the locked bedroom – where one of the kilo presses was found.
Carlisto also allowed law enforcement to search his phone, where his messages about the kilo being delivered on September 12th were found.
On September 16, Grei and Carlisto were officially arrested at around 8:00 pm after being indicted on murder, attempted murder, and other charges.
It is still ultimately unclear how exactly the children came in contact with the fentanyl, although the proximity of the powder to the playmats is concerning. The playmats, along with other items the children may have touched, are likely being tested for fentanyl in a forensic lab.
Fentanyl can be harmful if touched, inhaled, or ingested, however a 2019 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that the overwhelming majority of overdoses in children occurred due to having orally ingested the substance.
Reporters questioned New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, at a news conference, asked why the city’s inspection of the daycare on September 6, just nine days earlier, had not caught any health code violations.
Dr Vasan said that inspectors had followed their regular routine and that “checking for a powerful synthetic opioid was not their usual practice.”
“I’m very sorry, but one of the things my child care inspectors are not trained to do is look for fentanyl,” adding that “maybe we need to start.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said at a news conference that “We’re not going to allow this incident to take place and ignore this as just another day, another tragedy in the city. It’s not acceptable.”
Adams said “This substance is so dangerous, just a small amount – that little corner, that size of a penny you see here – is enough to kill an adult. […] Less than the size of a fingernail, a tenth of the size of a fingernail, can kill an adult, so just imagine what it could do to a child. You are irresponsible as an adult if you have this inside your home.”
On September 17, 2023, Grei Mendez and Carlisto were escorted out of the precinct headquarters to face their respective arraignments. Both were brought up on 10 charges, including the aforementioned (1) murder, (2) attempted murder, as well as (3) endangering the welfare of a child.
Grei Mendez’s lawyer, Andres Aranda, claims Mendez was unaware drugs were being stored in her day care by Carlisto. Aranda said that his client “just didn’t know. She rented a room to somebody, and she didn’t know what was going on.”
“Her only crime was renting her room to someone who had a kilo. There is no evidence that she did anything but care properly for these children.”
Aranda also noted that “She called the cops. Would you call the cops if you knew there was fentanyl in your apartment?”
When considering bail, it was noted that Grei Mendez and Carlisto Acevedo are both citizens of the Dominican Republic.
Mendez is said to be a legal permanent resident in the US but prosecutors said in court her husband had already fled and “there’s no reason to believe she wouldn’t.” The judge agreed there was a significant flight risk for both defendants and determined they should be held without bail.
According to CNN, when Mendez was denied bail, she reportedly burst into tears. They were both sent to Rikers Island.
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said of the case “Parents entrusted Grei Mendez with the care of their children. As alleged, instead of diligently safeguarding the well-being of those children, she and her co-conspirators put them directly in harm’s way, running a narcotics operation and storing deadly fentanyl out of the very space in which the children ate, slept, and played. The disregard shown by Mendez and her co-conspirators for the lives of the children under her care is simply staggering.”
On Tuesday, September 19, Grei and Carlisto were charged again – but this time in federal court – on charges of (1) narcotics possession with intent to distribute resulting in death, (2) conspiracy to distribute narcotics resulting in death.
Both count 1 and count 2 carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison. The federal complaint against the defendants was unsealed later that same day.
Grei Mendez’s husband is still at large and being sought by law enforcement, however, they have not released his name or any photos of him. Its currently unclear why they have disclosed so little information about him.
Two-year old Jaziel Lino had only attended the daycare for four days before he was exposed to a lethal dose of fentanyl. His father, Jose Lino, told a media outlet about how he and his wife quickly realized something was wrong after picking up Jaziel from the daycare.
“When I see my son like that – I’m nervous,” Jose said, later admitting that he was scared for his son’s life after seeing him unable to wake up. Jose said it was a miracle that his son survived the fentanyl poisoning.
Jose said that now, thankfully, “Everything’s good. The doctors say he’s going to be fine.” Jaziel was discharged from the hospital and is currently recovering at home. The NYPD reports that the two siblings who survived are also recovering and “doing fine now.”
Jose Lino says that, in hindsight, he finds it suspicious that there were three men standing outside of the daycare on Thursday and Friday.
Jose believes that the people who ran the daycare should be sent to prison, saying “those are bad people. They’re supposed to be taking care of little kids. They’re not supposed to be doing that… in the same apartment.”
One-year old Nicholas Feliz Dominici had only attended the daycare for five days before he was exposed to a lethal dose of fentanyl.
Nicholas’s mother Zoila had reportedly walked to the daycare to pick up Nicholas at 3:00 pm that fateful day, but when she arrived at the daycare, she saw an ambulance parked outside and cops surrounding the daycare. When she peered inside she saw Grei Mendez inside the daycare, crying.
Zoila then received a call from a program coordinator telling her that Nicholas was being transported to the hospital.
She immediately called her husband, Otoniel Feliz, and told him the news as she traveled to the hospital, now accompanied by her 7-year old daughter and 8-year old son.
Zoila and Otoniel have five children together, which include their 13-year old twins, an 8-year old son, a 7-year old daughter, and 1 year old Nicholas. Their family moved to the US in 2018 from the Dominican Republic.
At the hospital, Zoila and her two children watched Nicholas as he was surrounded by doctors trying to save him. She told the New York Times that they cried together as a family as it became increasingly clear that Nicholas would not survive.
Zoila then had to call Otoniel to tell him that Nicholas had died.
Otoniel Feliz later said there are “no words to express how I’m feeling now. Nobody expects to send your kids to a safe place … and next thing you know, you have a phone call saying ‘Your child has died.’”
Otoniel said “The hardest thing for me is to come home and open that door and not see Nicholas saying, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ It is too hard.”
He says his other four children are now not only in mourning for their younger brother but also afraid to go to school, thinking the same thing might happen to them.
Otoniel said they trusted the daycare because “We had a good recommendation. We were told it was a great place. It looked like a nice place.”
Otoniel says that after the initial tour of the daycare on Nicholas’s first day, Grei Mendez told parents that they were not allowed to enter the daycare anymore – saying she didn’t “want any contamination from the outside to go inside [the daycare] because they keep everything clean.” Instead, daycare workers brought the children outside to their parents when they were picked up.
Zoila told CBS New York that Nicholas “was so intelligent. He would repeat everything you would say to him. He had so much love. Everyone who knew him liked him, all of our neighbors.”
“When he saw that I was sad, he said, ‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ He would look at you with these eyes like he understood. He was very special.”
She said her other children had doted on Nicholas, saying “He was the little prince of the house. They took such good care of him.”
On Monday, a neighbor hung a red-beaded rosary on the blue metal security gate outside the daycare. Later, a makeshift memorial of white candles and flowers, along with a childrens toy, appeared near the gate.
Zoila described looking at new clothing Nicholas had not grown into and new toys which she was waiting to give to him when he was older. She said she wasn’t sure what to do with them now.
Otoniel told reporters this week that “I love him. I miss him. I want him back – but there’s nothing that will give me back my son.”
Sources: Federal Complaint, New York Times Article 1, New York Times Article 2, NBS New York, NBC News, Gothamist, PIX 11, NY Post Article 1, NY Post Article 2, NY Post Article 3, ABC Chicago, ABC New York, Norwood News, CNN
“What are we doing? What are we doing to our children? This was probably one of my worst days. […] Sitting down with those parents, losing their babies like this. They dropped the babies off to a daycare center, hoping that the children would be protected by their caregivers. And then speaking with the father [of Nicholas] yesterday – like what do you say! What do you say? This is just total madness that we lost a child to this dangerous substance. And we almost lost three more – we almost lost four children.”