Six Sheriff's deputies and detectives in California's Santa Cruz County appeared in court Monday detailing what happened the night 16-year-old Emma Lace Price was found dead in 23-year-old Michael Russell’s home in Corralitos, Calif. back on Nov. 12, 2021.
Russell is charged with multiple sex crimes against Price and providing the underaged teen with drugs. He also faces similar charges against someone else who was underaged at the time of the alleged crimes; those charges include human trafficking.
A Santa Cruz County coroner detective said Price died from a concoction of drugs in her system, including fentanyl. Russell is not facing any charges related to Price’s death.
But new court testimony Monday reveals two Santa Cruz County Sheriff's deputies who first responded to the scene said, other than conducting witness interviews, they did not collect evidence. That evidence included Price’s cellphone, which was on the defendant’s bed in plain sight. Price's phone had butterfly stickers on it.
The prosecutor on the case said Price's phone was located on the defendant's bed right next to the defendant's phone. The prosecutor showed a picture of the two phones on the scene to the defense attorney and a deputy testifying. One deputy said she was told by a witness both phones belonged to Russell, which is why she did not collect the phone. It is unclear if any further attempt was made to identify the phone with butterfly stickers, determine if it belonged to Price and obtain it for possible evidence.
Two sheriff’s crime scene investigators said in court they were not assigned to the case until four days later, well after Price’s body was removed from the scene, witnesses had left and evidence was allegedly tampered with and destroyed. At that point, one of the detectives said attempts were made by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office to try and locate Price's phone, which at that point, Russell has allegedly destroyed, according to the charges against him. Russell has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
NBC National Investigations
Investigations from NBC stations across the U.S.
"I believe this actually rises to the title of gross police misconduct. This is an investigation that was not treated seriously from the inception," said retired San Jose police detective Michael Leininger. Leininger has nearly three decades of experience in child sex crime cases. He is not connected to the Price-Russell case in any way.
“[Deputies] showed a high level of indifference in this investigation, unlike I've ever seen,” he said.
In April, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit first reported on Price’s suspected fentanyl poisoning and concerns over law enforcement’s initial investigation of the death. The incident report, obtained by the Investigative Unit, reveals the 911 call came in as a possible fentanyl overdose and the caller said Price was 20 years old when she was actually 16. It continues to be unclear whether the deputies who initially responded ever verified Price’s age or inquired about the fentanyl report.
Just six weeks prior to Price's death, the Watsonville Police Department, which is also located in Santa Cruz County, received a call from another underage teen reporting Russell was harassing her and sold fentanyl-laced Percocets to another girl who died. She accuses Watsonville police of dismissing her report as "ex-drama" and believes if they took her call more seriously, Price might still be alive. Watsonville police told the Investigative Unit they stand by the responding officer's actions.
Neither the prosecutor nor defense attorney in the Lace-Russell case wanted to provide comment for this news report. NBC Bay Area has reached out to Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart a dozen times in the past few months for either an interview or answers to questions about his department’s investigation of this case. The requests have either been denied or ignored.
To watch the Investigative Unit’s original two-part investigation on the case right now go to: nbcbayarea.com/fightingfentanyl.