MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Federal prosecutors on Tuesday unsealed indictments against 21 people accused of running a drug trafficking ring that put deadly doses of fentanyl on American streets, including two Chinese citizens. According to the charges, at least four deaths, five serious injuries and thousands of potentially-lethal doses have been linked to the trafficking organization. The major break in the investigation started with a traffic stop in Mississippi and an overdose death in North Dakota.
The Justice Department is calling this a landmark case, because the two named defendants are the first Chinese-based fentanyl manufacturers and distributors to be designated as Consolidated Priority Organization Targets (CPOTs). CPOT designations are reserved for those who have "command and control" elements of the most prolific international drug trafficking and money laundering organizations.
"Today, we are pleased to announce two indictments that mark a major milestone in our battle to stop deadly fentanyl from entering the United States," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said. "For the first time, we have indicted major Chinese fentanyl traffickers who have been using the Internet to sell fentanyl and fentanyl analogues to drug traffickers and individual customers in the United States."
THE SUSPECTS: Xiaobing Yan, 40, was indicted Sept. 7 in Mississippi on two counts of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute multiple controlled substances, including fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, and seven counts of manufacturing and distributing the drugs in specific instances.
Jian Zhang, 38, was indicted in the Sept. 20 in North Dakota for conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and fentanyl analogues in the United States, conspiracy to import the drugs from Canada and China, a money laundering conspiracy, an international money laundering conspiracy, and operation of a continuing criminal enterprise. Five Canadian citizens, two residents of Florida and a resident of New Jersey were indicted in North Dakota with Zhang. On Oct. 11, Elizabeth Ton, 26, and Anthony Gomes, 33, of Davie, Florida were arrested. On Oct. 12, Darius Ghahary, 48, of Ramsey, New Jersey was arrested.
FENTANYL FACTORIES: According to the indictment, Yan used different names and company identities to sell fentanyl over the internet to people in multiple American cities. Yan also operated at least two chemical plants in China that were capable of producing massive quantities of fentanyl. Prosecutors say Yan actually monitored legislation and law enforcement activities in the United States, and changed the chemical structure of the fentanyl he produced to evade prosecution.
Federal agents have identified more than 100 distributors of synthetic opioids linked to Yan, with investigations still ongoing.
Zhang allegedly ran at least four labs in China than manufactured fentanyl, and advertised and sold fentanyl to U.S. customers over the internet. Agents determined Zhang sent thousands of these packages of fentanyl, pill presses and stamps to people in the U.S. since January of 2013.
While Yan and Zhang have been charged in the U.S., they are not in custody and are believed to be in China.
BUST STARTED WITH TRAFFIC STOP: The Justice Department said the first case began with a traffic stop in Mississippi in 2013 that exposed a drug ring selling synthetic drugs like K2, Spice and bath salts. These drugs were often delivered through the mail or commercial parcel delivery services. The prosecution of this case led to the identification of Yan. Over the course of the investigation, federal agents identified more than 100 distributors of synthetic opioids with ties to Yan's factories and distribution networks. Agents intercepted packages mailed from Yan's internet pharmaceutical companies, seizing multiple kilograms of suspected acetyl fentanyl, potentially enough for thousands of lethal doses.
"These cases reflect a new and disturbing facet of the opioid crisis in America," Rosenstein said. "More and more of our citizens are being killed by fentanyls, synthetic opioids that are often much stronger than heroin. A few grains of fentanyl can be a lethal dose. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that over 20,000 Americans were killed by fentanyl in 2016, and the number is rising at a dramatic rate."
NORTH DAKOTA OVERDOSE: The second case began in January of 2015, with the fentanyl overdose death of an 18-year-old in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Agents were able to identify another Grand Forks resident as the source of the fentanyl. This person had been using Bitcoin to buy fentanyl, heroin, and other drugs over the Dark Web for more than a year.
The source of the North Dakota drugs was traced to Oregon, to Canada and eventually to Jian Zhang in China.
"Users often have no idea that they are ingesting fentanyl until it is too late," Rosenstein said.
20,000 OVERDOSES: The Centers for Disease Control estimates more than 20,000 Americans were killed by fentanyl in 2016, with many overdoses traced to labs in China.
"We are working closely with our colleagues in China and other countries to stem the flow of illegal fentanyl into the United States. We are also moving aggressively to investigate and prosecute the suppliers of this poison to U.S. citizens." Rosenstein said. "Our dedicated investigators and prosecutors, working in close partnership with our international partners, are determined to shut down this deadly traffic and preserve the lives of our citizens."
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