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Prosecutors Say Western US Opioid Ring Originated In China


A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington Virginia, Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington Virginia, Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A federal grand jury has indicted a Chinese national for allegedly distributing the powerful opioid fentanyl, which federal prosecutors say led to four overdoses in 2015 in Oregon, including one fatality.

The prosecution is part of a larger international drug case involving people in Florida, New Jersey, China and Canada, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Federal prosecutors said Jian Zhang, a 38-year-old Chinese national, advertised and sold fentanyl on the darknet, a part of the internet only accessible to people with particular software and authorization.

The indictment, from the District of North Dakota, was unsealed Monday against Zhang as well as U.S.- and Canadian-based traffickers who allegedly distributed large amounts of fentanyl, the DOJ said in a release. A separate case out of the Southern District of Mississippi named Xiaobing Yan, 40, of China.

Zhang manufactured the drugs in China in four separate labs, according to the DOJ. The fentanyl was shipped to U.S. customers from China. At least two people who used the drugs overdosed and died.

Federal prosecutors have charged Zhang with numerous felonies, including: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances that resulted in serious bodily injury and death, conspiracy to import controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death and money laundering.

Prosecutors believe Zhang remains in China, but say they don’t know for certain. The United States doesn’t have an extradition agreement with China.

Fentanyl is a prescription, synthetic opioid used to treat pain, often after surgery. It’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Zhang’s organization would send orders of fentanyl or other illicit drugs, or pill presses, stamps, or dies used to shape fentanyl into pills, to customers in the United States through the mail or international parcel delivery services,” the DOJ said in written statement. “Federal law enforcement agents determined that Zhang sent many thousands of these packages since January of 2013.”

The investigation into Zhang began Jan. 3, 2015, prosecutors said, when an 18-year-old died of a fentanyl related overdose in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Police linked the drugs to an online distributor based in Portland.

On Jan. 22, 2015, police arrested Brandon Corde Hubbard, 40, in Southeast Portland. In March 2016, Hubbard pleaded guilty of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death, distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death and money laundering conspiracy. He’s since been sentenced to life in prison in North Dakota.

In November 2014, Hubbard purchased about 750 grams of fentanyl with a black-market value of $1.5 million, prosecutors said. During the course of several years, he sold over 400 grams of it out of his is apartment in inner Southeast Portland over the internet, prosecutors said.

Hubbard got the drugs from Zhang, prosecutors said. But the deals were brokered by a person in a Quebec prison via smartphone.

From Portland, the fentanyl was sent to North Dakota and elsewhere around country.

“When [Hubbard] was arrested, his girlfriend went and dug up that some of the fentanyl he had hidden,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Kerin, who prosecuted the cases.

Hubbard’s girlfriend, Channing Lacey, was arrested in March 2015 on allegations that she tampered with evidence. Kerin said Lacy brought the fentanyl with her to the Multnomah County Jail by hiding it inside her body.

Once in jail, she traded it for commissary items, Kerin said.

Before a court appearance, she also gave the fentanyl to another inmate, Carissa Laprall to hold on to, prosecutors said. Lacy said Laprall could keep some of the drug, Kerin said. Laprall also distributed fentanyl inside the jail, he said.

The fentanyl led to a series of overdoses in early March 2015 and ultimately an overdose related death later in March. The following people have pleaded guilty:

  • Channing Lacy, 30. In March, she pleaded guilty to one count of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in serious bodily injury to three people. She’s also pleaded guilty to one count of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death. On Aug. 28, she was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison, prosecutors said.
  • Steven Fairbanks Locke, 41. In June, he pleaded guilty to use of a communication facility to facilitate a drug offense. He’s awaiting sentencing.
  • Carissa Marie Laprall, 25. In March, she pleaded guilty to three counts of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in serious bodily injury. She’s awaiting sentencing.

The Department of Justice said the investigation revealed a new reality of America’s opiate epidemic: fentanyl is “coming into the United States in numerous ways, including highly pure shipments of fentanyl from factories in China directly to U.S. customers who purchase it on the Internet.”

So far, 21 people have been indicted on federal drug charges in North Dakota and Oregon in this case.

“If you’re going to distribute this death in our streets, whether it’s here in Portland or jails or up in North Dakota, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, we are going to work together and we are going to come and get you,” Kerin said. “There is going to be a reckoning. We will come chase you. We will come get you.”
 
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the number of fatal overdoses in Oregon prosecutors believe are connected to this case.

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