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Small Bremerton drug bust leads to massive interstate takedown this week

Law enforcement seized thousands of counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl as part of a massive drug bust Dec. 5-6, 2018. (U.S. Attorney's Office)

It all started in Bremerton 18 months ago. This week, it ended with a massive interstate drug bust, taking down an extensive narcotics network plaguing the region.

Over Dec. 5-6, hundreds of law enforcement officials swarmed locations across Western Washington, arresting 29 people and seizing thousands of fake oxycodone pills, other drugs, and guns. The drug dealing organization was active in multiple states and was distributing in Pierce, Kitsap, King, Skagit, and Snohomish Counties.

“It’s a trans-national criminal organization that is very highly organized here in the Puget Sound area with a specific command and control element taking direction from criminal elements in Mexico,” said Keith Weis, DEA Special agent for Seattle. “They were responsible for importing large amounts of fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine as well as laundering drug proceeds back to Mexico.”

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Weis said the operation became a priority for law enforcement because of counterfeit oxycodone pills that the network was supplying. The pills contain fentanyl, an opiate about 50 times more potent than heroin. But purity varies, which has led to dramatic increases in overdoses. With supply chains neutralized by the recent arrests, law enforcement hopes it will prompt addicts to seek help.

Emily Langlie, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the drug bust was a “particularly large operation,” for law enforcement.

The investigation and busts involved:

  • More than 400 law enforcement officials
  • 51 federal arrest and search warrants served to more than 50 buildings, 35 vehicles
  • The seizure of 39 firearms this week
  • The seizure of more than 4 kilos of heroin this week
  • The seizure of thousands of fake oxycodone pills using fentanyl
  • The seizure of 13 pounds of heroin from a semi-truck in November

The man allegedly laundering money for the operation was also arrested in California and was in court on Thursday. Money laundering was reportedly handled by a cryptocurrency businesses out of Manhattan Beach, Calif. with Gregory David Werber, 56, at the helm. Bitcoin was used to send drug profits to Mexico. He was arrested on Dec. 5 and is considered a key financial connection between drug dealings in the U.S. and criminal leadership in Mexico.

The drug bust

While the busts that occurred over Dec. 5-6 were large in scope, the entire case began as a low-level investigation.

“It started out as a lower level street type of investigation, and once it began spreading out and involving more people we became involved,” Weis said.

“It’s the culmination of an 18 month investigation which we began with Bremerton PD, which targeted a drug trafficking network that primarily was engaged in the distribution of large amounts of fentanyl and heroin,” he said.

The organization that Bremerton police caught on to was much larger than their city, or even Washington. This particular network was operating internationally, spreading heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and meth in Washington, New  York, Arizona, Oregon, California, Tennessee, and Utah. The head of the network operates out of Mexico.

Many of the 29 arrested suspects in Washington were in district court in Tacoma on Thursday. Suspects range in age from 22 to 60, spanning Puyallup, Tacoma, Kent, Snohomish, Burlington, Seattle, and other Western Washington cities. Investigators uncovered coded cell phone messages and messages sent via Facebook.

As part of this investigation, police seized 13 pounds of heroin that was found in the engine compartment of a semi-truck. This truck was driven by a frequent smuggler for the operation, according to law enforcement officials.

To put this week’s operation in perspective, the United States Department of Justice has previously boasted of large successes with the arrest of 11 people after a six month investigation in July (they were allegedly responsible for importing 2 kilos of heroin a week to the area); a task force arrested 15 people in March; three key players in the distribution of drugs in multiple states were sentenced in January. One other major bust was reported in June that resulted in the arrest of 35 people, and the seizure of 75 guns, 95 pounds of meth, 32 pounds of heroin, other drugs, and $327,000 in cash.

Fentanyl in Washington

Fentanyl was at the core of the drug busts this week. Thousands of fake oxycodone pills were taken into custody.

There was a 70 percent increase in deaths related to fentanyl over the past year. Dr. Caleb Banta-Green with the University of Washington recently told MyNorthwest that fake prescription opiates have greatly contributed to the rise in overdoses.

“People will often try to use pills instead of heroin because it’s seen as safer,” Banta-Green said. “Historically, that might even have been true, but now you’re getting what looks like an oxycodone 30 tablet, and there’s no oxycodone in it at all — it’s fentanyl of unknown quantity and purity.”

Along with a range of other drugs seized this week, such as cocaine and meth, were a range of fake pills that Banta-Green describes. They look nearly the same as the genuine product. They are so potent, that multiple Washington State Troopers were treated for exposure after one bust.

“(Fentanyl) has been responsible for a number of overdoses across the country especially here in the King County area,”Weis said. “Currently, we have, in this area, about three people overdosing per day from narcotics. Which 2/3 of it can be tied to opioids. Fentanyl by far is the fastest increasing substance that is causing these deaths.”

“Fentanyl, essentially, is being produce clandestinely … narcotics organizations are able to produce it around the clock,” he said. “It’s much cheaper than actually growing, producing, farming the opium for heroin production. It’s essentially a non-stop, 24 hour operation where they can produce these pills and make a lot of money.

Weis said that the pills are produced cheaply in Mexico for about $1 per pill. They sell for about $25-35 per pill in Western Washington and elsewhere in the country.

“So the markup is extreme and these organizations are making a lot of money,” Weis said. “Which is a shame because they really have no regard for public health or the danger they are putting people in by putting this on the streets.”

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