By Jana J. Pruet
A federal investigation that began with the fatal overdose of a young mother two years ago has led to the bust of a “massive” cross-country fentanyl distribution ring.
“Fentanyl is the greatest threat to Americans today,” Drug Enforcement Administrator Anne Milgram told reporters during a news conference on Nov. 20.
“It is devastating families across our country and killing Americans from all walks of life,” Ms. Milgram said. “And it is the leading cause of death today in the United States for Americans between the age of 18 and 45.”
Most recently, 11 additional suspects were indicted as part of the ongoing investigation into the cross-country drug conspiracy that started in August 2020, authorities said.
The charges against the suspects include conspiracy to distribute fentanyl. Some are also facing other charges, including possession with intent to distribute fentanyl and conspiracy to commit international money laundering.
The years long investigation has led to the seizure of about 250,000 pills, over 40 pounds of fentanyl powder, and 30 firearms including six machine guns, and indictments against more than two dozen suspects.
‘Died Almost Instantly’
The probe started when a 20-year-old mother in Washington died after taking a fake “M-30” pill on April 6, 2021.
“On that day, a young woman named Diamond Lynch took a pill—one pill—and died almost instantly,” Ms. Milgram continued. “That pill looked like an oxycodone, was sold as a Percocet, and it was fentanyl. It was fentanyl and filler. There were no real pharmaceutical ingredients in that pill.”
The DEA chief said the young mother was in the “midst of planning her son’s first birthday party” when she relapsed and contacted her former supplier, who had provided drugs that caused her to overdose about six months earlier.
‘Massive’ Distribution Network
In January 2022, authorities tracked down and arrested Larry Eastman, 23, and Justice Eastman, 26, a brother and sister duo responsible for supplying the “poison” to Ms. Lynch.
Earlier this year, the pair was sentenced to 140 months and 37 months in federal prison, respectively, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Our investigation did not stop there, though,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves. “We uncovered leads that pointed to a massive fentanyl distribution network. Our prosecutors and law enforcement partners followed the evidence. We expanded our investigation and expanded each rung of this fentanyl supply network.”
The investigation led authorities to a multistate fentanyl distribution ring operating in Washington, Virginia, California, Maryland, and Tennessee, among other areas.
To date, 26 suspects have been charged, and 23 are currently in custody as a result of the investigation into Ms. Lynch’s death.
“Together, these individuals sent more than 1 million fentanyl pills over the course of a year into the Washington D.C. area,” Ms. Milgram said.
She said the deadly fentanyl pills, which are originally sourced in Mexico, are highly profitable for drug dealers.
“The dealer in Los Angeles pays 30 cents wholesale for one pill and sells it for $3 wholesale to someone in Washington, D.C., who then sells it to Diamond Lynch for $30 a pill,” the DEA chief continued. “The criminals are making so much money off of each sale that they don’t care if they kill Americans in the process.”
The suspects conducted their alleged crimes through popular social media sites such as Instagram, according to authorities.
“Almost every single defendant in this case used Instagram to find their sources of supply,” Ms. Milgram said. “They used Instagram to find new avenues of distribution. They used Instagram to pick the color of the pills, the amount of the pills they were ordering, and the price that they would pay. They used Instagram to coordinate shipments and to work out how they would get payment.”
The cartels and others are buying the same pill presses, dyes, and molds that are used by pharmaceutical companies, which make the fake pills look identical to prescription pills, she explained. There is no way to tell the difference without a lab test.
“You cannot buy a legitimate prescription on social media, and it’s an important point that you cannot buy an oxycodone pill on Snapchat or Instagram or Facebook Marketplace,” Ms. Milgram continued.
She added that the arrests and indictments in this case would not have been possible without the “lawful access to those Instagram messages.”
The joint investigation included Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, the DEA, the U.S. Postal Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and other local authorities.