MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA (USDOJ.Today) In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the launch of Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (S.O.S), a program aimed at reducing the supply of synthetic opioids in 10 high impact areas, including the Northern District of West Virginia, and identifying wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers.
Under Operation SOS, the United States Attorneys in 10 districts with some of the highest drug overdose death rates in the country each designated a county where they would focus on prosecuting every readily available case involving fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and other synthetic opioids, regardless of the drug quantity.
“The Justice Department’s commitment to fighting the opioids epidemic is stronger than ever, and we are using every tool in our arsenal to disrupt the supply of these drugs on our streets,” said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen. “Operation SOS has had a significant positive impact on the communities where it is being employed. The Department will continue to build on these successes and work to stop the drug traffickers who so callously wreck lives.”
In the Northern District of West Virginia, Berkeley County, which sees the highest overdose death rate in the district, is a designated SOS area. As an example of the good work Operation SOS fuels, U.S. Attorney Bill Powell of the Northern District of West Virginia announced on July 21, 2020, a 44-count indictment against 12 defendants. During the nearly year-long investigation, law enforcement officers seized more than 280 grams of cocaine base and more than 40 grams of fentanyl from one of the defendant’s residences in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Throughout the investigation, officers seized more than 280 grams of fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl, and heroin; more than 350 grams of cocaine base; more than one kilogram of liquid PCP; various amounts of cocaine; five firearms; and over $28,000.
“The Northern District of West Virginia has been especially hard hit by opioid trafficking. Berkeley County was designated as a S.O.S impact area and we were consequently provided additional resources, including an additional prosecutor, to confront the problem. These resources have paved the way for considerable prosecutions and the removing of considerable fentanyl, guns and other drugs from our communities. Those responsible were prosecuted and lives have been saved as a result,” said Powell.
In the Northern District of West Virginia, Operation SOS has initiated 64 investigations with 99 defendants being charged in federal court since its inception in 2018. Thus far in 2020, investigators have seized over 2 pounds of fentanyl in Berkeley County. That is enough fentanyl to kill 1.3 million people.
Nationally, since 2018, Operation SOS has resulted in approximately 750 defendants being charged in federal court, with 384 of those defendants charged thus far in FY 20. Most importantly, the districts participating in the program have seen a decline in opioid overdoses. From 2017 to 2019, most SOS counties reported a decline of 14% to 24%. One notable success was in the Western District of Pennsylvania, where the opioid overdose rates declined by nearly 45%.
The nine other participating districts and some of their successes are listed below:
• The Eastern District of California has reported 60 active Operation S.O.S. investigations. Recently, the USAO charged one sentence-enhanced “death resulting” prosecution. In February 2020, another investigation resulted in the seizure of over 20,000 fentanyl-laced counterfeit oxycodone pills.
• The Eastern District of Kentucky reported that an SOS investigation led to a residential search warrant and seizure of more than 1,300 grams of fentanyl, more than 500 grams of methamphetamine, $15,000 cash, two firearms, and paraphernalia used to traffic narcotics including a device for pressing fentanyl into a brick-like shape
• The District of Maine reported a July 2020 arrest of a defendant on charges of distributing counterfeit fentanyl pills marked as Percocet, in connection with a fatal fentanyl overdose that occurred in May 2020. In addition, a Maine man was sentenced in February 2020 to five years in prison for two counts of possession with intent to distribute fentanyl, in connection with an incident where the defendant was found in possession of fentanyl less than 24 hours after he was released on a state summons for possession of fentanyl.
• The District of New Hampshire reported the October 2019 arrest of a man on a warrant for distributing fentanyl. Manchester Police Detectives executed a search warrant on a local drug-house, where they located approximately 850 grams of methamphetamine and 56 grams of fentanyl, several assault-style rifles, a handgun, ammunition, scales, safes, cash, and cellphones.
• The Northern District of Ohio reported a 10-defendant wire case involving a drug trafficking organization (DTO) operating out of Elyria and Sandusky, Ohio. The DTO purchased kilogram quantities of cocaine and oxycodone pills. Co-conspirators would later cook the cocaine and sell it as crack to local dealers in Elyria. During the conspiracy, agents seized approximately ½ kilo of cocaine, 100 grams of crack, oxycodone pills, and five firearms.
• The Southern District of Ohio reported the arrest of an individual who had previously served a nine-year state prison sentence for drug trafficking. On October 22, 2019, after law enforcement observed activity consistent with drug transactions, including the delivery of what appeared to be a kilogram of narcotics by a courier, members of the FBI Safe Streets Task Force executed a search warrant at a residence in Dayton, Ohio, where they located three firearms, 1,205 grams of methamphetamine, 1,716 grams of fentanyl, 305 grams of heroin, drug processing equipment, and 12 cellular telephones. One of the recovered cellular telephones contained photographs of multiple kilograms of fentanyl and communications with a narcotics supplier. Through subsequent investigation, law enforcement recovered an additional 19.5 kilograms of fentanyl/carfentanil.
• The Western District of Pennsylvania prosecuted 98 SOS cases thus far in FY 2020. Particularly noteworthy among them is the prosecution of Lynell Guyton. Guyton was convicted by a jury of conspiracy to distribute 100 grams or more of cyclopropyl fentanyl and other charges, including firearms and money laundering violations. Guyton, who had been receiving shipments of fentanyl analogues from China, is both a Career Offender and an Armed Career Criminal. The case gained media attention when, during the execution of a search warrant in connection with the charges, the conspirators tipped over a table, sending cyclopropyl fentanyl into the air, sickening several law enforcement officers on the scene.
• The Eastern District of Tennessee reported multiple cases arising out of a single investigation involving a drug trafficking organization responsible for trafficking heroin and fentanyl from Michigan to various communities in the Eastern District of Tennessee. 29 defendants have been indicted on various charges, including drug trafficking conspiracy, overdose death enhancements, money-laundering conspiracy, and various firearms offenses. More than 5.5 kilograms of heroin and/or fentanyl and 11 firearms were seized during the investigation.
• The Southern District of West Virginia reported that after a three-day trial, a jury in the convicted Steven McCallister of distribution of fentanyl, possession with the intent to distribute fentanyl, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. Officers conducted a 50-gram purchase of heroin from McCallister, which then led to the execution of a search warrant at McCallister’s home. Officers seized over one kilogram of fentanyl and a firearm.