Spokane – William D. Hyslop, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, and Frank A. Tarentino III, Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle Field Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, announced today and presented the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force with $132,876 in asset forfeiture equitable sharing funds. Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg, Governing Board Chair of the Metro Drug Task Force, accepted the funds on behalf of the Task Force.
The Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force was originally formed in 1988 and has for more than 30 years had a significant impact on disruption of narcotics trafficking and related criminal activities in the Tri-Cities region, and across the State of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. It can use these funds to further its efforts. The Metro Drug Task Force is comprised of officers from the Kennewick Police Department, Richland Police Department, Pasco Police Department, West Richland Police Department, Benton County Sheriff’s Office, and Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
The asset forfeiture funds presented today are the result of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) and Metro Drug Task Force investigation which targeted distributors of Fentanyl-laced pills in the Tri-City area. The investigation and law enforcement action began in 2017, indictments issued in 2018, and in 2020 the final assets were forfeited.
Fentanyl, an extremely dangerous and deadly opioid, is largely responsible for the marked increase in drug overdoses and deaths in Eastern Washington. Fentanyl is the most dangerous and insidious drug facing our community today. Fentanyl-laced pills, are illegally manufactured most commonly in Mexico and have found their way into this community and others in devastating numbers. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and hundreds of times more potent than street-level heroin. People using even a partial Fentanyl-laced pill have died instantly.
The forfeiture funds shared with Metro Drug Task Force today were seized and forfeited from two defendants who have been previously sentenced and a third individual who is a fugitive:
– Taylor Fertig, of Kennewick, Washington, pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Distribute 400 grams or more of Fentanyl, and was sentenced on June 26, 2019, to a 10-year term of imprisonment, to be followed by a 5-year term of court supervision. He was also ordered to forfeit $12,220 in U.S. currency seized by the United States. According to information disclosed during court proceedings, Fertig was identified as one of the first major distributors in the Tri-City area of Fentanyl-laced pills that are unlawfully made to appear to be prescription oxycodone medication.
– Dustin Alvin Zuhlke of Kennewick, Washington, pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Distribute Fentanyl, and was sentenced on October 22, 2020, to a 4-year term of imprisonment, to be followed by a 3-year term of court supervision, and was ordered to forfeit $136,982 in U.S. currency seized by the United States. According to information disclosed during court proceedings, Zuhlke was identified as a large scale distributor of Fentanyl-laced pills, selling over 1,000 pills per week in 2017.
– Remijio Morfin-Mendoza is a fugitive. Notwithstanding Morfin-Mendoza’s fugitive status, the United States seized and forfeited $16,893 in U.S. currency from him. On June 5, 2018, he was indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of Washington for one count of Conspiracy to Distribute Fentanyl and two counts of Distribution of Fentanyl. The public is reminded that charges contained in an indictment are only accusations and are not evidence of guilt. The defendant is presumed innocent and entitled to a fair trial at which the government has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Pursuant to applicable regulations, an 80% share of the funds seized from Zuhlke, Fertig, and Morfin-Mendoza are being shared with the Metro Drug Task Force in recognition of its significant contribution to this investigation. The shared asset forfeiture funds will assist the Metro Drug Task Force in further crime-fighting efforts.
The Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program is, first and foremost, a law enforcement program. It removes the tools of crime from criminal organizations, deprives wrongdoers of the proceeds of their crimes, recovers property that may be used to compensate victims, and deters crime. The Department of Justice underscores these law enforcement purposes with all federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.
One of the ancillary benefits of asset forfeiture is sharing federal forfeiture proceeds with cooperating state and local law enforcement agencies through equitable sharing as is occurring here. The Department of Justice Equitable Sharing Program enhances cooperation between federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement by providing valuable additional resources to those law enforcement agencies.
United States Attorney William Hyslop said, “The influx of Fentanyl into Eastern Washington is a huge threat to this area. Prosecuting Opioid/Fentanyl-related cases is a top priority for the United States Attorney’s Office. We are committed to investigating and dismantling Fentanyl trafficking and we are actively engaged in community outreach efforts to educate people about the dangers of this deadly drug. This investigation exemplifies the positive crime fighting results that can be achieved when federal, state, local, and Tribal law enforcement agencies collaborate and work together. Our citizens are safer and our communities are more secure as a result of joint law enforcement efforts like what occurred here. The Metro Drug Task Force’s determined investigative work with the DEA and swift action have been critical to the success of this investigation.”
“Fentanyl is taking lives throughout the country and destroying the communities we live in,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Frank Tarentino. “In the last year, DEA has seen a 187% increase in fentanyl seizures in Eastern Washington. Fentanyl continues to be an eminent threat to the public and its production and distribution is contributing to an increase in crime and violence. Through the outstanding partnerships with our local, state, and federal partners, our relentless pursuit of these dangerous criminals will not stop.”
The enforcement action resulting in this forfeiture was part of an OCDETF investigation. The OCDETF program provides supplemental federal funding to the federal and state agencies involved in the investigation of drug-related crimes. This OCDETF investigation was conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
This case was investigated by the Spokane Resident Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration in partnership with the Metro Drug Task Force.
This case was prosecuted by Stephanie Van Marter and Brian M. Donovan, Assistant United States Attorneys for the Eastern District of Washington.
More information regarding the DOJ Equitable Sharing Program can be found here: DOJ Guide to Equitable Sharing.