Federal drug agents and prosecutors in Colorado held a news conference in July to tout their work taking fentanyl off the streets amid a string of highly publicized overdose deaths.
“I wanted to give you guys something different today — not just a doom and gloom story,” Brian Besser, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver Field Division, said. “I wanted you to see that behind the scenes there is aggressive and tenacious police work being done and prosecution being done to save lives and to bring people to justice.”
Among the cases Besser highlighted was the seizure of 114 pounds of pure fentanyl in June — enough, he said, to kill more than 25 million people. He described it as the largest fentanyl bust on a U.S. highway in history.
“We are not asleep at the wheel,” Besser said.
It was a curious turn of phrase given what had happened just after the record fentanyl seizure — a stunning blunder that went unmentioned during the July 6 news conference.
The DEA lost track of the man who was transporting the massive amount of fentanyl.
The suspect, David Maldonado, 27, had agreed to cooperate with federal agents and help them arrest the drug traffickers in South Bend, Indiana, where he said the fentanyl was headed, according to the Colorado State Patrol. But on the way to do the deal, Maldonado managed to lose the DEA agents and remove the tracker they had placed on his car.
He’s now considered a fugitive.
The case represents an embarrassing episode for the DEA at a time when drug cartels are flooding the U.S. with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, and the overdose rate is soaring.
A spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol, which made the initial discovery of the fentanyl, provided a blunt account of the botched operation.
“DEA was working with us and they made a deal with the driver,” Master Trooper Gary Cutler said. “He ran on them after they worked the case, and that was their debacle.”
Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former DEA consultant, said the agents should have known they needed extra surveillance on a potential cooperator whom they didn’t have adequate time to vet.
“This is a fiasco for the DEA,” Haberfeld said.
DEA spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff declined to comment to NBC News, citing the ongoing investigation. But after this story was published, a DEA official confirmed the seizure of 114 pounds of fentanyl.
"Those drugs have remained in law enforcement’s possession ever since," the official said. "DEA is relentlessly pursuing the individuals that were involved in the trafficking of the seized fentanyl and will continue to do so."
U.S. overdose deaths topped 100,000 for the first time last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fueled in large part by fentanyl. Of the 107,622 fatal overdoses reported in 2021, 71,238, or 66%, involved fentanyl.
The highly potent opioid is cheaper than other drugs and comes in the form of a white powder, which allows traffickers to mix it with cocaine and other drugs or stamp it into prescription pills like Xanax to stretch out their supply and increase profits. In many cases, cocaine and pills laced with fentanyl have killed people who had no idea they were consuming it. But some drug users are now seeking out fentanyl for its intense high.
In Colorado, fentanyl deaths increased more than tenfold in the past five years — from 81 in 2017 to more than 900 in 2021, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Overdose deaths have also spiked in Indiana, where the fentanyl from the Colorado bust was apparently headed.
“How bad is it? It’s everywhere,” said Robin Vida, director of health, outreach, promotion and education for the St. Joseph County Department of Health, which covers South Bend.
The Maldonado case, which was first reported by The Denver Gazette, began with a routine traffic stop. An application for an arrest warrant, filed in Colorado district court by a state trooper, provides a detailed narrative of the events leading to Maldonado’s disappearance.
At about 10:37 a.m. on June 18, the trooper spotted a car weaving in and out of traffic on Interstate 70 just west of Denver.
The trooper stopped the car and noticed the driver was “exceptionally nervous.”
The driver, identified as Maldonado, told the trooper he had spent a week in the town of Grand Junction visiting family. But the trooper knew the story was a lie; he had run a check on Maldonado’s license plate prior to the stop and learned that it had been scanned by a license plate reader in Southern California roughly 24 hours earlier.
The trooper scanned the inside of Maldonado’s car and noticed that it was empty except for a couple of energy drinks, some gas station snack foods and a blanket on the back seat.
“Maldonado’s nervousness did not subside throughout the entire contact,” even though the trooper told him he wasn’t getting a ticket, only a warning, the arrest warrant application says.
Maldonado claimed he wasn’t nervous; he just had to go to the bathroom “really bad.” He initially refused to allow the trooper to search his car but then relented because he wanted to get back on the road, the court document says.
The trooper let him drive 3 miles to the next exit to use the restroom. While Maldonado was in the bathroom, the trooper walked his drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle. The dog signaled the presence of drugs, the affidavit says, prompting the trooper to search inside the car.
The trooper found two traps used to conceal contraband in the floorboard, the affidavit says. When he pulled them out, he made a staggering discovery: 48 packages of fentanyl powder. In total, they weighed 114 pounds, the court document says.
After the trooper arrested him, Maldonado agreed to speak to a DEA agent. In addition to telling the agent that the drugs were headed to South Bend, Maldonado said he had picked up the fentanyl in California and had performed a drug run at least once before, the affidavit says.
Maldonado agreed to complete the delivery of the drugs so that the DEA could identify traffickers higher up in the criminal network.
The next day, Maldonado set out on the controlled delivery with a tracking device attached to his car. But at some point on his journey — it’s not clear where — he managed to slip away from the surveillance and remove the tracker from his car, the affidavit says.
Maldonado is wanted on two felony charges — unlawful distribution of more than 225 grams of a controlled substance and introducing that substance into the state of Colorado.
The U.S. Marshals confirmed that its Colorado Violent Offender Task Force is hunting for Maldonado, who was described in the affidavit as being 6-foot-2 and weighing 245 pounds.
“Due to the sensitive nature of our investigation, we are unable to provide any additional information at this time to prevent compromising any aspect of our case,” the agency said in a statement.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director and an NBC News national security contributor, said the DEA is most likely conducting an internal investigation.
“We’ve got a record amount of fentanyl involved here, in fact, enough fentanyl to kill everyone in the state of Colorado,” Figliuzzi said. “The individual who was delivering that amount of fentanyl is now in the wind. And it looks like there are no other bad guys in custody, as far as we know, so that is a large-scale failure.”
Maldonado has family in Mexico, but he grew up in the tiny town of West Liberty, Iowa (population: 3,800), according to the warrant application.
He was a member of the West Liberty High School varsity football team for at least one season, according to the high school sports website Max Preps.
But Maldonado began running afoul of the law while he was still in his teens.
In August 2013, he was pulled over by police who allegedly found a marijuana pipe in his car as well as a handgun wrapped in a pillowcase, according to a report in The Muscatine Journal in Iowa. A search of his bedroom turned up more than 21 grams of marijuana in 23 bags, along with a scale, the paper reported.
The charges were later dismissed, according to the online court lookup.
Maldonado has two Facebook accounts but rarely posts.
His last one was in March, three months before the Colorado traffic stop. It consisted of a photo showing him standing atop a large rock holding what appears to be a machete.
On an older Facebook page, he posted a comment in July 2020, lamenting how only nine people had reacted to a new profile picture.
“And not one is from someone who is close to me,” Maldonado wrote in Spanish. “What good is it to be born here if my loved ones can’t be here? man, what a s----y path has been given to me!”
NBC News reached out to multiple family members, but they either didn’t respond or declined to comment.
“I know nothing of (Maldonado) and I wish to not be bothered about whatever he’s gotten into,” one family member said.