Feds announce seizure of enough fentanyl to kill 14 million people, 35 arrested

During the raids, dubbed "Operation Cookout," officials seized 30 kilograms each of fentanyl and heroin, 5 kilograms of cocaine, 24 firearms, and over $700,000 in cash.
Image: G. Zachary Terwilliger
G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney, center, speaks about a multi-state drug ring seizing enough cheap fentanyl to kill 14 million people, inside the United States Attorney's Office in Norfolk, Va., on Aug. 29, 2019.L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot via AP

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A multistate investigation involving more than two dozen law enforcement agencies led to the seizure of enough fentanyl to kill more than 14 million people from a drug trafficking ring operating out of Virginia, federal prosecutors announced Thursday.

During the raids, dubbed "Operation Cookout," officials seized 30 kilograms each of fentanyl and heroin, 5 kilograms of cocaine, 24 firearms, and over $700,000 in cash.

The more than 30 agencies involved worked three days to arrest 35 of 39 defendants in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas for their alleged roles in the distribution operation based in Hampton Roads, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

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G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, said that amount of fentanyl alone is enough to kill 14 million people.

"This operation, through its seizure of scores of kilograms of illicit narcotics, saved lives in the Eastern District and elsewhere," Terwilliger said.

A 106-count indictment, unsealed Thursday, charges the defendants with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine, heroin, cocaine base, and fentanyl; conspiracy to launder money; felon in possession of a firearm; maintaining a drug-involved premises; use of a communication facility in furtherance of drug trafficking; interstate travel in aid of racketeering enterprises; and illegal re-entry by a previously deported or removed alien.

The drug trafficking conspiracy began in 2016, according to the indictment. The defendants are accused of buying the drugs from Mexico, California and New York then moving them around Virginia using "hidden traps" in various vehicles, according to prosecutors. They carried out and planned for drug deals in various locations throughout Hampton Roads, including houses, parking lots and businesses.

“This indictment, and the 106 counts within, demonstrates clearly that the dangerous and illegal smuggling operations from the border limitlessly stretch into the United States and reach directly into our neighborhoods and communities," said Norfolk's assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations, Michael K. Lamonea.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is used to treat severe pain. While the opioid is highly addictive, most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose and death in the U.S. are linked to illegally made fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin, cocaine or both, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids jumped by about 47 percent in the U.S. from 2016 to 2017, according to the CDC. About 28,400 died that year from overdoses involving synthetic opioids.