Federal authorities have broken up a massive drug trafficking ring that supplied cocaine and marijuana to college students across North Carolina, leading to nearly two dozens arrests, officials said Thursday.
The 21 defendants include students, and they're accused of funneling drugs, often through fraternities, to schoolmates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and Appalachian State University, authorities said.
"This is about saving lives," Matthew Martin, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, told reporters in Hillsborough. "This really is a public health crisis. We really have to stand together, cut off the supply."
The investigation, which goes back at least two years, examined about $1.5 million in sales, officials said.
While the investigation continues, officials said a primary supplier was Francisco Javier Ochoa, 27, of Turlock, California. He supplied about 200 pounds of marijuana and 2 kilograms of cocaine on a weekly basis to North Carolina co-defendants, authorities said.
He pleaded guilty to federal narcotics charges in November and was sentenced to 73 months behind bars.
Martin insisted that his office wasn't targeting low-level offenders.
"I want to make it very clear, this is not a situation where you have casual users, where you have a 19-year-old sipping a beer or you have someone taking a puff off a joint on the back porch of the fraternity house," he said.
"These are 21 hardened drug dealers. This conspiracy moved thousands of pounds of marijuana over the course of several years, hundreds of kilos of cocaine."
The youngest defendant named Thursday is 21, and 13 of them are no older than 24.
Federal authorities identified two UNC students, a Duke student and an Appalachian State student among the defendants but declined to say how many are currently or formerly enrolled at any of the schools.
"It unfolded unlike any other case I've seen in my 40 years in law enforcement," Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said. "Brazen attitudes, casual use of high volumes of drugs and then the network started to unfold."
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Martin stopped short of blaming school administrators, but he said they "cannot turned a blind eye" to narcotics use on their campuses.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in statement: "We are extremely disappointed to learn of these alleged actions on our campus. Although none of the individuals named today are currently enrolled students, we will remain vigilant and continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and address any illegal drug use on our campus."
Associate Vice Chancellor Megan Hayes said Appalachian State is "fully cooperating with this investigation" and remains "committed to providing a safe campus."
And Duke Vice President Michael Schoenfeld said school officials "take these allegations very seriously" and promised full cooperation.