The D.E.A. itself was missing the warning signs. The agency’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment mentioned fentanyl only briefly, as a subcategory of heroin. While there had been an uptick in fentanyl seizures and overdoses across the country, the report stated, it was “not as deadly as the 2005-07 outbreak” caused by the lab in Toluca, Mexico. “I didn’t realize the severity of it, how quickly it would move,” Derek Maltz, the former head of the agency’s Special Operations Division, told me. William Brownfield, the former head of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs at the State Department, put it more bluntly: “We were blindsided.”
Buemi needed irrefutable proof that the drugs being shipped from China were killing users, as well as a clear chain of possession stretching from overdose victim all the way back to the Chinese source. Without those pieces of evidence in place, the Chinese government would refuse to cooperate. Then, in early January 2015, Buemi received a phone call: A young man named Bailey Henke in Grand Forks, N.D., had died of a fentanyl overdose. Buemi thought he’d found his case.
The weather was harsh and unwelcoming when Buemi arrived in Fargo, but he felt newly hopeful. At their first meeting, Chris Myers, the acting United States attorney, told Buemi what they had found: On Jan. 1, 2015, Ryan Jensen received two packages in the mail containing one gram of fentanyl and 12 grams of heroin. The following day, he smoked some of the fentanyl with Bailey and two other friends at his house. Bailey left after buying another share of Jensen’s fentanyl supply.
The police visited Jensen soon after Bailey’s death and pressed him for answers. He confessed to his drug dealing and gave investigators his login information for Evolution, a site on the dark web, allowing them to track the purchase back to its source: a vendor with the username pdxblack, whom the police determined to be Brandon Corde Hubbard, a man living in Portland, Ore. Hubbard was working out of his home while directing drug shipments to a seemingly innocuous second address: Northwest Oil Solutions in Woodland, Wash., where a co-conspirator worked. Two months before Bailey died, Hubbard purchased about 750 grams of fentanyl, with a street value of $1.5 million. The dose that killed Bailey, investigators believed, had come from that shipment. The police, knowing that Hubbard was communicating with someone using the same Wickr name as a suspect in Buemi’s case, believed that Hubbard was a lieutenant in a larger network, but they couldn’t follow the trail any farther.
“They had no idea how big of a case they had,” Buemi told me.
Buemi told the team in North Dakota about Vivas Ceron, Berry and Zaron Bio-tech — and how their overdose case connected all the pieces, from producer to distributor and user. The team in North Dakota immediately understood the significance of the case and resolved to combine their efforts. Their joint investigation would become known as Operation Denial.
Over the next six months, the investigation unspooled in strange and grotesque ways, an epidemic in miniature. The team coordinated with Portland law enforcement to arrest Hubbard, but before they could, his car was stolen. The car thief, thinking the baggie he found in the vehicle was cocaine, shared the drug with three friends. It was fentanyl, and all four overdosed. In March, the police arrested Hubbard’s girlfriend on charges of tampering with evidence related to the ongoing investigation. They didn’t realize that she had hidden a bag of fentanyl inside her body. After being booked into jail, she gave a portion of the drug to an inmate, who then shared it with others. Four women overdosed, one fatally. (Hubbard pleaded guilty on three charges and was sentenced to life; his girlfriend was sentenced to 11 years.)
Investigators also learned that a friend of Bailey’s named Evan Poitra, who died of a fentanyl overdose in July 2014, had been a victim of the same distribution network that killed Bailey. They found overdoses going back as early as January 2014 that they were able to connect directly to Zaron Bio-tech. Six months after the initial meeting in North Dakota, Buemi and another agent arrested Vivas Ceron when he was released from prison, shutting down one node of the network. (Vivas Ceron pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges and is awaiting sentencing.)