Major Western Washington Drug Bust Nets $10M Worth of Meth, Fentanyl, Heroin
Major Western Washington Drug Bust Nets $10M Worth of Meth, Fentanyl, Heroin

Source: Google News

Sara Jean Green / The Seattle Times

BURIEN — Quinn, a 2-year-old golden Labrador retriever, worked his first drug bust Wednesday, helping a team of veteran Burien police and King County sheriff’s detectives score an estimated $2.5 million worth of crystal meth, fentanyl and black-tar heroin before it could be cut up and dispatched across Western Washington.

The former Purina Puppy Chow model, certified as a narcotics-sniffing police dog just six weeks ago, did “exceptionally well” on his virgin foray into the dark, money-driven world of international drug smuggling, according to his K-9 handler.

Quinn came in at the tail end of a yearlong investigation into a highly organized group of alleged drug distributors with family connections to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, said detectives involved in the undercover operation.

The dog happily jumped up to smell the seized drugs, arranged on folding tables at Burien Police headquarters Thursday, before he was called to heel with his favorite red chew toy on a stretch of multicolored rope.

The tables showed off a serious haul, part of what is believed to be one of the biggest drug caches in the Sheriff’s Office’s 170-year history. The operation, including earlier seizures, kept 400 pounds of methamphetamine, 31 pounds of heroin, 25 pounds of fentanyl powder and nearly 500,000 fentanyl pills from reaching the streets.

The combined street value of the drugs: more than $10 million, according to investigators.

Detectives also seized four cars, eight guns and roughly $520,000 in cash that was likely destined for more drug purchases. Twelve people were arrested, six of them during coordinated stings Wednesday on houses, cars and hotels from Edmonds to Tacoma.

“They’re about moving product and making money. If there’s collateral damage, they don’t really care because the demand is so high,” Todd Morrell, Burien’s acting police chief, said of the cartel’s disregard for overdoses and deaths increasingly caused by fentanyl. “There’s an endless supply.”

Morrell said the high demand for illicit drugs has caused street prices to plummet, with a single fentanyl pill costing as little as $2. Meanwhile, he said, the drugs have continued to drive addiction and crimes like shoplifting and vehicle theft.

It’s also “common knowledge that fentanyl is being cut into heroin and cocaine” to make the drugs more addictive, said Morrell, whose department is staffed by King County deputies under an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office.

The six men arrested Wednesday made their first court appearances Thursday, and a King County judge found probable cause that they possessed illegal narcotics with intent to deliver.

The group’s 25-year-old alleged leader was ordered held on $1 million bail, and three others were held on $500,000 each, according to Douglas Wagoner, a prosecutor’s spokesperson. A fifth man, who might be a human trafficking victim, was held in lieu of $25,000 bail, and a sixth on $10,000 bail, Wagoner said.

The Seattle Times is not naming the men, ages 20 to 25, because they have not  been charged. Prosecutors expect to file charges Tuesday.

A court document known as a “superform,” which includes fields for a person’s name, date of birth, last known address and other identifying information, lists the Sinaloa Cartel as the employer of three of the men and “drug trafficker” as their occupation. The other men’s forms list no employer or occupation.

Wednesday’s bust marked the first time detectives from “Operation Paul 2-2” — a reference to a beloved narcotics detective who’s on leave while fighting cancer — have encountered the multicolored pills known as “rainbow fentanyl,” which were the subject of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warning last summer.

“Most of the cartels are just doing the blues,” the team’s detective sergeant said of fentanyl pills that are combined with dye and a binder, usually acetaminophen, then pressed in Mexico before they’re smuggled across the U.S. border. “We’ve seen white fentanyl pills and people will say, ‘I don’t want the white, I want the blues.'”

The Seattle Times is not identifying the detectives involved in the operation because they work undercover.

The arrival of rainbow fentanyl, which the detective sergeant believes is a marketing tactic to appeal to more people, isn’t nearly as alarming as the amounts of fentanyl powder seized during the operation. Detectives initially thought some of the seized powder was cocaine but realized it was fentanyl after testing it with a new laser-equipped device that can identify drugs through plastic packaging.

“Powder is more problematic for everybody,” because it’s more potent than pills and there’s an increased likelihood of accidental exposure when it goes airborne, one detective said. “They’re starting to just send up powder. We’re seeing more and more powder, and we encountered more fentanyl powder than we expected.”

He said that trend is indicative of the cartels’ decreasing reliance on plant-based drugs like cocaine and heroin and their turn to fully synthetic ones like meth and fentanyl, which can be mixed in illegal labs without the constraints of growing seasons or the multistep production of turning coca leaves or poppies into narcotics.

“This is one of the most organized groups we’ve run into,” another detective said, explaining the men arrested Wednesday drove back and forth to California, transporting cash south and bringing drugs north. One of the detective’s colleagues likened the group to an Amazon fulfillment center, one of many spread across the country.

Detectives said they also learned that some of the people involved with the Sinaloa Cartel were allegedly coerced into drug running to pay off the $5,000 to $7,000 fee typically charged by “coyotes” to smuggle someone across the border.

The same cartel-controlled routes from Mexico into the U.S. are used “whether they’re smuggling drugs or people,” a detective said.

They’re told, “We will smuggle you across and then you will owe us,” he said. “You are now working for us until you work off this debt.”