An alleged $6.5 million-a-week heroin ring blamed for interstate distribution of the potent opiate substitute fentanyl -- linked to 27 Maryland deaths -- has been shut down with the indictment of 41 people, local and federal authorities said yesterday.
The people who died were heroin addicts who unknowingly purchased bags of fentanyl -- used in medical care as an efficient anesthetic -- and succumbed to respiratory distress, the authorities said.
About 500 bags of lethal street-ready fentanyl, about 6 percent to 7 percent pure, were seized in March by Baltimore police.
Most of the victims who died were found to have injected the synthetic opiate with a purity of less than 1 percent, according to Capt. Mike Andrew, head of the city police narcotics unit.
Because of what was perceived as a "public health emergency" resulting from the fentanyl deaths, authorities in the city and Howard County said they joined forces with the U.S. Attorney's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in "unprecedented fashion" to track down the source of the drug and large quantities of heroin smuggled from New York to Baltimore.
The results of that joint investigation were presented to a city grand jury, which issued the indictments charging 41 people with various narcotics offenses, said Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms.
"We feel comfortable that we have put an end to this organization in the Baltimore metropolitan area," Captain Andrew said during a news conference at police headquarters. "We are extremely pleased. This organization was responsible for the fentanyl deaths."
But authorities said they are still searching the New York area for the illegal laboratory where the fentanyl was believed to be manufactured.
Carlos Ortiz, 26, of Brant Avenue in The Bronx, N.Y., among the 41 suspects indicted, was accused by authorities yesterday of heading the interstate narcotics operation. He was in police custody.
Police also named Henry Jones, 29, of Columbia Road in Columbia as the person who allegedly directed the operation in the Baltimore area.
Over the weekend, police raided six homes and apartments in Baltimore, three in Howard County and one in Baltimore County, and arrested 12 of the suspects named in the indictments.
Twenty-nine others, including Mr. Jones, were still being sought last night.
Seized in the raids were a pound of heroin, a pound of fentanyl, 34 pounds of the cutting agent quinine, bagging materials, scales and two handguns, police said.
New York City police officers were continuing last night to serve a number of search and seizure warrants. The results of the New York raids were not announced yesterday.
Because of the fentanyl deaths, some of those arrested on alleged drug violations could face murder-related charges once the investigation is completed, Mr. Simms said.
Police and federal agents used additional caution during the raids because of possible contact with fentanyl, which can be fatal when absorbed into the skin or inhaled.
Some local street addicts had misidentified the fentanyl as "China White," a synthetic heroin, according to Thomas H. Muller, head of the city police laboratory division. He said the fentanyl is considerably more potent, and comparable in its strength to morphine.
"Heroin is bad enough as it is," Captain Andrew said.
Consuming a drug as deadly as fentanyl "doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Captain Andrew said.
"Our information was that a number of people were out on the street looking for it. They figured they could control it. It was going to kill someone else -- not me."
Those arrested were identified as Mr. Ortiz and Christine Lampkin, age unknown, and Frankie Sanchez, 28, all with a local residence in the 10400 block of Hickory Ridge Road in Columbia; Kenny Jones, 29, and La Shonda Washington, age unknown, of the 4900 block of Columbia Road; and Tyrone Reynolds, age and address unknown.
Also arrested were Eric Moore, 20, and Patrice Beasley, age unknown, of the 400 block of Misty Wood Way, Catonsville; and, in Baltimore, Darrell Lewis, 30, of the 5400 block of Cedonia Ave., Ronald Lee Williams, 31, of the 1900 block of Ridgehill Ave., Turonn Pierre Lewis, 25, of the 2100 block of Chelsea Terrace; and Adrian Scott, 20, of the 2800 block of Loudon Ave.