Thirty suspects accused of selling massive quantities of fentanyl across New England.
Now, 7NEWS has a rare, inside look at how investigators tracked the ring and took it down.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts announced the filing of federal charges against all of the suspects in May. At the time, officials described the case as one of the largest fentanyl trafficking rings Massachusetts had ever seen, and said that the defendants had allegedly “controlled and managed a lucrative and sophisticated drug trafficking and distribution ring.”
According to prosecutors, the ring involved dozens of people based in and around Lawrence who were selling fentanyl in three states, and raking in millions of dollars – with deadly results.
“I just can’t go anywhere without thinking about her,” said Rhonda Gray.
She told 7NEWS that, in August of last year, her daughter, Felicia Gray, had promised to check into rehab.
“(She) would do anything for you. She just got caught in the wrong group,” Felicia’s brother, Jimmy, said.
Twenty-four hours after she made that promise, Jimmy found his sister unresponsive, lying next to two needles, at her family’s home in Conway, New Hampshire.
Her body was already cold.
“I was hoping it wasn’t real. It was just like, ‘This can’t be happening,’” Jimmy said.
That’s when Felicia’s mother got the call.
“I just said to her, ‘There’s Narcan in the bedroom.’ And there is. She died beside the Narcan kit,” Rhonda said, fighting back tears.
Felicia died of a fentanyl overdose. And according to recently unsealed search warrants, she ordered the drug from the accused leader of the fentanyl trafficking ring that was busted in May.
“These things have wide tentacles,” said George Price, a former agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency. “Anytime you take a substantial trafficker off the street, it’s a big deal.”
The DEA led the investigation, which involved more than 200 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers over the course of an entire year.
7NEWS uncovered the once-secret search warrants, which were unsealed shortly after charges were announced. Taken together, they offer an up-close look at how investigators put the ring behind bars.
The warrants detail how federal agents spent months tapping the defendants’ phones and trailing their cars. But the biggest break came from at least five different confidential sources, including one who once worked as a courier for the ring.
That unnamed source told investigators that the ring worked in shifts, with four or five couriers on duty at a time. The source said that the couriers drove cars with hidden compartments, and that each one typically took in about $15,000 in cash every week.
Together, the sources helped investigators identify at least five homes, scattered across Lawrence, that they said were once used as drug stash houses. Investigators say the ring moved from one house to another, trying to stay one step ahead of police.
“If things sit in one place too long, they become more easily discovered,” Price said.
In court documents, investigators said that the body of Carlos Baez Pena was found at one suspected stash house in August of last year. Investigators believe he worked for the ring, and may have died after merely coming in contact with fentanyl.
“That’s how dangerous fentanyl is – to even be exposed to it can put your life at risk,” Price said.
When Baez Pena died, investigators said that the ring cleared the house of any drugs before calling 911. They believe that, after his body was taken away, the drugs were brought right back in, and the ring resumed normal operations.
Two weeks later, investigators say Felicia Gray texted Juan Anibal Patrone-Gonzalez, the alleged ringleader, and ordered fentanyl.
She overdosed the very next day.
“The pain never goes away,” Rhonda Gray said.
When asked whether she believes that the trafficking ring is responsible for her daughter’s death, Rhonda replied, “Absolutely.”
“They’re selling poison and they know it. And they’re killing people, and they know it,” she said.
Investigators also said some of the 30 people charged in connection with the ring joked about how deadly their product was. They’re now facing federal drug, gun, and immigration charges.
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