A couple of months ago, Seattle police and federal agents found 50,000 fentanyl pills secreted in the wheel well of a mid-size SUV. An additional 15,000 pills — known as “blues” on the streets — were recently recovered inside a backpack at a local hotel and ended with the owner’s arrest when he returned to retrieve the bag.
“It’s just everywhere on the streets,” interim police Chief Adrian Diaz said at a Wednesday news conference at Seattle Police Department headquarters. “We want to raise awareness about fentanyl overdoses and the number of pills that are out there. People are taking them and dying.”
Cheaper to manufacture compared with meth or heroin, fentanyl pills are being churned out by Mexican drug cartels and run up the Interstate 5 corridor or else are being made by local entrepreneurs with their own pill presses. Because fentanyl is a synthetic opiate, it’s also harder to detect than organic compounds and delivers a higher high, now making it the drug of choice in King County, according to Diaz and Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
So far this year, SPD in partnership with HSI and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration have taken three times the number of fentanyl pills off the streets as they did in 2018, Hammer said. Police and federal agents are also seizing far more guns — plenty of illegally-modified long guns but also stolen handguns and untraceable ghost guns — as part of an ongoing investigation that’s been dubbed Operation Bear Trap.
Of the 120 individuals identified in the operation’s “initial intelligence swath,” 92% of them had existing criminal histories and 65% had three or more felony convictions, said Hammer. The operation has netted at least 66 arrests, seizure of 36 firearms and $2.3 million in cash.
“This is a multibillion-dollar industry,” with sophisticated hierarchies overseeing logistics, supply chains and transportation networks, Hammer said.
Late last week, the three agencies arrested four suspected narcotics dealers, resulting in the seizure of 3,923 counterfeit fentanyl pills stamped to look like M30 oxycodone pills, 900 Xanax pills potentially laced with fentanyl, 62.7 grams of powder cocaine, 406 grams of meth and 52 grams of black tar heroin, Diaz said.
King County already has experienced more than 700 overdose deaths this year, half of them involving fentanyl, Diaz said. There were approximately 525 overdose deaths last year, he said.
“So far this year, SPD has seized nearly 650,000 fentanyl-based pills. That’s actually 10 times more than last year, when we seized 63,000 pills alone. And in 2018, we recovered fewer than 200 fentanyl-based pills,” Diaz said.
Seattle police also have seized more than 1,000 guns and responded to more than 580 shootings this year, and many of those are believed to be connected to drug-trafficking enterprises, according to Diaz. The weapons seized are on pace to exceed the guns taken off the streets last year, despite a staffing crisis that’s seen a couple of hundred officers retire or leave the department over the past two years, the chief said.
A couple of hundred of the seized guns have been used in two or more shootings, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has identified 25 guns used in four or more shootings, not just in Seattle but in neighboring cities like Kent and Auburn and as far away as Portland, Diaz said.
As for the drugs being taken off the streets, Diaz acknowledged it’s likely only a small amount compared with “what’s really out there.”
The cartels are importing drug components from China, Iran and other countries while local drug manufacturers are getting ingredients off the dark web and setting up labs in basements, storage units and hotel rooms, said Hammer, noting nine pill presses, each capable of pressing thousands of pills a day, have been seized in King County since summer.
The “blues” are pressed and stamped to look like blue OxyContin pills manufactured by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, said Matt Hendry, the acting lieutenant of SPD’s narcotics unit. Most recently, he’s heard of pills in another state being stamped to look like Aleve, a blue, over-the-counter painkiller.
“These are super high quality pills coming up from Mexico,” he said, adding that most experienced users “know what they’re getting” and aren’t being duped into thinking they’re taking prescription pain pills.
Even long-term addicts who’ve built up a tolerance to opioids are overdosing on them, Hendry said. Although fentanyl brings a higher high, its effects don’t last as long as heroin, and so thefts and other crimes associated with addiction also have gone up as users find ways to fund their habits.
The narcotics unit, which is down to 13 detectives, doesn’t do street-level busts, leaving those investigations to members of the department’s Community Response Group, Hendry said.
“We’re trying to focus on the interdiction aspect and get it in bigger bulk,” he said, noting each pill costs around $10 on the street, compared with a similar hit of heroin or meth that goes for $20.