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FBI: 9 indicted in fentanyl trafficking operation

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    Russell Watson Jr.

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    A bag of 4-fluoro isobutyryl fentanyl.

    AP

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A group suspected of selling large quantities of the deadly opioid fentanyl in the Toledo area has been indicted in U.S. District Court.

Federal prosecutors said the group, which included eight Toledo residents, was responsible for distributing at least 400 grams of the prescription painkiller — enough to kill “thousands” in unintended overdoses, said U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman.

“We have to keep doing this as often as we can,” Mr. Herdman said in a telephone interview.

He reiterated his office's commitment to “doing everything we can to disrupt the supply and make it more difficult for the people selling this poison.”

Fentanyl, which is considered 50 times more potent than heroin, was believed to have been responsible for more than half of the 4,000 overdose deaths in Ohio in 2016.

On Thursday, FBI agents working with Toledo police arrested eight of the nine people alleged to be involved in the fentanyl ring. Officers also seized suspected drugs, cash, and guns while executing those arrest warrants.

Arrested were Terrance Allen, 25; Nathaniel Barringer, 23; Chad Burkholder, 34; Megan Champion, 40; Ryin Douglas-Reed, 28, Laurie Lehman, 49, and Donte Walker, 30, all of Toledo, and Julie Murdock, 47, of Petersburg, Mich.

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Russell Watson Jr.

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Russell Watson, Jr., 37, of Toledo was still being sought late Thursday. An FBI spokesman said a reward was available for information leading to his arrest.

Each of the nine individuals was indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least 400 grams of fentanyl between March and August. The indictment seeks the forfeiture of any property derived from proceeds they received.

Mike Tobin, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said that while purity levels of fentanyl vary and every user reacts differently, the drugs the group is accused of distributing could cause countless fatal overdoses.

“If you divide 400 grams by 1,000 micrograms, which is viewed as all that is needed to make death likely, you come up with 400,000 fatalities,” he said.

During appearances Thursday afternoon in federal court before Magistrate Judge James Knepp, seven of the defendants entered not guilty pleas and were ordered held in the Lucas County jail. Ms. Champion, who did not appear in court, was hospitalized following a medical emergency.

Michael Freeman, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the charge carries a mandatory minimum term of 10 years in prison up to life and a maximum fine of $10 million.

In addition to causing fatal overdoses in users, exposure to fentanyl also has had dangerous consequences recently for law enforcement officers responding to overdose calls.

Last month, Toledo police Officer Lisa Fauver was rendered unconscious after particles of what was believed to be fentanyl were blown at her by the air conditioning unit in her police cruiser. She had placed a contaminated item on the dashboard.

At a news conference following a meeting between law enforcement officials and U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) to discuss the recent wave of fentanyl overdoses, Toledo police Chief George Kral said his department is in uncharted territory.

“We've seen things in the past month that we haven't seen ever,” the chief said. “We have officers who are pulling cars over and they're in homes they're coming into contact with things that we just don't know what they are.”

“What is a pulled muscle as opposed to, 'I just had fentanyl put on me'?” he added.

Chief Kral said the department is spending $10,000 a month on Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug, and is looking for state or federal help in covering the cost.

The chief said in a news release that Thursday's arrests are significant.

“Those in our community who continue to sell drugs, carry firearms, and victimize others should take notice of these arrests,” he said. “We now hope that the judiciary will impose the harshest of sentences if convictions are realized.”

Among the nine individuals indicted in the fentanyl distribution conspiracy, Douglas-Reed was most recently arrested July 12 by Toledo police in a tense traffic stop on North Detroit Avenue that was streamed on Facebook Live by a bystander.

Other onlookers quickly gathered as officers told Douglas-Reed to get out of the car. He was taken into custody without injury, and officers found a gun within reach of the driver’s seat, police said.

The video went viral on social media and raised questions about whether police escalated the situation. However, police said the video showed restraint by the officers.

Douglas-Reed was charged with improperly handling firearms in a motor vehicle and other offenses stemming from that incident.

Staff Writer Liz Skalka contributed to this report.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.

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