The distribution of fentanyl in Harrison County since 2010 has been linked, in part, to a man from China and his company in one of the Justice Department’s first-ever indictments against Chinese manufacturers of illegal substances.
Two Chinese nationals have been indicted on charges they manufactured tons of fentanyl and other powerful narcotics that were then peddled in the United States, killing at least four people and seriously injuring five others, Justice Department officials announced Tuesday.
Authorities said the men controlled one of the most prolific international drug-trafficking organizations, but with no extradition treaty with China, the chances are slim they will ever be brought to the U.S. to face the charges.
The men, who are not in custody, are accused of separately running chemical labs in China that produced the drug and other illegal opioids for sale online to Americans who were often unaware of its potency and susceptible to overdose. At least 21 other people were also indicted on charges they trafficked the drugs across the U.S. and Canada, often through the U.S. mail.
An indictment unsealed in U.S. District Court Monday charges Xiaobing Yan, 40, and 9W Technology Co. Ltd. in a conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and import controlled substances and analogues into the United States. Analogues, often called designer drugs, have similar chemical components to controlled substances.
According to the indictment, Yan’s business also manufactured an assortment of bath salts and stimulants including alpha-PVP, known as Flakka or Gravel and often called the zombie drug because of the bizarre behavior it can cause.
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues killed more than 20,000 people in the U.S. in 2016, the CDC says.
Yan, also known as Steven Yan and William Zhou, used different company names in China and different product names over a period of six years and operated websites to sell fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, the news release said.
His charges carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Shipments to Harrison County
Yan’s indictment lists seven separate occasions that illegal substances made by his company allegedly were shipped to Harrison County between Sept. 30, 2015, and April 5, 2016.
The substances include acetyl fentanyl, valeryl fentanyl, furanyl fentanyl, and 4-fluoroisobutyryfentanyl, the indictment says, and mexedrome, similar to ecstasy, and pentylone, a psychostimulant.
Yan operated at least two plants in China capable of making tons of drugs, and he monitored U.S. laws, changing the chemical structure of fentanyl as analogue laws changed to avoid prosecution, the news release said. The federal government has a list of illegal analogues that is constantly being updated.
During the investigation, law enforcement officers reportedly intercepted several kilos of acetyl fentanyl — enough for thousands of lethal doses — mailed from Yan’s online operations, the Justice Department said.
In a related case, Jian Zhang, 38, of China, five Canadian residents, two Florida residents and a New Jersey resident have been indicted on similar federal charges in North Dakota. Zhang’s actions reportedly led to four deaths and serious bodily injuries to five people in 2014 and 2015.
Investigation into the two men began after a police investigation of two young adults who overdosed, officials said. One of them died.
The Justice Department designated Yan and Zhang as “consolidated priority organization targets,” and “among the most significant drug trafficking threats in the world,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a written statement.
Rosenstein, who discussed the problem with Chinese officials last week during a high-level dialogue on law enforcement and cybersecurity, would not say whether the labs have been shut down. He said he was hopeful Chinese authorities would hold the men accountable.
The announcement comes as the Trump administration suffered a setback in its efforts to call attention to the nation’s drug crisis. Its nominee to be the nation’s drug czar withdrew Tuesday from consideration following reports that he played a key role in weakening the federal government’s authority to stop companies from distributing opioids.
It also comes amid growing pressure on President Donald Trump to fulfill his pledge to declare the nation’s opioid epidemic a “national emergency,” as a commission he’s convened on the subject has urged him to do. An initial report from the commission in July noted that the approximate 142 deaths each day from drug overdoses mean the death toll is “equal to September 11th every three weeks.”
A sign of White House interest in the issue, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway quietly attended Tuesday’s news conference at the Justice Department.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.