SANTA ANA, California – Three Orange County men have been charged in a scheme to use the synthetic opioid fentanyl and a similar drug to manufacture and distribute counterfeit pharmaceutical pills designed to look like brand-name oxycodone pills.
A criminal complaint filed Wednesday in United States District Court alleges that the men obtained fentanyl and an analogue called cyclopropyl fentanyl through internet suppliers, used a pill press to make counterfeit pills, and distributed the narcotics through the mails, often arranging sales through a darknet marketplace.
The complaint alleges one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. The three defendants named in the complaint are:
Wyatt Pasek, 21, of Santa Ana;
Isaiah Suarez, 22, of Newport Beach; and
Duc Cao, 20, of Orange.
All three men were taken into custody Tuesday afternoon in conjunction with the execution of federal search warrants across Orange County. They were charged in federal court on Wednesday and made their initial court appearances on Wednesday afternoon. All three defendants remain in custody at this time.
When the defendants were arrested, authorities seized a pill press lab in Suarez’s apartment, along with bags that contained nearly 3 kilograms of what appear to be counterfeit oxycodone and Xanax pills, and bags that contained approximately 4.5 kilograms of white and blue powders that are currently being tested. A search of Pasek’s residence revealed approximately 13,000 pills that appeared to be counterfeit oxycodone and bundles of United States currency.
“Fentanyl is an extremely powerful drug that is further complicating the severe problems we are seeing in relation to this nation’s opioid epidemic,” said United States Attorney Nicola T. Hanna. “Using fentanyl in a counterfeit pill that appears to look like a less-lethal opioid dramatically increases the possibility of overdoses – and deaths that we see far too often.”
“Our country is facing a multifaceted threat: dangerous opioids such as fentanyl and its analogues are inundating our mail system and are being pressed into counterfeit pharmaceutical pills that are flooding our streets,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge David J. Downing. “These are alarming trends, and multi-agency coordination is paramount to combating this epidemic.”
“We recognize that the opioid epidemic transcends the boundaries of our Costa Mesa community and this case is a prime example of that. Fentanyl is a highly dangerous opioid that contributes heavily to the epidemic,” said Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack. “We want to thank the agencies involved for partnering with us on the investigation that got these three individuals off the streets.”
During a six-month investigation led by the DEA and the Costa Mesa Police Department, authorities recovered blue pills stamped “A 215” that resemble 30 mg. pills of the opioid oxycodone. The pills, which were linked to Pasek, were later tested and determined to contain fentanyl or cyclopropyl fentanyl, according to the affidavit in support of the complaint.
On March 5, Cao was observed depositing seven packages into a Postal Service collection box. When those packages were searched pursuant to a court order, authorities discovered approximately 1,400 blue pills with “A 215” markings that were being shipped to addresses across the United States, according to the affidavit, which noted that pills from all seven parcels tested positive for fentanyl.
On April 2, Cao visited Pasek’s residence, then travelled to the pill press lab in Newport Beach, and then drove to a Post Office in Santa Ana, where authorities later recovered 13 boxes that were similar to those seized on March 5. The 13 boxes contained over 4,000 “A 215” pills.
The affidavit describes intelligence obtained during the investigation that “indicated that Pasek only sells narcotics through the internet and ships his products through the mail.” Authorities believe that Pasek’s drug trafficking activities are done through “darknet marketplaces where the primary currency of doing business is bitcoin.”
During his court appearance on Wednesday, Cao was ordered detained as he is a citizen of Vietnam and his student visa has expired. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for April 18, and an arraignment was set for April 23.
Suarez’s detention hearing was continued until this afternoon, and Pasek is due back in court Friday afternoon.
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
If they were to be convicted of the charge of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, each defendant would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
This matter is being investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Costa Mesa Police Department, the United States Postal Inspection Service, IRS Criminal Investigation, the Food and Drug Administration - Office of Criminal Investigations, and the United States Marshals Service.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Brett Sagel of the Santa Ana Branch Office.