TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Authorities said Wednesday that they've dismantled a major drug-trafficking operation in northeast Kansas responsible for a college student's fatal overdose in 2017, resulting in criminal charges against more than 50 people.
Federal and local officials said they've been investigating trafficking in heroin, methamphetamines, the powerful opioid fentanyl and other drugs in the Manhattan area for three years. They said some of the defendants now facing charges are former Chicago residents and obtained illegal drugs largely from Chicago.
A federal grand jury issued 13 indictments last week charging 54 people with conspiring to distribute illegal drugs, illegally using guns and Facebook Messenger to further drug trafficking, and other crimes. The indictments were unsealed Tuesday, and most defendants are in custody.
Six defendants are charged with a conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs that resulted in the death of another person, with the indictment linking them to the September 2017 overdose of an 18-year-old Kansas State University student who died in his off-campus apartment. Officials said he was trying heroin, but it was laced with fentanyl and it can be deadly even in very small amounts.
"There's constant prosecution of the drug offenses. It's more difficult to get our hands around larger organizations," said Stephen McAllister, the U.S. attorney for Kansas, said during a news conference. "Manhattan was an opportunity to really clean out a city, and we don't get that opportunity all that often."
Manhattan, with about 55,000 residents, sits amid the rolling hills of the tallgrass prairie about 110 miles west of Kansas City.
Capt. Tim Hegarty, head of the Riley County Police Department's investigations division, said authorities believe the drug-trafficking operation is linked to other overdose deaths in the area but was not more specific about the details. McAllister said it's possible that people involved in the operation also used illegal drugs and overdosed themselves.
Hegarty said his department already was investigating the local trafficking operation when the Kansas State student died. He said local officials then approached the U.S. attorney's office and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration about the student's death.
McAllister noted that a federal-court conviction for conspiring to distribute heroin that results in bodily injury or death carries a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
William Callahan, the special agent in charge of the DEA's St. Louis division, said authorities were working to "identify a complete network" instead of stopping with "the street-level source of supply." He said law enforcement agencies collectively decided "that we're going to dismantle the organization."
"That's why you're seeing such a large take-down in this area," he said. "We focused on the organization."
The indictments provided few details about the drug-trafficking operation and didn't specify each defendant's role in the broader organization, except to group some of them as alleged co-conspirators. They did not put a value on the drugs the organization was selling.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Skip Jacobs, the lead prosecutor, said questions about which defendants were higher up in the organization will "kind of play itself out in court."
"It's one criminal network that can be segregated into a number of different subsections," Jacobs told reporters.