Indictment: Colombian drug ring leader connected to overdose death of Grand Forks man

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Officials have indicted a Colombian man believed to have orchestrated an international drug trafficking operation in connection to the fentanyl overdose death of a Grand Forks resident earlier this year.
Acting U.S. Attorney in the District of North Dakota, Chris Myers, delivers a press conference regarding federal drug charges against a Columbian national related to the overdose death of Bailey Henke on Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Grand Forks, N.D. Logan Werlinger / Forum News Service
Acting U.S. Attorney in the District of North Dakota, Chris Myers, delivers a press conference regarding federal drug charges against a Columbian national related to the overdose death of Bailey Henke on Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Grand Forks, N.D. Logan Werlinger / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Officials have indicted a Colombian man believed to have orchestrated an international drug trafficking operation in connection to the fentanyl overdose death of a Grand Forks resident earlier this year.

Officials on Tuesday unsealed the indictment of Daniel Vivas Ceron, 34, which alleges the Colombian was the leader of a drug ring he allegedly operated while incarcerated in a medium-security prison in Quebec.

He was taken into custody on July 17 in Panama City by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Panamanian authorities and is awaiting extradition to the U.S. to face drug conspiracy charges, Chris Myers, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of North Dakota, said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Vivas Ceron is the first known non-U.S. citizen to be indicted as a result of the seven-month probe-dubbed Operation Denial-that sprang from the death of 18-year-old Bailey Henke of Grand Forks, who overdosed in January on fentanyl citrate, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

"We want to try to deny drug traffickers from touching our youth," said Myers in explanation of the operation's name. "But also ... it's a cultural issue as much of the community here, much of the state, much of the country is in denial as to the dangers posed by drug traffickers."

The probe has since stretched from North Dakota to the West Coast and across U.S. borders.

Six others have been indicted on drug conspiracy charges in federal court in Grand Forks, among them five Grand Forks residents and one Portland, Ore., resident. At least three others have been indicted on drug distribution charges in federal courts elsewhere in the U.S. as part of Operation Denial.

The investigation is ongoing-both nationally and internationally-and Myers declined to comment on how many others have possibly been indicted as part of the investigation.

The indictment does list the initials of six individuals of whom Vivas Ceron was allegedly a leader in the drug trafficking operation, but makes no other mention of the individuals. The indictment also alleges Vivas Ceron arranged drug shipments to states across the U.S., including to Florida, North Dakota and Oregon.

Prosecutors say the drug ring Vivas Ceron allegedly headed was the source of the fentanyl that Henke-along with several jail inmates in Oregon-overdosed on.

Latina E. Brogdon, an inmate at a downtown Portland jail, died after taking a fatal dose of fentanyl smuggled into the facility in March, according to The Oregonian newspaper. Three other female inmates also overdosed but survived.

Investigators traced the fentanyl to which the Grand Forks man and the jail inmates fell victim to Brandon Corde Hubbard, 40, of Portland, who allegedly functioned as Vivas Ceron's middleman, according to Vivas Ceron's indictment.

Hubbard himself was indicted in federal court in Grand Forks in February on drug conspiracy and money laundering charges and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Investigators believe he imported $1.5 million worth of fentanyl citrate into the country from Canada and China in November 2014 and then distributed the drugs by mail throughout the U.S. Hubbard is set to go to trial Sept. 15.

Local response

Fentanyl citrate, a powdery substance that resembles flour, has since become the focal point of a local ad hoc committee comprised of Grand Forks area criminal justice officials, medical professionals and educators.

The committee has taken steps to publicize the dangers in taking fentanyl citrate and other synthetic drugs to try to dissuade young people from taking such potent-and often unpredictable-narcotics.

"(Fentanyl citrate is) lethal in small doses," said Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson. "The amount that could fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen could be enough to kill your child."

That statistic has been widely publicized by the group through news releases, educational videos and emails to school children's parents.

In one of the educational videos, officials cited statistics from the Grand Forks County Coroner's Office, which show 12 people examined by the coroner's office in 2014 had died from fentanyl, the most lives claimed by any one drug in that year.

Nelson pointed to the drug culture some young people are steeped in as a cause for concern.

Nelson quoted one young person as having told him, "You're not living until you're dying."

"Arrest is a byproduct of this. I would just as soon as the chief of police tell you I don't need to make any arrests because we've changed the culture," he said. "We don't need any more kids dying of this."