FARGO-A Rhode Island man acted as an "organizer" of an international drug ring and helped distribute tens of thousands of fentanyl pills across the U.S., federal prosecutors alleged in recently unsealed court documents.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Fargo described in indictments how 37-year-old Steven Barros Pinto of Pawtucket, R.I., worked with others to have pure fentanyl shipped from China to the U.S. before using the drug to make pills in Rhode Island and Florida. Pinto, who appeared Friday in U.S. District Court in Fargo on numerous drug-related charges, was indicted in March in connection to Operation Denial.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

The international investigation into drug operations was launched after the January 2015 overdose death of 18-year-old Bailey Henke of Grand Forks.

The investigation has led to charges against numerous suspects, including Jian Zhang, 39, of China and Daniel Vivas Ceron, 37, of Colombia. The recently unsealed documents connect Pinto, also known as Yeaboy, to the drug ring that investigators said resulted in multiple overdose deaths and injuries across the U.S.

Prosecutors said Zhang, a Chinese national, led drug operations in China and arranged shipments of fentanyl from his country to the U.S. Also known as Hong Kong Zaron, Zhang led the criminal conspiracy by establishing and using the business name "Zaron Bio-tech," according to court documents.

Ceron allegedly "led and organized the drug-trafficking organization" while incarcerated in a medium-security prison in Quebec, according to court documents.

In one instance, an undercover agent arranged the purchase of 250 grams of fentanyl by sending $10,000 in virtual currency to a Bitcoin account as directed by Ceron, according to court documents. The fentanyl came from China, prosecutors said.

Ceron also sent multiple packages to informants between early 2014 and mid-2015 that contained pure fentanyl and pre-made fentanyl pills, according to court documents. The informant, who said Ceron sent "in excess of 2 kilograms of fentanyl," told investigators he or she manufactured thousands of pills and distributed them throughout the U.S., court documents said.

The same informant said he or she worked with Pinto to manufacture and distribute the pills, which were blue in color-in some instances, up to 40,000 at a time-between 2015 and 2017, according to court documents.

"Steven Pinto utilized multiple people and/or addresses to receive packages of pure fentanyl powder shipped into the United States from China, conduct money transfers ... and assist in the distribution of fentanyl pills," court documents said, adding he "was the principal administrator, organizer and leader of the enterprise."

Emails and wire transfers used in drug transactions also linked Pinto to Ceron, according to court documents.

Pinto is in custody at the Cass County Jail in Fargo. His charges include conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance that resulted in serious bodily injury and death, continuing criminal enterprise, tampering with witnesses and obstruction of justice.

Ceron also faces a multitude of similar charges but has pleaded not guilty in the case. His jury trial is set for Sept. 11. He also is being held at the Cass County Jail.

Zhang has been designated by the U.S. as a significant narcotics trafficker under the Kingpin Act, a first for an alleged fentanyl dealer, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said when he announced Zhang's indictment during an April news conference in Fargo.

Sessions said Zhang was arrested with others in the U.S.

About a dozen defendants have been given prison sentences in relation to arrests in Operation Denial.