FARGO – Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Fargo on Friday, April 27, and announced the unsealing of two indictments in an international fentanyl case involving an opioid-dealing ring that reached into North Dakota.

Sessions spoke at Fargo’s federal courthouse in front of a crowd that included law enforcement officials, prosecutors and news reporters. He said investigators traced the ring dealing fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, back to China, Canada and other places.

One indictment involves Jian Zhang, 38, who faces five federal charges including money laundering and conspiracy. Zhang, and four other Chinese nationals indicted in the case, are considered fugitives, Sessions said, and three other co-conspirators in the case have been arrested in three different states.

The second indictment involves six people who face three federal charges, including conspiracy and continuing a criminal enterprise.

The case involving Zhang began with the investigation into the overdose death of Bailey Henke, 18, in Grand Forks in January 2015.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Sessions said the defendants in that case sold fentanyl and its analogues in 11 states across the U.S. using about 30 different aliases, cryptocurrency and encrypted communications. He said they laundered money through third parties.

The attorney general also announced that the Treasury Department sanctioned Jian Zhang as a significant narcotics trafficker under the Kingpin Act and also issued sanctions against Zhang’s Chinese biotechnology company.

“This is the first time that Treasury has designated an alleged fentanyl trafficker for sanctions,” Sessions said.

Sessions also spoke about the nation’s drug crisis, calling it an epidemic. Nearly 64,000 people died due to drug overdoses in 2016, he said.

Opioids, like prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are the main drivers of the epidemic, Sessions said, with fentanyl killing 20,000 people in 2016. "There can be no doubt that this is the deadliest drug crisis in the history of this country,” he said.

He said President Donald Trump has declared the crisis a national health emergency and has set “an ambitious goal of reducing opioid prescriptions in America by one-third in three years.”

Sessions said the Justice Department has taken aggressive steps in recent years to prosecute opioid cases, with a particular focus on fentanyl. Fentanyl prosecutions have tripled between 2016 and 2017, he said.

Sessions praised the work done by North Dakota law enforcement and prosecutors, especially that of North Dakota’s U.S. attorney, Chris Myers. Myers won an “outstanding prosecutor of the year” award in December for his work in combating drugs.

Gov. Doug Burgum said he supports the Justice Department’s efforts in fighting the drug crisis.

“We have witnessed the devastating effects of fentanyl and opioid overdoses on our families

and communities right here in North Dakota and across the nation,” Burgum said in a news release.

Drug overdose deaths tripled in North Dakota between 2013 and 2016, going from 20 to 77, according to the governor.

"We are going to turn this tide. We are not going to allow what's happening to continue, the deaths to continue," Sessions said.