FARGO — Twenty-six people face federal charges in connection with illegal opioid trafficking between Detroit, Mich., and three American Indian reservations in North Dakota.
The charges stem from activity starting in 2015 and continuing through late 2020, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Drew Wrigley said Thursday, Jan. 7, at a news conference.
He said the illegal activity included the trafficking of tens of thousands of oxycodone pills worth about $2.5 million.
A law enforcement effort dubbed "Operation Blue Prairie" led investigators to two Detroit-based brothers accused of establishing a "continuing criminal enterprise" that recruited North Dakota residents, some of them addicts, to become low-level drug dealers peddling oxycodone pills, Wrigley said.
As of Thursday, a total of 26 people had made initial appearances in U.S. District Court as a result of Operation Blue Prairie, according to Wrigley, who added that brothers Baquan Sledge and Darius Sledge are suspected of organizing drug traffic between Detroit and the Fort Berthold, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake reservations in North Dakota.
The Sledge brothers face a variety of federal charges relating to distributing and possessing with intent to distribute controlled substances, according to Wrigley, who added that 24 other defendants also face charges in connection with the alleged drug trafficking, including 17 from North Dakota.
Wrigley said the other defendants, like the Sledge brothers, mostly hail from the Detroit area. Though, one defendant, he said, is from Kentucky.
If convicted of certain charges, each of the Sledge brothers will face a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison.
Officials said eight of the 26 people charged as part of Operation Blue Prairie have already pleaded guilty to charges, and Wrigley said a number of defendants are cooperating with authorities.
Wrigley said the drug conspiracy involved using planes, trains and automobiles to bring large numbers of pills into North Dakota.
"It was the objective of this conspiracy to target and exploit the largely Native American population on our Indian reservations here in North Dakota," Wrigley said, adding that many of the individuals recruited to take part were women, a number of them suffering from addiction.
He said the trafficking was a driver of opioid addiction and overdose problems in Indian Country and around the state of North Dakota.
"This remains very much an epidemic problem," Wrigley said, referring to opioid trafficking and overdoses.