Pubdate: Thu, 06 Oct 2016
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Jon Kamp and Arian Campo Flores


The Pill Makers Next Door: How America's Opioid Crisis Is Spreading
Ingredients for the deadly synthetic narcotic fentanyl are so easy to 
obtain that mom-and-pop drug labs are cropping up around the country, 
Breaking Bad-style

SAN FRANCISCO-The married couple living in the third-floor, ocean-view
apartment were friendly and ambitious. She explored the city, posting
selfies on Facebook. He started a small music label at home.

"They were nice people," said Ann McGlenon, their former landlady.
"She's very sweet. He's a go-getter."

Authorities say Candelaria Vazquez and Kia Zolfaghari had darker
aspirations. Working from unit 6, the pair built a small enterprise
making counterfeit prescription pills, the Drug Enforcement
Administration says. They designed pills to resemble legitimate
oxycodone tablets, with an important, and potentially dangerous,
twist, according to the DEA: Instead of oxycodone, they used the
deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl as a main ingredient.

Mr. Zolfaghari worked a pill-press machine in their two-bedroom, 1,100
square-foot apartment, the DEA said, where they also kept an action
figure of Walter White, the protagonist of the series "Breaking Bad,"
in which a high-school chemistry teacher cooks up batches of

According to a DEA affidavit, the couple sold the pills to buyers
around the U.S., including in Washington state and North Carolina. A
federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted them on June 21 on
charges including conspiracy to manufacture and distribute fentanyl.
Both pleaded not guilty.

Small-scale drug labs are cropping up around the country, as budding
home-brew traffickers discover how easy it is to manufacture pills
using synthetic opioids to meet a skyrocketing demand. Law enforcement
says the phenomenon threatens to atomize the illicit narcotics trade,
adding a troubling new dimension for authorities already strained
trying to halt larger-scale drug gangs.

Abuse of opioids, including prescription drugs, heroin and synthetic
narcotics like fentanyl, has reached crisis proportions. The Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 28,000 people died
from opioid-related overdoses in 2014, the last year of nationwide
data, more than double the total from a decade earlier.

More-recent figures from individual states compiled by The Wall Street
Journal suggest the crisis is getting worse, supercharged by fentanyl,
a synthetic drug up to 50 times as powerful as heroin. Ten
states-Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut,
Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio-saw 12,244
fatal drug overdoses of all kinds in 2015, up 21% from 2014, while
fentanyl-related deaths across those states soared 128% to 3,883.

Authorities are investigating roughly a dozen suspected fentanyl
pill-making operations in states including California, Tennessee and
Utah, according to the DEA and local investigators.

These manufacturers aren't the usual drug kingpins, and some, such as
Mr. Zolfaghari and Ms. Vazquez, have no known cartel ties. Instead,
they have all the necessary supplies. Though illegal, anyone can order
online ingredients needed to set up shop at home, including mixing
agents and pill-pressing equipment.

One kilogram of fentanyl, which runs about $3,500 from a Chinese
manufacturer, can yield as many as one million pills, according to the
DEA. At a street price of $10 a tablet, that can generate $10 million
in sales. And barriers to entry are low. A pill press used to mold
powder into a tablet runs roughly $1,000, and a die set to stamp it
with markings that mimic prescription medication costs about $130, the
DEA says.

"What is scary is that it's the tip of the iceberg," says Casey
Rettig, a special agent in the DEA's San Francisco division, referring
to the freewheeling nature of some small-scale pill-making operations.
"It begs the question for us: Are sellers just going to press
anything" into pills?

The arrival of small-scale fentanyl pill makers represents a new phase
in the illicit drug trade. A decade ago, fentanyl surfaced as a street
drug in the U.S., mixed into the heroin supply. At the time, federal
authorities traced it to a lab in Toluca, Mexico, that obtained
fentanyl ingredients from suppliers in China, according to the DEA.
After Mexican authorities shut the Toluca lab down in 2006, the
problem largely petered out.

Around 2013, roughly when authorities were cracking down on pain
clinics that sold vast quantities of prescription opioids, bootleg
fentanyl started making a comeback on the streets. Some U.S. buyers
today are ordering fentanyl online directly from Chinese labs.
Catering to the same demand pain clinics once served, new drugmakers
are turning fentanyl powder into tablets that often are externally
identical to legitimate prescription drugs.

In June, law enforcement in Utah arrested a man who allegedly bought a
fentanyl variant online and pressed it into fake oxycodone pills in a
motel room in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy. In January,
authorities arrested a union tradesman accused of making thousands of
imitation oxycodone tablets with the fentanyl variant acetyl fentanyl
in his Queens, N.Y., home.

Because of a lack of quality control-the pill makers sometimes use
kitchen blenders to mix ingredients-the amount of fentanyl in tablets
can vary by a factor of 10 or more, according to a lab analysis cited
by the DEA. Unsuspecting buyers could end up ingesting something much
more powerful than what they were expecting.

Replicas of generic hydrocodone painkiller tablets that actually
contained fentanyl caused more than 50 overdoses, including at least
13 deaths, in the Sacramento, Calif., area in March and April. "These
people are going down hard, they're going down extremely fast," said
Timothy Albertson, a toxicologist and internist at UC Davis Medical
Center in Sacramento, which received 18 pill victims in eight days,
including one who died.

The pills were stamped with "M367," which made them look like real
generic pain tablets sold by Mallinckrodt PLC that are supposed to
contain hydrocodone bitartrate and acetaminophen. A company
spokeswoman said the company has been working with the DEA concerning
the Sacramento probe.

In Tennessee, authorities linked three deaths earlier this year to
fentanyl-laced tablets that were made to resemble a brand-name
painkiller. Investigators believe multiple pill-making operations
function in the state, said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
spokesman Josh DeVine.

At least nine people in Pinellas County, Fla., died between January
and March from tablets mimicking an antianxiety medication that
instead contained synthetic opioids, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. "For
all I know, it was some guy in a garage here" making them, he said.

Ms. Vazquez and Mr. Zolfaghari, the San Francisco couple, who are both
40, are unlikely candidates to run a drug lab.

Ms. Vazquez, who goes by "Candy," studied health information
technology at Western Career College in the nearby city of Emeryville
nearly a decade ago, according to her Facebook page. Of Filipino
heritage, she worked several years ago in a job taking care of elderly
people, according to her friend Mae Romano-Dunning.

Mr. Zolfaghari is from Fremont, Calif., and played football in high
school and community college, according to his father, Behrooz
Zolfaghari, who came to the U.S. from Iran nearly 50 years ago. The
younger Mr. Zolfaghari started his own independent hip-hop music label
focused on up-and-coming rappers. The label no longer has an operating

By about 2010, Mr. Zolfaghari had rented a small house in Richmond,
Calif., telling his landlord, Robert Riggs, he worked at a local Honda
dealership. "As far as I know he was a nice guy," Mr. Riggs said.

Mr. Zolfaghari and Ms. Vazquez traveled to Reno, Las Vegas and Beverly
Hills together, posting photos of their trips on Ms. Vazquez's
Facebook page. They married in 2013, according to her attorney.

Mr. Zolfaghari was struggling with an addiction to opioids sparked by
old football injuries, his father said, which led his son to fentanyl.

In March 2014, likely while living in Richmond, Mr. Zolfaghari started
buying pill-making supplies, including cutting and binding agents, to
process fentanyl, according to email records reviewed by the DEA.

The agency's Ms. Rettig declined to address where he allegedly
acquired the equipment. She said it is common for manufacturers to
order supplies online from China or sometimes through the "darknet"-a
restricted part of the internet accessible only with special software.
Though it is illegal to import pill presses without notifying the DEA,
the agency said Chinese suppliers sometimes ship them in pieces to
evade detection.

In early 2015, Ms. Vazquez and Mr. Zolfaghari relocated to a modern
apartment in San Francisco's tranquil Sunset District. They told their
new landlady they wanted to improve their credit so they could buy a
place of their own.

Mr. Zolfaghari talked about his passion for music. He had high hopes
for an album by their friend King Harris, a rapper from Oxnard,
Calif., and in September 2015, he filed paperwork with the California
Secretary of State for a new venture called Planet Zero Records LLC.

The husband and wife set up their fentanyl pill-making operation after
moving in, the DEA says. The tablets Mr. Zolfaghari made were
circular, white and stamped "ETH" and "446," markings seen on some
oxycodone pills, according to a DEA affidavit.

Pill-making typically involves mixing fentanyl with a cutting agent
such as mannitol, a sugary substance, to dilute its strength,
according to Karl Nichols, a special agent in the DEA's San Francisco
division. The manufacturer adds a binding agent to hold the
ingredients together and pours the mixture into a funnel on the pill
press. A small amount drops into a die set, and with the swing of a
handle, the pill press stamps the mixture into a tablet.

During a six-month span, Mr. Zolfaghari sold more than 1,500
fentanyl-laced pills to a confidential source working with the DEA, in
deals brokered by their friend, the rapper Mr. Harris, according to
the DEA affidavit. The grand jury also indicted Mr. Harris, who has
pleaded not guilty.

Ms. Vazquez didn't return calls seeking comment, and her lawyer, Mark
Goldrosen, said he was still reviewing the case. Mr. Harris declined
to discuss the case, citing his attorney's advice. Mr. Zolfaghari's
attorney, Harris Taback, declined to address the charges against his
client, who, he recently said, was in court-ordered drug treatment.

On one recorded call, the DEA says, Mr. Harris told the source that
Mr. Zolfaghari promised "that he can press 100 out fast as f-."

Authorities say Mr. Zolfaghari also sold pills on the darknet,
including one package sent to Charlotte, N.C. He conducted numerous
transactions using bitcoin and appeared to have cashed out over
$230,000 in the digital currency, according to a DEA seizure-warrant
application. Ms. Vazquez's role centered on receiving drug proceeds,
buying supplies and mailing pill shipments, authorities say.

California's largest tax-collection agency doesn't show any reported
employer wages for Mr. Zolfaghari for the years 2012 through 2015,
according to the seizure-warrant application. But the couple were good
tenants who paid their $3,000 monthly rent on time with cashier's
checks, according to their landlady. They once triggered a noise
complaint, which they quickly addressed by moving a TV and
disconnecting a subwoofer speaker, their landlady said.

In May, Mr. Zolfaghari and Ms. Vazquez celebrated their third wedding
anniversary at a Morton's steakhouse, where a custom-printed menu
congratulated them. Mr. Zolfaghari bought his wife flowers and a Louis
Vuitton purse. Ms. Vazquez posted pictures on her Facebook page as she
went to the hair salon and prepared for their date. "Have fun
beautiful couple," one friend wrote.

That same month, Mr. Zolfaghari's Planet Zero Records label released
"Nightmare on Wolff Street," an album by Mr. Harris. "We believe we'll
be up for a Grammy," Mr. Zolfaghari told Ms. McGlenon, his landlady.
He sent her a link to listen to the album, whose second track is
called "Dope House."

In a June buy, Mr. Harris ordered 500 pills at a price of $6,000 for a
DEA informant, the agency said. After the informant deposited the
money in a bank account in Ms. Vazquez's name, the DEA said, Mr.
Zolfaghari texted Mr. Harris, "Got it, had orders for 800 yesterday so
I gotta get back to work right now."

The next day, Mr. Zolfaghari and Mr. Harris met outside the San
Francisco apartment. Agents observed Mr. Zolfaghari exit the building
wearing a dark beanie cap, sunglasses and a satchel. Mr. Harris opened
his car trunk and Mr. Zolfaghari handed him a tan envelope that agents
said they later found contained 500 fentanyl-laced tablets.

On June 10, authorities descended on their building, sealed off the
street below and arrested the couple, as well as Mr. Harris. A
clandestine-lab team from the DEA, outfitted with white
hazardous-materials suits and oxygen tanks, entered their apartment.

Inside, investigators found the array of pill-making equipment,
according to the seizure-warrant application.

A glass display case contained three luxury watches valued at $70,000.
Ms. Vazquez's "shoe collection was stacked virtually from floor to
ceiling," many with price tags of more than $1,000, the
seizure-warrant application says. There was $44,000 in cash in a
bedroom and a trove of expensive goods, including Hermes bracelets and
Tom Ford handbags. And one Walter White doll.
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