Pubdate: Mon, 02 Jan 2017
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: David Armstrong (STAT)


LUBBOCK, Texas - Across from a sprawling cotton field, among mobile homes
in varying states of decay, one stood out: a double-wide with a new,
expansive metal garage and the only paved driveway on the dead-end street.

It was here that an unemployed former computer repairman with a bad back
ran what a drug informant called the biggest fentanyl ring in Lubbock. All
Sidney Lanier needed was a computer and an elementary knowledge of
chemistry to order shipments of the potent synthetic opioid from China and
turn it into a highly profitable - and dangerous - street drug.

"It's the Amazon of drug trafficking," said Will Kimbell, the US Drug
Enforcement Administration's resident agent in charge of the Lubbock
office. "It's almost as easy as that. This stuff is scary."

President-elect Donald Trump has promised that his border wall will stop
the illegal drugs flooding into the United States from Mexico. But
increasingly the most powerful opioids destroying lives and devastating
communities from Maine to Texas are arriving through a different route:
from China. Via the US Postal Service.

Get Breaking News in your inbox:

Independent operations like Lanier's are growing and spreading fentanyl to
new areas, greatly complicating enforcement efforts. Last month, federal
agents raided two Utah homes where they discovered a pill press, bulk
powder believed to be fentanyl, and thousands of fentanyl pills.
Investigators said the drug was shipped from China to multiple addresses
in the state. Similar operations have been discovered this year in
California and New York.

In Lubbock, STAT interviewed police and DEA agents and reviewed hundreds
of pages of court records to construct a frightening case study of how
quickly fentanyl can arrive on the scene, the destruction it causes, and
the shockingly simple steps involved in becoming a fentanyl dealer.

Buying, mixing, and selling fentanyl takes none of the brains and
ingenuity of the fictional Walter White, the chemistry whiz turned
methamphetamine dealer in the television show "Breaking Bad." Lanier and
his crew were brazen, sloppy, and battling their own addictions. Yet they
appear to have raked in tens of thousands of dollars during the two-plus
years they operated, according to court records.

Two local women, including the niece of Lubbock's former mayor, allegedly
served as Lanier's distributors. They cooked the fentanyl on a kitchen
stove, mixing it with two simple ingredients found at auto supply shops
and pharmacies.

Use of fentanyl has exploded in many states, driven largely by how easy it
is to get and make. It is also far more potent than other opioids, such as
heroin and pain pills, and far more profitable for dealers. In many
places, it is now the leading cause of fatal overdoses. The victims often
think they're taking less dangerous drugs, but dealers mix fentanyl with
heroin to give that drug extra potency. Mexican cartels, believed to still
be responsible for most of the fentanyl trade in the United States,
produce the drug in pill form, making it look like hydrocodone, Xanax, and
other prescription drugs.

Lubbock Police first started hearing about fentanyl on their streets in
2015, although as far as they knew, no one was dying from taking the drug.
Then in April of this year, a 55-year-old woman died. Less than a week
later, a 32-year-old man was found dead. In June, there was another death.
In September, a 20-year-old man was dead, and two days later, a
51-year-old man. In each case, the medical examiner determined the death
was related to fentanyl.

Lanier and his distributors were arrested in October, but already there is
evidence of other independently operating fentanyl dealers in Lubbock,
including one who called police recently to report another dealer stole
250 grams of fentanyl from him that he had ordered online from a company
in Russia.

Fentanyl shipments are particularly difficult to detect because of the
small quantities involved. "You send an email, pay for it, and a couple
weeks later you have 300 grams of fentanyl," Kimbell said. "And you have a
potential profit of a half-million dollars."

All it took for Lanier to get started was a simple internet search.

Laboratories in China offer to sell various forms of fentanyl on the web,
no questions asked. And the 36-year-old Lanier told police he found
instructions online for preparing fentanyl for sale.

Although he dropped out of school in the 10th grade when his girlfriend
became pregnant, Lanier was adept at using computers. He obtained his GED,
did a brief stint in the Army, and took classes at a local college. For a
number of years, he ran a computer repair business in Lubbock.

He allegedly purchased the drug through the so-called DarkNet, which uses
special browsers so people can anonymously visit sites that are not
otherwise viewable.

The Chinese labs shipped samples, if requested, and guaranteed delivery.
That meant if customs agents intercepted a package or it failed to arrive
for any reason, the lab would send the same order again at no charge. In
some cases, officials believe the Chinese labs have routed fentanyl
packages destined for the United States through Canada to avoid seizure.

Fentanyl comes in many forms. Labs can tweak its chemical structure
slightly to make analogs of the drug, which was developed as a
prescription pain reliever nearly 60 years ago by Janssen Pharmaceutical.
In Lubbock, investigators have identified at least five different forms of
fentanyl on the street - including some that are not on the list of
controlled substances banned in the United States. As the DEA discovers
and bans new analogs, chemists in China are already at work on even newer
synthetic products.

The fact is the Chinese labs have solved the most challenging chemistry
problem: producing the fentanyl, which is a complex procedure that is
extremely difficult to replicate outside a commercial laboratory and
without advanced training.

Lanier, who was known as Caleb on the streets of Lubbock, allegedly
received the fentanyl in crystalized form. For one order from a Chinese
lab, he allegedly paid $3,500 for 300 grams of pure fentanyl. He typically
mixed the fentanyl with methanol - a chemical that is the primary
ingredient in antifreeze - to suspend the drug in liquid.

He would sell a vial containing 8 grams of fentanyl for $15,000 to
$20,000, often to two women who served as his main distributors, according
to court records. Lanier's profit on that one 300-gram order, if he sold
all of his vials, would have been over a half-million dollars.

To get the fentanyl ready for sale, there was one more step required.

In the kitchen of their apartment in a drab complex of two-story brick
buildings, the women who allegedly served as distributors took the vial
prepared by Lanier and poured it into a pan on their stove, according to a
police affidavit. They mixed in a sugar alcohol used in several
medications available in pharmacies. They would heat the mixture for 45 to
60 minutes, drying it into a powder.

A good batch produced from one vial could fetch $45,000 to $60,000 on the
street in Lubbock.

Lanier and the women, Jessica Holl and Jamie Robertson, have been charged
in a federal criminal complaint with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl.
Lawyers for Holl and Robertson declined to comment, and Lanier's lawyer
did not return phone calls.

Investigators have now shifted their focus to determining whether the
fentanyl allegedly sold by the crew is linked to any of the five fatal
overdoses confirmed in the city this year. So far, no one has been charged
in the deaths.

'He didn't ask for this life'

Lanier is remorseful, his mother, Marla, said in a telephone interview.
Sidney Lanier had a happy childhood in Clovis, N.M., according to a 2004
psychological evaluation he underwent as part of a divorce proceeding.

His mother and others trace Lanier's alleged use and sale of opioids to a
back injury suffered about 15 years ago, when he was run over by a truck.
He endured excruciating pain and had to give up the computer repair
business because he could no longer lift the equipment he was fixing, his
mother said. He went on government disability.

"It changed his life forever," his mother said of the injury.

Marla Lanier said her son underwent numerous surgeries and visited doctors
throughout Texas seeking relief from his pain. His Facebook page shows an
image from a procedure he underwent in 2010. Screws inserted into his
spine are visible.

Lanier allegedly began to abuse opioids. He took the fentanyl he ordered
from China, often using himself as a guinea pig to check the quality of a
shipment and to get relief from his pain. His wife told police she
witnessed her husband injecting himself with pain medication.

"He didn't ask for this life," his mother said.

In the end, fentanyl allegedly offered Lanier both relief from pain and a
new source of income. It may also cost him his freedom.

Since his arrest, Lubbock drug detectives have not been called to a single
suspected fentanyl overdose, said Sgt. Robert Hook, a supervisor in the
narcotics division. (this fair?)
- ---
MAP posted-by: