110,000 fentanyl pills seized from Denver stash houses; 19 indicted in trafficking ring

An eight-month investigation into a drug trafficking ring based in metro Denver led law enforcement to seize 110,000 fentanyl pills, 13 pounds of meth, 8 pounds of heroin, 24 pounds of cocaine and $450,000 in cash hidden in houses, apartments and secret compartments in cars.

Colorado law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced the indictment by the 18th Judicial District grand jury of 19 people on 20 felonies in connection to the multi-state drug trafficking ring.

The indictment outlines the extensive investigation by a coalition of Denver-area agencies working with the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area into the trafficking ring. Investigators said they used confidential informants, undercover agents, surveillance and phone taps to trace the movements of those involved and the drugs they were moving across state lines and around the Denver metro.

Law enforcement connected the trafficking to seven residences spread across the metro area, including homes in east Denver, Commerce City and Thornton, according to the indictment.

“It was all about greed and making money,” said David Olesky, acting special agent in charge of the Denver Field Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The indictment comes as drug overdose death rates in Colorado have risen to a horrific high. The 2020 rate of 25 deaths per 100,000 people is 39% higher than the rate recorded in 2019 and triple the rate from 2000.

Authorities and public health institutions point to the proliferation of illicit fentanyl — an extremely potent synthetic opioid often disguised as prescription pills — as a major contributor to the increased deaths in Colorado.

Forty-two percent of illicit fentanyl pills tested by the DEA nationwide contained at least 2 mg of fentanyl, considered a potentially lethal dose. Using that statistic, Colorado law enforcement estimated the 110,000 pills they seized could’ve contained more than 46,000 lethal pills.

“What I hope you take away from the indictment today of 19 people who were peddling poison in our community is that one pill alone can kill,” 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said, noting law enforcement likely saved thousands of lives by confiscating the pills.

Defendants face charges including racketeering, distribution of controlled substances and money laundering. Investigators at a news conference Wednesday said they connected the weapons recovered at the houses with violent crimes, though the defendants are not charged with violent crimes.

DEA agents began the investigation in April by focusing on a single person, Samuel Padilla Romo. They then used a confidential source to place recorded calls with Romo and set up a controlled purchase of $1,600 of methamphetamine.

Agents set up a wiretap on Romo’s phone and for months tracked his calls, setting up more wiretaps as they identified people who were also involved in drug and gun sales. Some of the people discussed working with people in Mexico to source the purchases, according to the indictment.

Undercover agents set up two buys from one of Romo’s associates, Saul Ramon Rivera Beltran, and purchased heroin, fentanyl and meth, according to the indictment. Agents identified Beltran as the leader of the group.

Along with the drugs, law enforcement officials seized 28 guns, rifle-rated ballistic vests, 100-round drum magazines, armor-piercing ammunition and three hand grenades from the houses.

“This organization was preparing for a battle,” Olesky said.

Opioids — including fentanyl, heroin and prescription drugs — caused two-thirds of all Colorado overdose deaths in 2020.

Fentanyl alone drove the increase in opioid deaths in 2020, according to the Colorado Health Institute. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths in Colorado involving fentanyl more than doubled, from 222 to 540. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of fentanyl deaths has increased tenfold. Last year, 540 Coloradans died of fentanyl overdoses.

In 2018, an average of nine Coloradans a month died of illicit fentanyl overdose. In 2021, the monthly average is 64 — or two a day.

Officials on Wednesday said they linked the drugs to the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico but didn’t offer details on how they made the connection. The indictment does not mention the cartel, though it said Beltran received a call from a Mexican phone number and discussed drug dealing with the caller.

Eight of the 19 people indicted in the trafficking ring remained at large Wednesday, officials said.

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