Nearly 100 individuals face charges for their roles in a multi-state heroin and fentanyl trafficking ring, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday morning.
Over 200 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers took part in Operation Saigon Sunset, a DEA-led operation that led to simultaneous arrests in Michigan and West Virginia. The operation was part of Project Huntington, a project of the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of West Virginia meant to prosecute more drug dealers.
West Virginia is home to the highest rate of drug overdose death in the United States, a number that rose 25 percent in 2016. Many of those deaths are doubtless attributable to drugs supplied by Willie Peterson, leader of what the Department of Justice labelled the Peterson Drug Trafficking Organization.
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Peterson distributed heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine out of Detroit, Michigan to the southwestern West Virginia area. He'd been doing so for almost fifteen years before his apprehension Tuesday morning, along with brother Manget Peterson and others now facing interstate trafficking charges.
Peterson initially drew the attention of authorities after a July 2017 search of his home by the DEA led to the seizure of 360 grams of fentanyl. The work that became Operation Saigon Sunset began shortly thereafter, DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge David Gourley told the Free Beacon.
Gourley said Peterson's drugs were regularly distributed in southern West Virginia, southern Ohio, and Eastern Kentucky—up to several kilograms of heroin a month, including the fentanyl mixed in to make the drugs more potent.
"Taking out that level of sales that they were amassing, we're hoping that it's going to cause a little bit of a vacuum in the heroin that’s available in the area. Obviously if you have a demand, there's going to be some backfill on this," he said. "If somebody else steps up and takes over, we'll start targeting that organization as well."
During a speech in Raleigh, N.C. Tuesday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions heralded the bust as a major success in his department’s ongoing war on traffickers.
"This morning we have charged more than 90 defendants and seized enough fentanyl to kill a quarter of a million people. We have dismantled a major multi-state alleged drug trafficking ring that had been allegedly operating for nearly 20 years. Now they won't threaten us with deadly drugs anymore," Sessions said.
The Saigon Sunset investigation is still ongoing, meaning more arrests may come. Gourley could not discuss specifics, but he did tell the Free Beacon that Peterson's product was produced in Mexico, not Michigan.
Cracking down on fentanyl distributors has been a priority of not only the Justice Department, but also congressional Republicans. Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) have introduced a bill to toughen sentences for those convicted of trafficking in the deadly drug.
That bill, which was the subject of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, has the backing of law enforcement groups like the National Sheriffs Association and the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.