Record Nebraska fentenyl bust brings federal charges

June 6, 2018, 4:24 a.m. ·

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The record-setting seizure of fentanyl in Buffalo County, Nebraska, became a federal case this week.

The U.S. Attorney for the State of Nebraska announced Nelson Nicolas Nunez-Acosta, 52, and Felipe Genao Minaya, 47, both of Newark, New Jersey, were charged with possessing with the intent to distribute fentanyl. The penalty for these charges is 10 years to life in prison.

U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly announces federal charges in Nebraska fentanyl case. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)

While piloting a semi-trailer rig across Nebraska, the pair were stopped by a Nebraska State Trooper on April 26 east of Kearney. A search of the vehicle revealed 118 pounds of the drug.

State charges filed in Buffalo County were dropped after the Department of Justice elected to take over the high-profile case.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid made in a laboratory. This powerful anesthetic, according to the DEA, is 50 times more potent than heroin. Drug companies make it legally, but it’s also become a high-profit illegal product manufactured directly by the drug cartels, often in China and Mexico.

Speaking with reporters after the announcement of the new charges, U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly told reporters the fentanyl seized was likely “not going to be delivered to the street straight (and) might go to other people to mix in with whatever they are selling. It is often mixed with other drugs including heroin to boost the power of the high."

Compartment inside semi-trailer where fentenyl was allegedly discovered. (Photo: Nebraska State Patrol)

Felipe Geano-Minaya

Nelson Nicolas Nunez
(Photos: Buffalo County Detention Center)

A portion of the original affidavit filed by the arresting officer.

Few details about the Nebraska case were offered to reporters covering the announcement by Robert Patterson, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"I’m not going into the specifics of this case,” Patterson said, noting that “anytime we have seizures (of large quantities of drugs) it gives us the ability to leverage back and look at other things that are happening with ongoing cases in other areas.”

He did say that large scale fentanyl busts are often international in scope.

“It wouldn’t surprise you that, in a lot of these cases, we know the organizations that are responsible for distributing it in this country.”

Large scale illegal production of the drug is known to take place in China. Mexican drug cartels are often the importers and distributors.

“Just knowing those organizations present us other problems,” Patterson told reporters. “We have to have evidence. We have to be able to prosecute cases and in certain instances we have to be able to get the defendants to the United States.”

Patterson found some “good news” in the level of cooperation American law enforcement is getting from counterparts in Mexico and China.

Federal investigators are also targeting illegal online sales and the type of cross-country transportation of the drug that apparently was disrupted in the Nebraska bust.

A Public Health Issue

While prescription opioids remain a concern, the rise of illicitly-manufactured fentanyl is posing especially frightening public health consequences.

The dosages of fentanyl sold by street dealers can be inconsistent so users may not know the potency of what they are ingesting. The results can be deadly. A Centers for Disease Control analysis confirmed that recent increases in fatal drug overdoses were driven by a spike in deaths brought on by illicitly-manufactured fentanyl.

“We are facing the deadliest drug epidemic in the history of our country,” Mary Daly, the director of opioid enforcement for the US Department of Justice, said at the news conference. “In 2016 there were 24,000 drug overdose deaths and we expect that number to be higher in 2017.”

Daly, recently appointed by the Trump administration to coordinate anti-opioid efforts in the Department of Justice, said a recent study shows those illegally-manufactured have surpassed prescription opioids as the primary cause of overdose deaths in this category of drugs.

Nebraska has thus far been spared the worst of the addiction and overdose problems ransacking other communities around the country.

In 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 44 opioid-related overdose deaths­­­ in Nebraska, a rate of 2.4 deaths per 100,000 persons, among the lowest in the United States. The national rate of opioid deaths during the same period, 13.3 deaths per 100,000 persons, has been steadily increasing over the past five years.

Deaths and arrests for methamphetamine are still far more prevalent in Nebraska, according to law enforcement agencies.

The April Traffic Stop

April 26 was a windy day. The dust storms kicked in a few hours later.

A Nebraska state trooper spotted the semi-truck in front of him weaving onto the shoulder of I-80. The narrative described here was drawn from the arrest affidavit filed by Trooper Sam Mortensen in support of filing charges.

Even with a cruiser following with flashing lights, the semi driver took another two miles to pull over, just east of Kearney.

Two men were inside the cab, both holding New Jersey drivers’ licenses. Felipe Genao-Minaya, now facing federal charges, was visibly shaking.

Mortensen felt other things about the truck seemed suspicious. The truck, out of California, had U.S. Mail markings for a private contractor but the trailer was empty on a cross country run. The driver wasn’t keeping an electronic log book and there was no CB radio. The stories from the driver and his passenger, Nelson Nunez, didn’t match up.

Mortensen said he got the driver’s permission before searching the truck. That’s when he found the hidden compartment under the refrigeration unit. Peeling back a metal plate he found 42 foil-wrapped packages. Drug tests done in the field were muddled, but weeks later the Nebraska State Patrol crime lab confirmed what the trooper suspected. The only cargo in the truck was 118 pounds of fentanyl.

This was one of the largest fentanyl seizures in U.S. history.

Genao-Minaya and Nunez were charged with transporting a controlled substance with intent to deliver.

The DEA launched a full scale federal investigation to find the source.

Nebraska Pipeline

Law enforcement has good reason to believe Nebraska’s role as a transportation crossroads makes the continued high-level transportation of fentanyl a near certainty.

Last fall, a state and federal drug enforcement team was making the rounds at the Amtrak station in Omaha. They spotted a suspicious suitcase, stopped the owner (traveling from Sacramento), and found 33 pounds of fentanyl in vacuum-sealed backs stuffed inside. The DEA said it was worth $15 million

The man with the bag, Edgar Navarro-Aguirre, was facing 20 years in prison. He took the plea agreement given him by US Attorney Joe Kelly. Navarro got a much lighter sentence in exchange for sharing information.

At the time drug investigators called it the largest fentanyl bust in Nebraska history.

It was, until the arrest in Buffalo County dwarfed that case every way possible.