FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A man accused of playing a major role in an international fentanyl trafficking operation that led to overdose deaths in several states has signed a federal plea agreement in North Dakota, according to court documents unsealed Monday.
Daniel Vivas Ceron, 38, a Colombian national who allegedly ran his part of the enterprise from a Canadian prison, plans to plead guilty to three counts, including conspiracy to import controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death. He faces life in prison.
More than 30 people, including five Chinese nationals, are accused of dealing large amounts of the powerful opioid in the U.S. and Canada. Deaths from the drugs have been reported in North Dakota, North Carolina, New Jersey and Oregon.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers, who is prosecuting the case, and Vivas Ceron's lawyer, Charles Stock, did not immediately respond the requests for comment.
Authorities say Vivas Ceron sold the drugs while he was serving time in the Drummond Institution, a medium security prison in Quebec, for drug-smuggling charges. He arranged co-conspirators to conduct transactions in Canada and China through money wires, bank wires, bank deposits and the use of virtual currency systems, court documents show.
The investigation known as "Operation Denial" began when 18-year-old Bailey Henke was found dead inside a Grand Forks, North Dakota apartment building in January 2015. Authorities say Henke overdosed on fentanyl supplied by Brandon Hubbard, a Portland, Oregon man who received his drugs from Vivas Ceron. Hubbard, who was sentenced to life in prison, told police he could be the largest fentanyl dealer in the country.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to North Dakota in April to talk about the case after Jian Zhang, the alleged ringleader from China, was charged. The Treasury Department sanctioned the five Chinese nationals, including Zhang and his biotechnology company, in an effort to prevent them from doing further business in the U.S. Sessions said the "vast majority" of fentanyl is manufactured in China.
Fentanyl can be lethal even in small amounts and is often mixed in with heroin and other drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 20,000 Americans were killed by fentanyl and its analogues in 2016.
Vivas Ceron was scheduled for trial on Oct. 1 in what was expected to be one of the largest federal cases in North Dakota. He signed the agreement last month but it wasn't made public until Monday.
A change of plea hearing for Vivas Ceron is scheduled Friday in Fargo.