FARGO, N.D. - Federal prosecutors say they have cut into an opioid pipeline that for five years has been moving millions of dollars worth of oxycodone pills from Detroit to three American Indian reservations in North Dakota.
U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley of North Dakota said Thursday that 26 people have been charged in the case dubbed Operation Blue Prairie. Wrigley said tens of thousands of pills with a street value of at least $2.5 million have been sold primarily on the Turtle Mountain, Spirit Lake and Fort Berthold reservations.
"It is fueling and driving the addiction problems we have in Indian Country and across the state of North Dakota," Wrigley said.
Wrigley said nine of the defendants have connections to Detroit and the other 17 are North Dakotans who were recruited to help with distribution and "to feed their own addiction in some instances." Investigators have recovered numerous weapons.
All have been charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, while some face additional weapons and money laundering charges. Two brothers accused of supervising the operation, Baquan and Darius Sledge, are facing mandatory sentences of 20 years in prison on charges of criminal continuing enterprise. Their attorneys did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comments.
Indian reservations can be easy prey because dealers can find a "mid-level" person who can be trusted and law enforcement is generally understaffed, Wrigley said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is currently operating at 40% capacity, he said.
"What if the Fargo Police Department were staffed at 40%? How long would we stand for that?" Wrigley said.