U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials have filed a criminal complaint against four South Carolina men accused of operating a "clandestine" drug lab in a residential neighborhood near Lake Wylie.
The complaint is connected to what local and state officials have described as the largest-ever fentanyl bust in York County, S.C.
The seizure and arrests prompted a news conference in October attended by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, members of York County and Rock Hill law enforcement, and York County prosecutors.
More than 60 pounds of fentanyl, along with cocaine and methamphetamine, were seized Oct. 19 from a trailer on Golden Pond Drive near Lake Wylie, according to an affidavit filed in federal court by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Lake Wylie straddles the border of North Carolina and South Caroline with some sections in York County, S.C., and some in Mecklenburg County, N.C.
The DEA criminal complaint, signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges, alleges that Quonzy Lanard Hope, Thomas Anthony Perry, Javaris Latrey Johnson, and Timario Martez Gayton conspired together with intent to distribute the drugs, and possessed the drugs with intent to distribute.
The charges are federal felonies.
In an email this week to The Herald, federal prosecutors confirmed the complaint against the four suspects had been filed in federal court. Derek Shoemake, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia, said as of Wednesday the federal complaint had not been served on the suspects.
Federal prosecutors made no other comments about the complaint.
All four suspects remain in the York County jail without bond, according to jail records, and Trent Faris, spokesman for the York County Sheriff's Office.
Federal fentanyl laws stricter than SC laws
The federal charges come in addition to South Carolina state charges of drug trafficking and drug distribution. All four suspects were charged by S.C. officials after they were arrested last month at the lab, federal records show.
South Carolina currently does not have a law specific to trafficking such large amounts of fentanyl, according to 16 Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, the top prosecutor for York County. Fentanyl possession with intent to distribute in South Carolina under state law would carry a maximum of 15 years -- regardless of the amount.
The federal charges would carry up to life in prison for convictions, according to an emailed statement from Shoemake.
"It makes sense that the federal government has taken an interest in this case," Brackett said.
A "clandestine lab" with drugs, money
In federal documents and at a York County news conference, officials said the seizure and arrests happened at a trailer. Seven pill presses were seized, along with the drugs and more than $50,000 in cash.
DEA agents told a federal judge in the documents that no one lived at the trailer but it was being operated as a "clandestine laboratory," the document stated.
During surveillance, police saw all four suspects enter the trailer and all four were inside when police raided the trailer, according to the DEA. One suspect tried to escape through a window, the affidavit states.
A pill press was plugged in the wall, police said.
"In the bathroom attached to the left bedroom, agents found the bathtub filled with suspected fentanyl and (chemical) binder mix," the DEA statement said.
Officers found more drugs in the toilet, believed to be an attempt to flush away evidence during the raid, according to the DEA affidavit.
Thousands of dollars were found on a couch armrest and a kitchen counter, according to the affidavit.
Two guns were found in the trailer, and two in suspects' cars, according to the DEA.
The amount of drugs found was so large and potentially dangerous that a hazardous materials team was called, documents show.
A potentially massive drug operation
The complaint and other officials' statements allege a massive drug operation in the Southeastern United States, which DEA and York County drug agents had been investigating.
The federal criminal complaint revealed a years-long probe into alleged high-level dealing.
"Since January 2021, investigators of the DEA and YCMDEU (York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit) have been conducting an investigation which focused on the production, trafficking, and illegal sales of fentanyl pills in York County, South Carolina," the affidavit states.
The drugs were worth millions of dollars in street value and allegedly tied to drug cartels, according to documents, court testimony and officials' public statements.
The DEA affidavit alleges confidential informants made drug buys dating back months, and surveillance showed drug dealing and production that included at least one defendant wearing a gas mask while being around fentanyl.
Fentanyl, overdoses and public danger
Police and prosecutors say fentanyl has led to overdoses and deaths caused by the use of unregulated, illegal pills.
Drug traffickers mix fentanyl with other illicit drugs- in powder and pill form - to drive addiction and create repeat customers, the DEA said in the August statement.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA says fentanyI is inexpensive, widely available, highly addictive - and lethal.
Fentanyl has created a new level of danger in the Charlotte region, just over the state line from York County, and is the most common illegal drug locally, police told The Charlotte Observer earlier this year.
"Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered," said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram in a a news release statement issued Aug. 19 about the nationwide fentanyl problem.
Where things stand now?
All four suspects remain in the York County jail under South Carolina state drug charges and a separate hold from the DEA, records show.
Two of the suspects were denied bail in court hearings on the South Carolina state charges earlier this month at the Moss Justice Center in York.
It's not known when any of the four will next appear in court in York County, or in federal court in Columbia on the federal DEA drug complaint.
The DEA affidavit submitted and signed by a judge was reviewed by a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia, according to documents.