MIDDLETOWN, Ohio -- Twelve people, including an auxiliary police officer, are accused in the distribution of fentanyl out of a Middletown apartment and sending the money back to a notorious Mexican drug cartel, according to federal officials.
A federal grand jury charged eight Tri-State residents, and four others, in the fentanyl and money laundering conspiracy; the suspects are also accused of sending money to the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico. One of the suspects, 23-year-old Christopher Watkins, was an auxiliary police officer with the Seven Mile Police Department, according to court documents.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman called Watkins' involvement "a serious detail when you’re dealing with a crisis of this magnitude." Officials said he was recruited to help "drug mules" avoid being detected by law enforcement. Watkins allegedly traveled to California to pick up narcotics in exchange for $1,000.
Seven Mile Police Chief Bill Back said Watkins was approved by council to work at his department, but that he never returned to get an ID and he never started work in Seven Mile. Back said he was removed from the police roster last year.
"A Seven Mile officer was not arrested -- a drug trafficker was arrested," Back said, noting that Watkins was a graduate of the Butler Tech police academy and that he had passed the same background check as all other officers.
The following suspects are accused of distributing 400 grams of a substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl, an opioid 100 times more potent than morphine, according to court documents.
- Jose “Chema” Chavez-Meraz, 55, of Mexico
- Rolando Chavez-Garcia, 24, of Mexico
- Favrisio “Favi” “Gordo” “Gordito” Orozco-Meraz, 34, of Mexico
- Raul “Duende” Trejo, 52, of Middletown
- Donte “Jay” Holdbrook, 24, of Middletown
- Mariela Penaloza, 25, of Cleveland
- Charleston “Buddy” “Buddy Rowe” Quinn, 34, of Mason
- Frank Frazier Jr., 24, of Middletown
- Jesus “Chuy” “Chewey” Diaz, 47, of Ontario, California
- Jettie Bailey, 23, of Middletown
- Christopher Watkins, 23, of Trenton
- Courtney Bailey, 24, of Middletown
Glassman said all of the suspects, with the exception of the three people who live in Mexico, are in custody. He said it is "likely" the other three will be apprehended.
The investigation began when undercover agents discovered Jose Lopez-Albarran, a Sinaloa Cartel leader, had conducted multiple bulk cash pickups from Ohio.
Court documents allege Holdbrook purchased kilos of heroin and fentanyl from Chavez-Meraz in Mexico. Chavez-Gracia, Orozco-Meraz, Diaz and others drove to California or Arizona to pick up the drugs to bring them back to Middletown. They would usually hide heroin, fentanyl and cash in the car’s gas tank.
Frazier’s apartment on Aaron Drive acted as the “stash house” for Holdbrook's operation, according to court documents. Holdbrook and Frazier broke down the kilos of heroin and fentanyl at the apartment and distributed smaller amounts to traffickers working under Holdbrook.
Holdbrook would then send money from the fentanyl sales to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico via Lopez-Albarran. Authorities witnesses seven bulk cash pickups between February and June 2017 -- six of them occurred on Tivoli Lane and one happened at a Comfort Inn and Suites in West Chester. Glassman estimated the suspects moved about $1 million between the seven transactions.
Butler County saw 232 fatal overdoses in 2017 -- a staggering 82 percent were related to fentanyl, heroin or fentanyl analogs like carfentanil, according to the Butler County Coroner’s Office.
Butler County Coroner Lisa Mannix also noted a fourfold increase in methamphetamine in the overdoses, particularly those that tested positive for fentanyl. Cocaine-related deaths stayed about the same and were also predominantly connected to cases with fentanyl.
Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, headed by drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is North America's “dominant trafficking group,” The Washington Post reported in 2017. Eighty percent of fentanyl seized in New York, a major distribution hub, appears to be linked to the drug cartel.
In addition to the 12 people charged, 40 people, including Lopez-Albarran, have been charged in San Diego, and other suspects have been charged in Columbus, Kentucky, Kansas and Washington. Lopez-Albarran is accused of laundering tens of millions of dollars from the United States to Mexico between 2015 to 2018.