When the Mailman Unwittingly Becomes a Drug Dealer

By Arian Campo-Flores and Jon Kamp | Video and photographs by Jonah Markowitz for The Wall Street Journal Features Dow Jones Newswires

Not long before Don Holman's son Garrett died from an overdose in February, he learned his 20-year-old had his drugs delivered directly to their Virginia home in the mail, in packages from foreign countries.

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"Your drug dealer today is your mailman," said Mr. Holman. "If your kids are getting any packages in the mail whatsoever, you need to know what that is."

Fentanyl and other synthetic narcotics like U-47700, which was found Garrett Holman's system, are now streaming into the U.S. through international parcels delivered by the U.S. Postal Service and private carriers like United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp., according to authorities. The deliveries are helping fuel an opioid crisis that claims tens of thousands of U.S. lives each year, prodding congressional lawmakers to propose tougher rules and new resources to try to stop the flow.

Seizures of fentanyl arriving by both international mail and express carriers reached nearly 37 kilograms in the U.S. overall in fiscal 2016, compared with 0.09 kilogram five years earlier, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

While Mexican drug cartels usually transport synthetic opioids like fentanyl in bulk by land across the southern U.S. border, many American dealers and users use the mail to receive smaller supplies of the drugs, officials say. In the past year, authorities have arrested such alleged dealers in cities including Cincinnati, Salt Lake City and Kearny, N.J.

Mail and private express services are "attractive options for smugglers, " said Salvatore Ingrassia, acting assistant director for trade and cargo at CBP's New York field office. He said there has been a "significant increase" in synthetic opioids arriving in packages.

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Customs officials rely on X-ray machines and visual scans to find the contraband at nine international mail facilities around the country. With 621.4 million international packages and mail pieces arriving through the U.S. Postal Service alone in fiscal 2016, it is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The chemicals are so lethal, drug-sniffing dogs aren't trained to identify them for fear of death.

"This manual process...coupled with the tremendous volume of inbound mail to the United States, creates a daunting task for CBP," said Robert Perez, the agency's acting executive assistant commissioner for operations support, at a May Senate hearing on opioid mail shipments.

A measure sponsored by lawmakers including Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) would provide customs officials with more screening equipment and lab resources to detect fentanyl arriving by mail or at ports of entry. Another bill in the Senate, sponsored by Ohio Republican Rob Portman, would require overseas shippers that use the U.S. Postal Service to provide certain pieces of information, transmitted electronically to CBP before parcels arrive in the country.

Sen. Portman's measure seeks to address a problem that customs officials and others have complained about for years: Unlike private carriers like FedEx and UPS, the Postal Service doesn't always provide CBP with advance data like a shipper's name and address and a description of contents. Run through software programs, the data can help flag warning signs such as an address or neighborhood known to be the origin of previous shipments of chemicals.

At the recent Senate hearing, a UPS official called advance data "the cornerstone of effective risk assessment." Mr. Perez from CBP also highlighted the data's importance.

The Postal Service says it is more limited than private carriers because it has to work with foreign postal operators. It has been pushing overseas operators to provide such information and now receives data for 40% to 50% of inbound packages, said Robert Cintron, the agency's vice president for network operations, at the hearing.

The Postal Service is obligated under international agreements to accept incoming mail from nearly every country, Mr. Cintron said. He added that the blanket requirements of Sen. Portman's bill are impractical and would undermine the Postal Service's ability to compete with private shippers.

Moreover, sellers routinely falsify the sender's name and address and the description of the contents, authorities say. On the receiving end, buyers often misrepresent themselves as well, and may use numerous mailboxes to evade detection.

"Though the express carriers typically require additional data to ship parcels, it is still rather difficult for these carriers and law enforcement to detect and intercept opioids," the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy wrote in a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March.

Spokespeople for UPS and FedEx said the companies comply with law enforcement's legal requirements on imports.

In the March arrest of alleged drug dealer Chukwuemeka Okparaeke, it was his unusual behavior at post offices in the Middletown, N.Y., area that helped tip off authorities.

They said the 28-year-old, known to online customers as "Fentmaster," dropped bags of envelopes in collection bins while wearing latex gloves. He also bought more than $7,500 worth of stamps at a time online.

Mr. Okparaeke ordered fentanyl variants online from vendors in China in one-kilogram quantities and had them shipped to a UPS store mailbox, according to authorities. He then repackaged the powder into two-milliliter plastic bags and shipped them through the post office to scores of customers around the U.S., authorities said. The envelopes had fictitious return addresses like "Middletown Sweets" and "North Jersey Plastics Co."

In April, a federal grand jury in New York indicted Mr. Okparaeke on charges including intent to import and distribute controlled substances. He pleaded not guilty. An attorney for Mr. Okparaeke declined to comment.

In March, word circulated in online drug forums that Fentmaster had been busted. "Do not order from Fentmaster," one participant wrote.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 26, 2017 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)