Northland officials on Thursday said they have dismantled a gang-affiliated drug trafficking organization in what is believed to be the largest such bust in the history of the region.
Some 50 people have been charged with trafficking controlled substances throughout the Upper Midwest after an investigation that started late last year. As of Tuesday, 35 suspects had been arrested, five were already in custody and another 10 were still being sought on warrants.
The investigation netted 1.16 pounds of heroin and fentanyl, 2.66 pounds of methamphetamine and two firearms, according to Duluth Police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. It's estimated the operation sold more than $1 million worth of opioids, meth and cocaine this year alone, police said.
“This is the biggest case that we’ve ever done,” Kazel said at a news conference. “Logistically, it’s been a huge project to get where we’re at right now. Just the sheer number of people we’re dealing with complicates it."
The investigation focused on the Twin Ports, Iron Range and Rochester, Minnesota, areas, but expanded throughout Greater Minnesota and into Wisconsin and Iowa, officials said.
Investigators from more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies and task forces conducted surveillance, made controlled buys, used confidential informants and obtained court-authorized wiretaps to build the case over the past 10 months, according to court documents.
What they discovered, according to court documents, was a major operation led by 36-year-old Ricky Antoinne Osborne, of Rochester. Osborne, who has previously been charged with drug sales in the area, was known to travel to Duluth at least once a week to sell, according to a criminal complaint.
But Osborne's operation, reportedly known as the "Moe Drug Trafficking Organization," utilized a hierarchical network of contacts to move product across several states, authorities said. That included several Minnesota prison inmates, who allegedly received a share of profits in exchange for connecting outside contacts with Osborne.
The investigation started with Osborne in December, steadily growing in the following months, police said. Investigators monitored sales, purchased substances from several defendants, seized products through search warrants and used court-approved GPS tracking of vehicles before receiving authorization to tap Osborne's phone.
Osborne, who is described in court documents as head of a group of Black P. Stone Nation gang members, is alleged to have admitted that he "sells drugs ‘24/7’ and that this is his main activity in life.”
Mayor Emily Larson called it a "groundbreaking case."
"It is incredibly important ... that we are stopping the flow of what's coming in and trying to decrease the access people have to these chemicals that can drastically alter not just their lives, but the lives of people in their families, their neighborhoods, their communities (and) the city," Larson said.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said the case "involves some of the most dangerous work law enforcement is called upon to deal with."
"They didn't just wait for something to happen," he said. "It was holistic; it was proactive."
Prosecution of the cases is being led in State District Court by Assistant County Attorney Nichole Carter, but Rubin said he's been in contact with the U.S. Attorney's Office and federal indictments have not been ruled out.
“This is predatory behavior,” he said. “At a time during the pandemic when we know that people who are struggling with addiction are relapsing at a higher rate and it’s tough for them to get support, what are some people doing? They are continuing and accelerating their illegal drug trafficking activity."
Investigators were making significant progress toward charges this spring, but the COVID-19 outbreak severely disrupted operations for the agencies, Kazel said.
Calling the announcement "bittersweet," he echoed Rubin's concerns about increasing overdose rates, noting more have been reported in the area so far this year than in all of 2019.
“Obviously, our job is law enforcement, and we do operations like this. And to be successful and hold people accountable is good," Kazel said. "It also is sad that our community is dealing with this. That’s why we’ve tried to look outside the box and look for other ways to bring that demand down so we don’t have to do operations like this.”
In combating illegal drug sales, authorities often cite the challenge of dismantling an entire industry, as taking one dealer off the street simply creates an opportunity for another to step in and profit. But Kazel said the scope of the latest operation should carry more significant impacts on the local trade.
"We know from our experience that round-ups like this will greatly affect the supply of opioids and other drugs in the community," he said.
Police Chief Mike Tusken stressed that enforcement is just one part of addressing the opioid epidemic, saying the department can't operate under a Nixon-era War on Drugs philosophy. Tusken frequently speaks of a "three-legged stool" approach that integrates enforcement, prevention and treatment as equal components.
The department in recent years has added multiple civilian employees who specialize in social work and addiction, allowing the agency to follow up with anyone who overdoses and steer them toward resources. The task force also has brought an educational program into Denfeld and East high schools in Duluth and Cloquet High School.
Police "can't arrest our way out of this problem," Tusken said, but enforcement remains a crucial part of sending a message against "people who are using the scourge of addiction as a way to make money, as an enterprise.”
“I often say the greatest strength of this organization is the community we police with," Tusken said. "Duluth is the biggest small town in America. It is impossible to come into this town and operate in illegal drug activity without detection. This is not a place where you can be successful."
This story was updated at 8:31 a.m. Oct. 23 to correct a statement from St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin about drug overdose cases. More have been reported in the area so far this year than in all of 2019. The News Tribune regrets the error.
The story was originally posted at 12:45 p.m. Oct. 22 and updated at 4:50 p.m. Oct. 22 with additional information from the news conference and court documents.