Nearly two dozen people, including current and former students at UNC, Duke and Appalachian State universities, have been charged in connection with the investigation of a large-scale drug ring, local and federal law enforcement officials announced Thursday.
Many of the 21 people charged were connected with the Phi Gamma Delta, Kappa Sigma and Beta Theta Pi fraternal organizations, officials said. The investigation is continuing, and more charges are possible.
Thursday’s news conference was held “to save lives,” said Matthew G.T. Martin, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, who was joined at a news conference by Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood and other law enforcement officials.
“I want to make this clear,” Martin said outside the Sheriff’s Office in Hillsborough. “This was not the situation where you have single users — a 19-year-old sipping a beer or you have someone who is taking a puff of a joint on the back porch of a frat house. These are 21 hardened drug dealers.”
The investigation revealed that the drug ring moved thousands of pounds of marijuana, several hundred kilograms of cocaine, LSD, Molly (MDMA), mushrooms, steroids, human growth hormones, Xanax and other narcotics through “very sophisticated methods,” Martin said.
The money earned from those sales has not been determined yet, but is estimated at over $1.5 million, he said.
“There were sales going on inside these houses, dealers set up inside these houses, poisoning fellow members of their fraternity, fueling a culture,” Martin said. “That’s why I say today is about saving lives because this reckless culture has endangered lives.”
He called on university administrators and national chapters of the fraternities whose members are charged to “do something” and work with law enforcement to solve the problem. They “can’t turn a blind eye any longer,” he said.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz released a statement in an email Thursday afternoon, expressing disappointment with the news.
“The University is committed to working with law enforcement to fully understand the involvement of any university individuals or organizations so that disciplinary action can be taken,” Guskiewicz said.
“Although none of the individuals named today are currently enrolled students, we will remain vigilant and continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and address any illegal drug use on our campus. Our community can be certain that the University will enforce the student conduct code to the fullest extent possible,” he said.
Duke University Chief Communications Officer Michael Schoenfeld also issued a statement when asked about Martin’s remarks.
“We take these allegations very seriously and Duke will cooperate fully with law enforcement,” Schoenfeld said in an email to The News & Observer. “The use and distribution of narcotics is against the law, it is against our code of conduct, and it endangers the health and safety of our students and community. Duke will respond accordingly through our disciplinary process.”
The case started when Orange County Sheriff’s deputies started looking into drug sales on UNC’s campus while working on another case several years ago, officials said in a news release. Federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents out of the Raleigh office also began investigating drug sales in Chapel Hill in November 2018, they said.
Court filings cited Thursday specifically noted drug activity was suspected at the UNC chapters of three fraternal organizations between 2017 and earlier this year.
The release noted that some of those arrested cooperated with investigators. One defendant, identified as Charles Poindexter, told them he only sold drugs to fraternity members at the Phi Gamma Delta house, because he felt safer dealing behind closed doors, it said.
Another, accused of getting drugs from Poindexter to sell at the Kappa Sigma house, revealed that connection and also identified a fraternity brother accused of selling drugs from his room and posting marijuana prices to the UNC Kappa Sigma GroupMe thread.
A Duke University student and another UNC student also were identified as Poindexter’s cocaine distributors at Duke and at UNC, including to members of the Eta Chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
Blackwood said he is proud of the work by his deputies and the department’s partners across the county and at the federal level. It started with an investigator who put thousands of hours into the case and was “very proactive about his patrol techniques,” he said.
The amount of drugs being used and sold in this case was “astonishing” and reflects “a very serious public health crisis,” he noted.
“It unfolded unlike any other case that I’ve seen in my 40 years,” Blackwood said. “The brazen attitudes, casual use of high volumes of drugs. Then the network started to unfold about the money, and … initially it was not very hard to see what was going on, such that when we contacted our partners in the U.S. attorney’s office, we were all quite shocked at how brazen these young men were, and women were, that were moving these narcotics.”
The investigation eventually uncovered a supplier who was shipping cocaine from California using the U.S. Postal Service and delivering marijuana by vehicle, officials said.
Some of the drug sale proceeds were shipped in bulk through the Postal Service, they said. Roughly $1.3 million was laundered through financial institutions, using money orders, Western Union and mobile payment apps, they said.
The first person investigators charged in the case is accused of being the primary supplier.
Francisco Javier Ochoa Jr., 27, of Turlock, California, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and conspiracy to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, according to a news release. Ochoa was sentenced Nov. 24 to over six years in federal prison and five years of supervised release. He also was ordered to pay the court $250,000.
The release cites court documents that show Ochoa may have supplied 2 kilograms of cocaine and 200 pounds of marijuana weekly from March 2017 to March 2019 to an Orange County buyer.
Investigators found 148.75 pounds of marijuana, 442 grams of cocaine, 189 Xanax pills and other narcotics, along with $27,775, when they searched locations in Carrboro and Hillsborough associated with that buyer, the release stated.
The case also uncovered parts of the ring in other college towns, including Boone, where two Appalachian State University students were charged. Both students sold drugs to investigators in the past year, the release stated.
In July, a federal grand jury charged five defendants with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to distribute marijuana:
▪ Andrew Boylan Gaddy, 24, of Carrboro
▪ Travis Michael Evans, 27, of Hillsborough
▪ Dane Lambert Simon, 23, of Durham
▪ Brianha Nicole Haskell, 24, of Hillsborough
▪ Mariela Zavala Mendoza (aka Maria Ochoa), 25, of Turlock, California
A grand jury also charged 15 additional defendants since July:
▪ Zachre Chasen Abercrombie, 27, of Charlotte, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ Amber Jana Johnson, 24, of Carrboro, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ John Frederick Holloway, 23, of Carrboro, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ Devin James McDonald, 23, of Kill Devil Hills, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ Jason Blake Nitsos, 24, of Greensboro, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ Devon Anthony Pickering, 35, of Charlotte, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ Edison Torres Robles (aka Fransisco Gallego Mandez Rodriguez), 26, of Durham, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ Jason Shuang Xu, 23, of Apex, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine
▪ Chandler David Anderson, 27, of Wilmington, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana
▪ Davis Lindsey Bayha, 21, of Chapel Hill, with conspiracy to distribute marijuana, use of a communication facility to facilitate a drug felony, and distribution of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a public or private college or university
▪ Kyle Parrish Beckner, 22, of Boone, with distribution of LSD and use of a communication facility to facilitate a drug felony
▪ Bernard Aleksander Bukowski, 24, of Raleigh, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute cocaine
▪ Charles Cleveau Poindexter (aka Chase Poindexter), 23, of Chapel Hill, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, use of a communication facility to facilitate a drug felony, and distribution of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a public or private college or university
▪ Jackson Alexander Norris, 22, of Chapel Hill, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, use of a communication facility to facilitate a drug felony, and distribution of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a public or private college or university
▪ Christopher Antonio Reyes, 26, of Greensboro, with conspiracy to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana
Gaddy, Evans, Xu, Simon, Haskell, Pickering and Nitsos already have pleaded guilty to one or more charges against them and will be sentenced in February and March in federal court, the release noted. The cases are being prosecuted in Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Durham, Martin said.
The distribution charges carry a sentence of between five to 20 years or five to 40 years in some cases, and a sentence of 10 years to life in others. Those sentences also could include supervised probation and fines of $1 million to $10 million.
The lesser charges could bring less time and smaller fines, the release stated. Not all of the defendants have prior criminal convictions, Martin said.