A South Florida man believed to be the first suspect charged locally with smuggling deadly synthetic heroin from overseas through the U.S. mail pleaded guilty on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale federal court.
The conviction of Aldolphe Joseph on charges of conspiring to distribute fentanyl and its heroin-like variants, along with gun possession by a felon, followed a circuitous investigative trail from China to Canada to South Florida.
Joseph, 34, of Miramar, faces up to 20 years in prison at his sentencing on March 18 before U.S. District Judge James Cohn.
Drug Enforcement Administrative agents uncovered Joseph’s supplier in Canada, who had bought packages of synthetic heroin from labs in China, according to a criminal complaint. The Canadian trafficker, a Colombian national, used a contraband cellphone to make his global deals over the Internet while serving time in a Canadian prison outside Montreal, federal prosecutors say.
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The ease of ordering synthetic drugs such as fentanyl from Chinese websites — spotlighted in the Miami Herald series “Pipeline China” — has created a new breed of dealers who use U.S. mail services to deliver the cheaply made chemicals.
The feds indicted the Colombian, Daniel Ceron, and members of his ring in July. Ceron was arrested in Panama while on a layover to be deported after finishing his drug-trafficking and attempted-murder sentence in Canada.
Inside Ceron’s prison cell, investigators found a phone and a ledger with Joseph’s name and the address of a Pembroke Pines private-mail facility. Below the notation, DEA agents found six tracking numbers for mail packages that had been sent from Canada.
Joseph had been exchanging emails and buying pills from the inmate’s ring, according to the criminal complaint filed by prosecutor Anita White. One package seized by agents intended for Joseph contained 1,494 grams of fentanyl, potentially worth millions on the street.
According to the criminal complaint, DEA Agent Michael Buemi created an account with a private-messaging app and began posing as Ceron. “Joseph stated that he only wanted to buy narcotics from Canada and had people waiting to sell to,” according to a factual statement filed with his plea agreement.
Joseph sent the undercover agent nearly $3,000 in Bitcoin payments for a drug debt owed to Ceron. Then, on Sept. 18, Joseph negotiated to buy one kilogram of “acetyl fentanyl” — a variant of the drug — for $20,000 to be shipped to a post office box in Pembroke Pines, the defendant’s statement said.
Ten days later, undercover agents delivered a Canada Post package containing a kilo of “sham” narcotics to the Pembroke Pines address. Joseph’s sister picked up the package and delivered it to his home in Miramar, according to the statement signed by Joseph and his attorney, Zeljka Bozanic.
Agents arrested Joseph as he drove away in a black Cadillac. They found the package of sham drugs in the back seat.
Joseph was eventually indicted on charges of conspiring to import and distribute fentanyl, along with possession of a firearm as a convicted felon.
Agents tracked down Joseph in their stepped-up efforts to slow the pipeline of synthetic drugs from China, which has helped fuel a spike in fentanyl-related deaths. Statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show that deaths caused by fentanyl overdoses statewide jumped a staggering 114 percent in 2014 over the previous year.
Fentanyl and its chemical variants, which are often laced into heroin, have been flagged by public health authorities as the most lethal synthetic drugs pouring into the United States.
The fast-acting painkiller has been used as a surgical analgesic for decades, but in recent years, synthetically made versions of the drug exported from China and other countries have made their way to the United States and Canada.
This fall, China bowed to official complaints from abroad by banning fentanyl and its derivatives along with more than 100 other synthetic drugs, including alpha-PVP, known as flakka, which has set off public health alarms in Broward County.
There, the state attorney’s office issued a report this week spotlighting the damaging effects of flakka — a disorienting synthetic stimulant that triggers bizarre behavior — but only mentioned fentanyl in passing. However, records show that fentanyl and its variants have killed far more users in South Florida and the rest of the state.