Editor's Note: A previous version of this story included incorrect details about a drug trafficking organization run by Alberto Guerrero Marte out of Lawrence, Mass. The details were taken from court filings in a simultaneous prosecution of Alberto Marte, of Springfield, Mass.
It was just past 1 a.m. and Tanner Rich was driving high through the White Mountains.
There was a 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol wrapped in the folded jacket next to him. In the jacket pocket was a plastic bag containing 51.53 grams of fentanyl. If pure, it was enough to provide 25,000 lethal doses. It had cost $1,600.
A friend put up most of the money, but Rich had chipped in $60 so he started sampling the powder on his drive home to Lancaster that January night in 2017. His eyes were bloodshot, his voice low and gravely, and his movements sluggish, according to court records.
His passenger side headlight was burned out.
A patrolling Campton police officer spotted the infraction and pulled Rich over. The 26-year-old’s appearance gave him away, and after four failed sobriety tests, Rich confessed to driving high and transporting drugs.
Until he broke his leg three years earlier, Rich had never tried opioids, he said in an interview from a federal prison in Massachusetts. But painkillers led to heroin and then fentanyl, and even working 50 hours a week, he couldn’t afford the prices in Lancaster, where a gram could cost $150.
So to support his own addiction, Rich became a short-lived cog in the constant machine that pushes fentanyl north from Mexico, through the Dominican Republic and New York, to the regional distribution hub in Greater Lawrence, Mass.
From there, anyone with a car and cash can join a trafficking conspiracy, according to investigators and former dealers.
“You could literally drive to Massachusetts and in certain parts, like around Lawrence and Methuen, you could just park by the side of the road and people would come up to your car with free samples and just throw it in with a phone number attached to it,” Rich said. “You just call a number, they’ll send you to a street, the runner will come out, make the transaction, and you’ll probably never see the runner (again) in your life.”
Rich is now serving a 60-month sentence and desperately plans not to return to the business, but willing drug carriers are easy to find for the bulk suppliers in the Merrimack Valley. Even the breakup of a major trafficking organization might only reduce the supply of fentanyl into New Hampshire for a few weeks, U.S. Attorney Scott Murray said.
The New Hampshire Sunday News reviewed dozens of federal drug trafficking cases from recent years — ranging from smaller busts like that of Rich to major wiretap investigations — and interviewed police, prosecutors and former traffickers to understand how the Massachusetts-to-New Hampshire operations keep rolling in the face of intense law enforcement attention.
The answer has a lot to do with an imbalance of resources, prosecutors said.
When a dealer gets caught, customers go looking for another source of supply. The bulk suppliers in Greater Lawrence capitalize by giving out free samples and offering to front users substantial quantities of heroin and fentanyl in order to turn them into distributors.
That creates a seemingly inexhaustible pool of couriers whom traffickers see as disposable. The higher prices in New Hampshire, where a gram can sell for three to four times as much as it would in Lawrence, reinforce the incentive to travel north.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in New Hampshire have been strained in recent years by the complexity of their drug cases, which were up 40 percent in 2018, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney John Farley.
It can take hundreds of hours of a prosecutor’s time to manage a single wiretap case, he said. A trafficker might be using more than 10 different phone numbers to run his business and be changing them frequently with cheap disposable phones. Their identities are changeable, too, often through stolen Puerto Rican birth certificates and Social Security numbers. And if a trafficker does get caught, the money at stake ensures someone else is waiting to step into the void.
“You get overwhelmed in terms of the number of cases you’re dealing with, and when that happens the quality of the cases isn’t as good either,” Murray said, adding, “I think traditionally, an adequate amount of resources were not brought to bear against the regional distribution center in New England. That’s changing … you’ve got the consequences that are now driving the political process to give you the resources that you need to do it. It’s going to take some time for that to take hold, and until it does, it’s going to be a battle. There’s no doubt about that.”
The Marte organization
Over several years, investigators documented the ins-and-outs of a Lawrence-based drug trafficking organization run by Alberto Guerrero Marte that distributed a minimum of 30 kilograms of heroin, much of it ending up in New Hampshire.
Marte and several of his associates have pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court, and their cases helps explain the complexity of trafficking operations far above the level of couriers like Tanner Rich.
Marte took over local control of the organization around August 2015 from his half-brother Santos Guerrero Morillo, who fled to the Dominican Republic because he suspected investigators were on to him. He was right — last fall the U.S. Attorney’s office successfully extradited him. Morillo has also pleaded guilty.
The organization operated from a number of properties in Lawrence, including 107 Foster St., known as trap houses. A prosecutor told a federal judge in 2017 that at least one trap house was equipped with “very sophisticated hydraulic hides” that contained drug-packaging material and may have also been used to store heroin and money. Agents didn’t find the hides until several days after executing their initial search warrant.
Michell DeJesus, who was Marte’s fiancee or wife, according to investigators, was the second in command. She took calls on customer phones used exclusively for that purpose and changed frequently. She would use another phone to call Marte, who in turn instructed one of two deputies to transport the heroin to buyers at various residential and business locations.
Agents determined that Marte used more than 10 phones in order to avoid police surveillance.
The counter-investigation measures didn’t end there.
Dejesus has also pleaded guilty to the charges against her. In court documents, prosecutors wrote that she had made payments to undisclosed people in order to get the criminal and deportation records of her family members and associates in the trafficking organization deleted from Department of Homeland Security databases. It was unclear whether she was successful.
DeJesus also paid close attention to the prosecution of other drug traffickers, according to court records -- something that investigators say isn’t unusual.
While executing search warrants, New Hampshire State Police have found government documents turned over in discovery during the prosecution of other trafficking organizations — evidence that competing groups are cooperating to thwart investigations, according to Lt. Chris Roblee, a member of the Narcotics Investigation Unit.
“They aren’t naive,” he said. “As we make inroads as law enforcement ... they’re adjusting what they do in their business.”
Into New Hampshire
Wary of the extra attention being paid to drug transporters along Interstate 93 and other major highways, many Massachusetts-based suppliers require New Hampshire distributors to travel to them, Murray said.
The distributors, in turn, also try to insulate themselves by using runners or mules.
On July 10, 2016, Mark Gagnon drove from his home in Candia to Manchester, where he met up with Alfredo Gonzalez. The two men then drove to the Pollo Tipico restaurant in Lawrence for a meeting with Marte, according to court documents and testimony.
DEA task force agents watched as Gagnon left the restaurant and moved something from another car into the trunk of his Chrysler Pacifica. He then drove away toward New Hampshire, leaving Gonzalez behind.
Gagnon was never one of the main targets of the DEA investigation, dubbed Crystal Clear. His defense attorney at trial argued that he was simply Gonzalez’s mechanic and had never been caught selling drugs, packaging drugs or talking about them on wiretap.
But just south of Exit 2 on I-93 that night, a state trooper pulled Gagnon over and found 500 grams of heroin hidden in resealed tomato sauce cans in the trunk of the Pacifica. In August 2017, he was sentenced to 48 months in prison.
Gonzalez, considered one of the larger New Hampshire-based heroin distributors at the time, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
New laws have increased penalties for fentanyl trafficking, but the fear of a lengthy prison sentence is far less immediate than the fear of going without the drug for many people with addictions.
“I wasn’t really thinking about the consequences,” Rich said of his own time as a runner. “If I was to go without, I would be sick, I would be bed-ridden. I wouldn’t be able to go to work, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
‘The money’s still there’
Dozens of people were arrested as a result of the sprawling, yearslong investigation into the Marte organization. Many have already pleaded guilty or been convicted.
And in April, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced more than 45 indictments and the seizure of 30 kilograms of fentanyl as a result of one of the region’s largest-ever investigations — into a trafficking organization led by Sergio Martinez.
But investigators say frequent, chance drug busts on the highway — like the broken headlight that led to Rich’s arrest — hint at how much distribution goes undetected.
After a Haverhill, Mass., man ran a red light in Salem, for example, police found 1.2 kilograms of cocaine and nearly $60,000 in cash in his car.
A state trooper patrolling I-95 pulled over a Saturn van for tailgating another car. A search eventually turned up 714 grams of fentanyl. The list of large seizures goes on.
“It’s not that it doesn’t make a difference,” state police Sgt. Mark Hall said of the major investigations. “I think things slow down, but … these organizations are large and they’re complex and they’re tied to other organizations. Unfortunately, when one gets taken down there’s one to step up in their place because of the potential to make money. The reality is the money’s still there and so the flow is still going to be there.”