This article was originally published in STAT.
Lubbock, Texas – Across from a sprawling cotton field, among mobile homes in varying states of decay, one stood out: a double-wide with a new, expansive metal garage and the only paved driveway on the dead-end street.
It was here that an unemployed former computer repairman with a bad back ran what a drug informant called the biggest fentanyl ring in Lubbock. All Sidney Lanier needed was a computer and an elementary knowledge of chemistry to order shipments of the potent synthetic opioid from China and turn it into a highly profitable — and dangerous — street drug.
“It’s the Amazon of drug trafficking,” said Will Kimbell, the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s resident agent in charge of the Lubbock office. “It’s almost as easy as that. This stuff is scary.”
President-elect Donald Trump has promised that his border wall will stop the illegal drugs flooding into the United States from Mexico. But increasingly the most powerful opioids destroying lives and devastating communities from Maine to Texas are arriving through a different route: from China. Via the US Postal Service.
Independent operations like Lanier’s are growing and spreading fentanyl to new areas, greatly complicating enforcement efforts. Last month, federal agents raided two Utah homes where they discovered a pill press, bulk powder believed to be fentanyl, and thousands of fentanyl pills. Investigators said the drug was shipped from China to multiple addresses in the state. Similar operations have been discovered this year in California and New York.
In Lubbock, STAT interviewed police and DEA agents and reviewed hundreds of pages of court records to construct a frightening case study of how quickly fentanyl can arrive on the scene, the destruction it causes, and the shockingly simple steps involved in becoming a fentanyl dealer.
Buying, mixing, and selling fentanyl takes none of the brains and ingenuity of the fictional Walter White, the chemistry whiz turned methamphetamine dealer in the television show “Breaking Bad.” Lanier and his crew were brazen, sloppy, and battling their own addictions. Yet they appear to have raked in tens of thousands of dollars during the two-plus years they operated, according to court records.
Two local women, including the niece of Lubbock’s former mayor, allegedly served as Lanier’s distributors. They cooked the fentanyl on a kitchen stove, mixing it with two simple ingredients found at auto supply shops and pharmacies.
Use of fentanyl has exploded in many states, driven largely by how easy it is to get and make. It is also far more potent than other opioids, such as heroin and pain pills, and far more profitable for dealers. In many places, it is now the leading cause of fatal overdoses. The victims often think they’re taking less dangerous drugs, but dealers mix fentanyl with heroin to give that drug extra potency. Mexican cartels, believed to still be responsible for most of the fentanyl trade in the United States, produce the drug in pill form, making it look like hydrocodone, Xanax, and other prescription drugs.
Lubbock Police first started hearing about fentanyl on their streets in 2015, although as far as they knew, no one was dying from taking the drug. Then in April of this year, a 55-year-old woman died. Less than a week later, a 32-year-old man was found dead. In June, there was another death. In September, a 20-year-old man was dead, and two days later, a 51-year-old man. In each case, the medical examiner determined the death was related to fentanyl.
Lanier and his distributors were arrested in October, but already there is evidence of other independently operating fentanyl dealers in Lubbock, including one who called police recently to report another dealer stole 250 grams of fentanyl from him that he had ordered online from a company in Russia.
Fentanyl shipments are particularly difficult to detect because of the small quantities involved. “You send an email, pay for it, and a couple weeks later you have 300 grams of fentanyl,” Kimbell said. “And you have a potential profit of a half-million dollars.”
Small vials bring big profits
All it took for Lanier to get started was a simple internet search.
Laboratories in China offer to sell various forms of fentanyl on the web, no questions asked. And the 36-year-old Lanier told police he found instructions online for preparing fentanyl for sale.
Although he dropped out of school in the 10th grade when his girlfriend became pregnant, Lanier was adept at using computers. He obtained his GED, did a brief stint in the Army, and took classes at a local college. For a number of years, he ran a computer repair business in Lubbock.
He allegedly purchased the drug through the so-called DarkNet, which uses special browsers so people can anonymously visit sites that are not otherwise viewable.
The Chinese labs shipped samples, if requested, and guaranteed delivery. That meant if customs agents intercepted a package or it failed to arrive for any reason, the lab would send the same order again at no charge. In some cases, officials believe the Chinese labs have routed fentanyl packages destined for the United States through Canada to avoid seizure.
Fentanyl comes in many forms. Labs can tweak its chemical structure slightly to make analogs of the drug, which was developed as a prescription pain reliever nearly 60 years ago by Janssen Pharmaceutica. The analogs have names like carfentanil, acetyl fentanyl, and furanyl fentanyl. In Lubbock, investigators have identified at least five different forms of fentanyl on the street — including some that are not on the list of controlled substances banned in the United States. As the DEA discovers and bans new analogs, chemists in China are already at work on even newer synthetic products.
The fact is the Chinese labs have solved the most challenging chemistry problem: producing the fentanyl, which is a complex procedure that is extremely difficult to replicate outside a commercial laboratory and without advanced training.
Lanier, who was known as Caleb on the streets of Lubbock, allegedly received the fentanyl in crystalized form. For one order from a Chinese lab, he allegedly paid $3,500 for 300 grams of pure fentanyl. He typically mixed the fentanyl with methanol — a chemical that is the primary ingredient in antifreeze — to suspend the drug in liquid.
He would sell a vial containing 8 grams of fentanyl for $15,000 to $20,000, often to two women who served as his main distributors, according to court records. Lanier’s profit on that one 300-gram order, if he sold all of his vials, would have been over a half-million dollars.
To get the fentanyl ready for sale, there was one more step required.
In the kitchen of their apartment in a drab complex of two-story brick buildings, the women took the vial prepared by Lanier and poured it into a pan on their stove, according to a police affidavit. They mixed in a sugar alcohol used in several medications available in pharmacies. They would heat the mixture for 45 to 60 minutes, drying it into a powder.
A good batch produced from one vial could fetch $45,000 to $60,000 on the street in Lubbock.
Tattoos and dogs
They were recovering addicts who shared a love for tattoos and dogs. Lanier’s alleged distributors, Jessica Holl and Jamie Robertson, were in and out of treatment and trouble, but their fortunes allegedly changed when they found Lanier and fentanyl.
The women met in 2003, through mutual friends, lost touch, and then reconnected in 2008 when they bumped into each other in jail. Both were being held on theft-related charges.
The pair promised to reconnect when they were released. But Robertson checked into an addiction treatment center that limited contact with outsiders, and they didn’t find each other until May 2014, when Holl contacted Robertson through Facebook. They quickly became a couple, and this past October, they married.
A photo on their wedding website highlights their close bond: Robertson’s face is tattooed on Holl’s left hand, and on Robertson’s right hand is an image of Holl’s face. The images are distorted, giving the faces a zombie-like appearance.
The wedding reception was held at the Hillcrest Country Club, owned by Robertson’s uncle, Glen, who until recently was the two-term mayor of Lubbock. Robertson’s father is a local businessman. Family members declined to comment when asked about Jamie.
Holl’s childhood in New Brunswick, N.J., was grittier. Her father, Ralph, worked for Dell computers and traveled much of the year. In a telephone interview, he said opioid abuse runs in the family. He said he was on a heavy dose of painkillers for many years for a back problem, and Jessica’s mother was abusing opioids.
Ralph Holl said Jessica had little supervision and joined a gang at 14. She was then beaten and held against her will, he said. When Ralph Holl found his daughter, he said a gang member pulled a gun on him but he managed to call 911 and police rescued his daughter.
Jessica moved to Lubbock with her mother shortly afterward, in part to help care for her ailing grandmother. It was not an easy transition. Holl lived with her mother in a hotel along the highway that caters to truckers, and she worked at a strip club, according to court records. In 2009, her mother died.
Holl met Lanier after she was released from jail, although precisely how is unclear. What is clear is that Lanier trusted Holl, and subsequently Robertson, and did much of his alleged drug-dealing through them.
The money was coming in so fast that Holl rented a storage unit to stockpile cash, according to a police affidavit. The women also stashed money and fentanyl in cans with false bottoms throughout their apartment and in a fake heating vent where they hid a safe, according to a police informant.
Lanier found other ways to hide his illicit earnings, according to court records. This fall, he opened a business called Elite Spy Supply in a strip mall and filled it with thousands of dollars of inventory: survival gear, stun guns, knives, spy cameras, and bulletproof vests. He put his brother-in-law in charge, who later told police he made a $20,000 cash deposit in the store account at the direction of Lanier after it had been open only three weeks. Store receipts for the period were only about $2,000.
In October, Holl and Robertson honeymooned at an exclusive resort on a private island in Fiji. On Facebook, the pair posted photographs of romantic dinners, spa treatments, and fishing excursions. On the way home, they spent a night in Los Angeles and put more photos on Facebook. One shows them dining at a restaurant owned by a star of the reality television show “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
When Holl’s father commented on Facebook that the trip must have been expensive, his daughter replied, “we saved up for this trip, wasn’t easy but we did it.”
As deaths mount, police close in
Lanier was waiting to pick up Holl and Robertson at the airport when they returned home. What the three didn’t know was that undercover police officers were also at the airport, having followed Lanier from his home.
The fentanyl business was booming, but Lanier and his crew were making mistakes, which allowed police to pick up their trail last spring. Holl was unknowingly selling fentanyl to informants in transactions recorded by investigators. The dealers who allegedly bought fentanyl from Holl and Robertson were targeting felons in recovery programs and even started selling to people coming and going from a methadone clinic. That attracted unwanted attention.
The DEA linked Lanier and the women via phone company logs and Facebook pages that none of the principals thought to make private.
Holl and Robertson were protective of Lanier, not wanting competitors to learn the source of their fentanyl. But in May, a confidential informant told police that the women were working for “the biggest fentanyl dealer in Lubbock” who was “ruining people’s lives and finances.” In July, the informant had a first name of the dealer: Caleb. And then an address.
As deaths tied to fentanyl mounted, Holl was warned by another dealer she should stop identifying her product as fentanyl, according to a police affidavit.
The drug of choice in the high plains of west Texas has long been methamphetamine. Meth causes all sorts of problems, but people generally don’t drop dead after taking it. Fentanyl is different. The opioid can kill a first-time user or hardened addict with equal and brutal efficiency. No one in Lubbock had seen anything like it. Police knew they had to move fast.
On Oct. 17, they arrested Landon Brown, who allegedly sold fentanyl for Holl and Robertson. He had an outstanding warrant and officers allegedly found fentanyl on him. He started talking.
Brown, who went by the nickname Leaf, was allegedly selling 10 grams of fentanyl a day for the women to a group of about 25 customers, according to a police affidavit. He told police that he would deliver the women $3,000 a day in profits. He initially started by buying heroin from the women about three years ago, he said, but they switched to selling fentanyl.
Before dawn on Oct. 27, two separate teams of federal agents and local police, along with SWAT units, gathered to execute search warrants. Police broke down the door of the home Lanier shared with his wife and three children, ages 16, 13, and 5. Across town, the second team barged into the apartment of Holl and Robertson, who were sleeping.
Special hazardous material teams moved in to begin the tedious work of cleansing the properties of suspected fentanyl, which is so strong it can cause an overdose if touched before it is mixed with cutting agents.
Lanier, Holl, and Robertson have been charged in a federal criminal complaint with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl. All remain jailed as they await arraignment on the charge. Lawyers for Holl and Robertson declined to comment, and Lanier’s lawyer did not return phone calls.
Investigators have now shifted their focus to determining whether the fentanyl allegedly sold by the Lanier group is linked to any of the five fatal overdoses confirmed in the city this year. So far, no one has been charged in the deaths.
‘He didn’t ask for this life’
Lanier is remorseful, his mother, Marla, said in a telephone interview. Sidney Lanier had a happy childhood in Clovis, N.M., according to a 2004 psychological evaluation he underwent as part of a divorce proceeding. His father was a commodities trader for Archer Daniels Midland, and his mother stayed home to look after Lanier and his three older sisters.
His mother and others trace Lanier’s alleged use and sale of opioids to a back injury suffered about 15 years ago, when he was run over by a truck. He endured excruciating pain and had to give up the computer repair business because he could no longer lift the equipment he was fixing, his mother said. He went on government disability.
“It changed his life forever,” she said of the injury.
Marla Lanier said her son underwent numerous surgeries and visited doctors throughout Texas seeking relief from his pain. His Facebook page shows an image from a procedure he underwent in 2010. Screws inserted into his spine are visible.
Lanier allegedly began to abuse opioids. He took the fentanyl he ordered from China, often using himself as a guinea pig to check the quality of a shipment and to get relief from his pain. His wife told police she witnessed her husband injecting himself with pain medication.
“He didn’t ask for this life,” his mother said.
In the end, fentanyl allegedly offered Lanier both relief from pain and a new source of income. It may also cost him his freedom.
Since his arrest, Lubbock drug detectives have not been called to a single suspected fentanyl overdose, said Sgt. Robert Hook, a supervisor in the narcotics division.