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Suspected ringleader in deadly fentanyl case extradited to North Dakota

Daniel Vivas Ceron1 / 2
Acting U.S. Attorney in the District of North Dakota, Chris Myers, delivers a press conference regarding federal drug charges against a Colombian national related to the overdose death of Bailey Henke on Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

FARGO -- A Colombian national accused of orchestrating an international drug trafficking operation connected to fentanyl overdose deaths in Grand Forks has been extradited from Panama to North Dakota to face federal charges.

Daniel Vivas Ceron, 36, appeared Thursday in federal court in Fargo to face multiple drug charges, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and controlled substance analogues resulting in serious bodily injury and death, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Christopher Myers.

Vivas Ceron arrived Wednesday in North Dakota from Panama City, where he was arrested July 17, 2015, based on a warrant for this case. He did not enter a plea and is being held at the Cass County jail.

The charges are the result of Operation Denial, an international investigation into drugs, specifically fentanyl, that authorities said were being trafficked into North Dakota. The investigation was launched after Bailey Henke, 18, of Grand Forks, died of a fentanyl overdose in early January 2015.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fargo unsealed an indictment against Vivas Ceron in late July, stating he was the leader of a drug ring authorities say he operated since being incarcerated in a medium-security prison in Quebec.

Prosecutors said he is linked to drug trafficking in North Dakota, Oregon, Florida and elsewhere. This was done through various means, including through multiple telecommunication facilities, to mask the identity of co-conspirators, court documents say.

Court documents also state Vivas Ceron used 20 different aliases or email addresses.

Prosecutors allege traffickers arranged for drugs to be brought from China and Canada to the U.S., and ultimately Portland, Ore., Fargo and Grand Forks, where they were distributed in a mixture including fentanyl. Court documents identify four other victims of the drug ring from Portland only using initials.

Vivas Ceron also faces charges of conspiracy to import controlled substances and controlled substance analogues into the United States resulting in serious bodily injury and death, aiding and abetting the distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death, money laundering conspiracy and continuing criminal enterprise. He has only been charged in North Dakota’s federal district.

At Thursday's hearing, the court determined Vivas Ceron qualified for a court-appointed lawyer. An arraignment and detention hearing are set for Monday.

Including Vivas Ceron, federal charges have been brought against a dozen suspects in the investigation, but he is the first non-U.S. citizen to be indicted in the months-long probe.

Federal charges

Twelve defendants, including Vivas Ceron, have been indicted in federal court on multiple charges in connection to Operation Denial. Aside from Vivas Ceron, here are the other defendants who have been sentenced or indicted in North Dakota Federal District Court.

  • Jameson Robert Sele, 20, Grand Forks: sentenced to 36 months.

  • Ryan Jon Jensen, 20, Grand Forks: sentenced to 20 years.

  • David Todd Noye Jr., 18, Grand Forks: sentenced to three years and three months.

  • Joshua Tyler Fulp, 20, Grand Forks: sentenced to 12 years.

  • Kain Daniel Schwandt, 19, Grand Forks: sentenced to three years and six months.

  • Brandon Corde Hubbard, 40, Portland: sentenced to life in prison.

  • Ronnie Lee Helms, 30, Acworth, Ga.: jury trial set for March 7.

  • Branden James Foley, 28, Olympia, Wash.: sentenced to 30 months in prison.

In the District of Oregon, Steven Fairbanks Locke, Channing Lacey and Carissa Marie Laprall also face charges connected to Operation Denial. Their trials are pending.

Forum News Service contributed to this report. 

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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