A Rhode Island man has been found guilty by a federal jury for his involvement in organizing the international trafficking of fentanyl and other lethal drugs. The international drug investigation, called "Operation Denial," was spurred in North Dakota following the overdose death of Bailey Henke, 18, in Grand Forks in January 2015.
Steven Barros Pinto, 40, of Pawtucket, R.I., was found guilty on Friday, July 9, for conspiring to import and distribute fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, conspiracy to import fentanyl and fentanyl analogues into the U.S., continuing criminal enterprise, two counts of obstruction of justice, money laundering conspiracy, four counts of contempt, possession of contraband in a correctional facility and tampering with evidence.
The fentanyl enterprise spanned the U.S., China and Canada, and beyond. Federal court documents identify Pinto as the "principal administrator, organizer and leader" of the enterprise. Pinto was also found guilty of paying a witness to remain silent about the conspiracy.
The "Operation Denial" investigation began in August 2014, when undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began investigating Daniel Vivas Ceron, who is believed to have led the enterprise from inside the Drummond Institution, a medium-security prison facility in Quebec, Canada, from 2013 through 2017, documents state.
Henke's overdose death in Grand Forks on Jan. 3, 2015, became a turning point in the investigation, and led to the arrest of dozens people in North Dakota and beyond, including a Chinese national who became the first person to be designated a fentanyl kingpin by the U.S. government. The fentanyl trafficked as part of the operation has been proven to be responsible to at least 15 overdoses in North Dakota, two of which -- Henke and Evan Poitra, 19 -- were in Grand Forks.
Ceron was arrested in Panama in July of that year and was extradited to North Dakota. Ceron pleaded guilty to his involvement in the enterprise in July 2019, and remains in Cass County Jail awaiting sentencing. Co-conspirator Anthony Gomes, of Rhode Island, pleaded guilty in April 2018, and is scheduled to be sentenced in a Fargo courtroom on July 30.
A number of Chinese nationals also indicted in the investigation appear to remain at-large.
Pinto is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 14 and faces a a minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison.