NORRISTOWN >> Calling it one of the largest fentanyl seizures in the history of Montgomery County, prosecutors said they were able to take a kilo of the synthetic opioid, “enough to kill half the population of the county,” off the streets.
“Fentanyl is deadly in very, very small amounts. Minute amounts of this drug can prove fatal. Given that 2 to 3 milligrams of fentanyl, just five or six grains, can be fatal, the kilo that we’re talking about, or 2.2 pounds, in this case contained enough fentanyl to kill half the population of Montgomery County,” District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said at a news conference Tuesday.
Steele announced the arrests of three people who allegedly were distributing the fatal drug.
Wilbert Taveras-Payano, 33, of the Bronx, New York, Lincoln Payano Del Orbe Jr., 25, of Philadelphia, and Christina Mota-Soto, 29, of Philadelphia, were each arraigned on numerous drug trafficking-related charges in connection with incidents that occurred between April and July 2017. Each is being held at the county jail in lieu of $1 million bail to await further court action.
Mota-Sota reportedly is the girlfriend of Del Orbe. Taveras-Payano and Del Orbe reportedly are cousins.
“This fentanyl seizure that we’re talking about has saved many lives,” Steele said.
Steele alleged that had the kilo of fentanyl ended up in the hands of a drug dealer it would have been sold as heroin to addicts throughout Montgomery County and the Philadelphia region.
The one kilo of fentanyl, Steele said, could have been divided into 300,000 bags that could be sold on the street for $10 apiece. “That represents a street value of $3 million,” Steele said “That’s 300,000 bags that are not on the street and … will not be causing possible overdose deaths.”
Gary Tuggle, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Philadelphia, called the seizure significant.
“The amount of fentanyl that was seized in this particular case could have produced as much as one million fake pills. Not just are we potentially saving people who think they’re getting either fentanyl or heroin but also folks who are unknowingly buying this stuff thinking they’re getting prescription opioids,” Tuggle added.
Steele said fentanyl is 40 to 50 times more deadly than heroin.
“It means that the tiniest amount, airborne that’s inhaled, or a touch of fentanyl that’s absorbed through the skin, can lead to respiratory depression, respiratory arrest and possibly death. And when it’s shot up by those who are addicted, it means many of them are going to die,” Steele said.
Steele noted that of the 249 overdose deaths in Montgomery County in 2016, 108 involved fentanyl.
The investigation began in April, when undercover agents working with county detectives began negotiating with Mota-Soto, formerly of Norristown, for the purchase of heroin. Mota-Soto, authorities alleged, had ties to a confidential informant in Norristown.
Mota-Soto allegedly agreed to find the informant a source capable of supplying up to 3 kilograms of heroin at a time, according to court papers. On July 11, an informant met Mota-Soto in Philadelphia, and Mota-Soto provided “a sample” of what was believed to be heroin for $1,000. However, a chemical analysis determined the substance was fentanyl.
“In fact, the co-defendants knew it,” Steele alleged, referring to a text message in which Taveras-Payano told Mota-Soto “what he bought yesterday is synthetic.” “Synthetic means fentanyl.
“So now law enforcement was certainly interested in buying more fentanyl and working our way up the supply pipeline,” Steele added.
Undercover agents then negotiated to purchase a kilo of fentanyl from Mota-Soto for $64,000, according to the criminal complaint. On July 24, that drug transaction occurred in a shopping center in Cheltenham and Mota-Soto was taken into custody at that time, prosecutors said.
The investigation continued and detectives were able to eventually link all three defendants to the sales of fentanyl. Detectives also determined that Taveras-Payano was the source of the fentanyl in the Bronx, New York, and his cousin, Del Orbe, played an integral role in the two deliveries, Steele alleged.
Steele said fentanyl is so powerful he could not display it to the media, as he typically does when announcing other drug arrests. Instead, on Tuesday, Steele showed only photos of the drug that was seized by authorities during the investigation.
“We’re just not taking any chances with this or exposing anyone to it. Fentanyl is too deadly to even have in the room,” Steele said.
County and Cheltenham detectives were assisted in the joint investigation by Philadelphia Police, the DEA, Chester County District Attorney’s Office, and the U.S. Marshal Service.