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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Deadly drug conspiracy that was run from prisons flooded rural Alaska with fentanyl, prosecutors say

The Hiland Mountain Correctional Center women's prison on Nov. 2, 2023 in Eagle River, Alaska, where a drug trafficking ring in recent years has smuggled huge quantities of fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine to small towns and villages in Alaska.    (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News/TNS)
By Zachariah Hughes and Michelle Theriault Boots Anchorage Daily News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — From a prison cell in California, federal prosecutors allege, a 56-year-old inmate directed an Alaska drug trafficking ring that in recent years smuggled huge quantities of fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine to some of the state’s smallest villages through a network of postal shippers and drug couriers.

In Alaska, meanwhile, a woman incarcerated at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center recruited a fellow inmate on the cusp of release to join the drug ring, federal prosecutors wrote in an indictment unsealed in October. That woman, the U.S. Attorney now alleges, quickly rose through the group’s ranks, culminating in what prosecutors say was the killing of two Alaska women near Trapper Creek at the behest of the enterprise’s leader in California.

The prosecutors contend that the group was both brutal and prolific: During a 15-month period members allegedly sent a staggering 58.5 kilograms of fentanyl — nearly 130 pounds — to Alaska communities, including villages as small as Savoonga and Tyonek. Last year, the Department of Public Safety’s Statewide Drug Enforcement unit seized 27 kilograms of fentanyl, less than half the amount law enforcement say was bound for Alaska when it was intercepted from people allegedly connected with the organization.

Now, a total of 16 people in Alaska and California have been charged across three federal criminal cases related to the alleged drug conspiracy and homicides, one filed in June and the others in October. Three of the defendants face a federal charge of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, which carries a mandatory life sentence with conviction. Other defendants face charges ranging from money laundering to drug conspiracy to killing in the furtherance of continuing criminal enterprise.

While the allegations in the indictments have not yet been heard in court, the initial accounts by prosecutors paint a picture of how an organized drug ring operated to flood Alaska with potent drugs.

Several of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage declined a request for an interview, and would not comment on the relationship between the three criminal cases filed in federal court, citing the Department of Justice’s media policy.

Lawyers representing several of those charged did not respond to emailed requests for comment on behalf of their clients.

The dynamics described in the cases follow a pattern seen often in Alaska, law enforcement officials say: Drugs produced outside the state are imported to the state via shipping, couriers or “anything else you can think of,” and then smuggled into smaller rural communities, where they can be sold at a markup, said Daron Cooper with the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

“Anchorage is generally the first stop for that product before it then grows legs and goes out to our outlying communities,” Cooper said.

Alaska’s drug market can be lucrative, with doses of methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl selling for several times what they’d fetch on the streets of major West Coast cities. According to figures from the Alaska Department of Public Safety, a dose of fentanyl that might sell in Anchorage for $15 could be worth $40 in Utqiagvik, $80 in Kodiak, or $100 in Bethel. The smaller and more remote the community, the higher the price, according to the Department of Public Safety’s 2022 statewide drug report.

“The farther a drug or alcohol is trafficked from a regional hub the greater the retail price,” the report said.

All that gives organized, multi-state drug traffickers an incentive to operate in Alaska, said Anchorage’s Sandy Snodgrass.

Snodgrass lost her son to a fentanyl overdose in 2021, and has since lobbied for federal legislation called “Bruce’s Law” addressing the national opioid epidemic. She has spoken with lawmakers, public safety officials and community groups across Alaska. Bringing contraband into remote communities has always been lucrative, she said, but it’s only in the last year or two that she’s heard more about large quantities of fentanyl manufactured by organized criminal groups south of the border have started arriving.

“They are targeting rural communities in Alaska because of the price they can charge,” she said.

From a prison in California

The drug ring described in the federal indictments was operated out of a prison cell thousands of miles from Alaska, prosecutors assert.

Heraclio Sanchez-Rodriguez was serving a lengthy prison sentence at California’s Salinas Valley Prison when, in 2022 and 2023, he allegedly used smuggled cellphones to communicate with suppliers in Mexico and partners in California to send drugs to Alaska, according to one of the federal indictments. Two of his daughters and his sister have been accused by federal prosecutors of helping him.

Reached by email, Sanchez-Rodriguez’s Yakima, Washington-based attorney Ken Therrien said he had no comment about his client’s case.

From prison, one of the indictments says, Sanchez-Rodriguez communicated with a woman in Alaska, Christina Quintana, 38, who was then an inmate at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. Quintana was sentenced to 22 1/2 years on charges stemming from a violent robbery over a drug debt in Sitka in 2018. It isn’t clear why she was serving her sentence at Hiland, which typically incarcerates state prisoners. Sanchez-Rodriguez referred to Quintana as his “wife,” according to the indictment. It’s also not clear how Quintana was able to allegedly communicate with Sanchez-Rodriguez. Alaska Department of Corrections spokeswoman Betsy Holley referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The indictment contends that Quintana was the main organizer of a criminal enterprise.

Quintana has pleaded not guilty to charges. Her attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While at Hiland, federal prosecutors charge, Quintana recruited Tamara Bren, 41, who had lived in Anchorage and North Pole and was incarcerated on a drug-related charge. After she was released, Bren went from receiving drugs to acting as a “high ranking member of the conspiracy,” and was also referred to by Sanchez-Rodriguez as a “wife,” the indictment alleged. Federal prosecutors assert she was responsible for recruiting new people to smuggle drugs and for obtaining guns.

Bren has pleaded not guilty to charges. Her attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Each substance the group dealt had a codename, according to the indictment: “Blueberries” or “fetty” for fentanyl, which is often pressed into small blue pills; “agua” for methamphetamine; “choco” for heroin.

The group is accused of moving a lot of it: In 2022 and 2023, prosecutors say police intercepted at least 50 packages containing drugs sent by group members from California and Oregon to destinations in Alaska that included major hubs as well as small communities including Sitka, Dillingham, Ketchikan, Tyonek, Goodnews Bay, New Stuyahok, Savoonga and Togiak.

One shipment alone included 1,877 grams of fentanyl to Savoonga, a community of 826 people, an indictment said. Another shipment, in March 2023, bearing 1,593 grams of fentanyl, was bound for Tyonek, population 415.

During that same time, a group of Alaskans charged in the indictments with money laundering are accused of using services such as MoneyGram, Western Union and CashApp to send tens of thousands of dollars to people in Mexico, Arizona, California and Oregon and to smaller communities in Alaska such as Sand Point, for drug transactions.

Sanchez-Rodriguez, the California man prosecutors say was at the head of the arrangement, kept a “handwritten ledger in his prison cell documenting approximately $215,100 in additional wire transfers to him and his associates,” according to one of the indictments.

The quantities of drugs described in the indictments are larger than some statewide totals for all drugs intercepted last year. For perspective, in 2022, the Department of Public Safety’s Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit seized roughly 27 kilograms of fentanyl, 40 kilograms of heroin, and 81.6 kilograms of meth, according to an annual report.

Between the three drug conspiracy cases filed last week, prosecutors say they seized a total of 58.5 kilograms of fentanyl, 9 kilograms of heroin, and 39.5 kilograms of meth.

Trapper Creek killings

Prosecutors say the drug conspiracy turned deadly in June 2023 when, the indictment alleges, Sanchez-Rodriguez, Bren and a 29-year-old Anchorage man named Kevin Glenn Peterson II conspired to kidnap and kill two women, Kami Clark and Sunday Powers.

Peterson II has pleaded not guilty to charges. His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to prosecutors, starting in March 2023, Sanchez-Rodriguez began communicating about the plan. In May, attorneys allege the three coordinated to meet up with Powers and Clark. At some point, federal prosecutors allege Bren and Peterson restrained the two women, drove them to a hidden location, and executed them with gunshots to the head before burying them “in a shallow grave near Trapper Creek,” according to the indictment.

The indictments do not say why Clark or Powers were targeted, or specify which of the indicted co-conspirators carried out which actions, charging all three of them with the murders.

Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed notice that it would not seek the death penalty for the killings of Clark and Sunday Powers.

Powers was first reported missing on May 24. Alaska State Troopers found her and Clark on June 2.

Little has been publicly shared about the women. Powers’ family asked for help in an online fundraiser bringing her body home to Fairbanks.

“Pray for Sunday,” a man who described himself as Powers’ brother wrote in the online fundraiser in June of this year. “Pray for my mother pray for my father and pray for our peace.”