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Washington County suspects rounded up in heroin bust

Four Washington County men were arrested Thursday in connection with a coordinated heroin bust across Minnesota that prosecutors say represented a rare bit of teamwork among various agencies.

The crackdown, dubbed “Project Exile” and organized largely by the U.S. attorney’s office and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, resulted in 65 arrests throughout Minnesota. Federal officials said more arrests were likely to follow in the coming weeks.

“This is a great day for the good guys,” said Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago field division. “We’ve punched organized crime right in the face.”

According to Washington County arrest records, suspects from Woodbury, Lake Elmo, West Lakeland Township and White Bear Township were booked in connection with the bust. A St. Paul man arrested at Woodbury’s Country Inn and Suites and a Hudson man arrested at the Woodbury Walmart were also booked into Washington County jail as part of the effort.

Officers from Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Washington County deputies were all involved in the arrests.

“It’s really a remarkable thing that the public has witnessed – the widespread coordination of interagency cooperation that one doesn’t see very often,” said Assistant Washington County Attorney Fred Fink.

He said the Washington County Attorney’s Office has heroin- and opiate-related deaths “coming out of our ears.”

County attorneys have prosecuted four heroin-related death investigations in less than two years, a trend Fink said is growing at a disturbing rate. By the end of the end the year, he said there could be as many as 10 heroin-related murder charges.

“That’s so frightening, it’s beyond belief,” Fink said.

He said formal charges against the Washington County suspects could come by Friday afternoon.

Wide net cast

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said just over a dozen people had been arrested in Ramsey County. Anoka County officials reported three arrests. The coordinated bust focused on metro-area counties, as well as Olmsted and St. Louis counties.

More than three dozen people have been charged with heroin trafficking in the Duluth-Superior, Wis., area, the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office said Thursday.

The county attorney’s office noted the disproportionate number of the warrants that came from St. Louis County.

The prevalence of heroin in the region has a ripple effect, County Attorney Mark Rubin said.

“The ugly reality of the heroin use and trafficking in our area is not just the individual addictive nature of the drug but the consequences — including increased property crimes and heightened dangers for children in homes where the drug was used,” he said.

Child maltreatment cases are climbing proportionately with exposure to heroin use, Rubin said.

“We have statements from children describing heroin as the ‘brown sugar in a plastic bag’ on their parents’ nightstand,” he said.

Health and social services officials say heroin use has spiked in St. Louis County in recent years. The state Department of Human Services reported 400 people were admitted for treatment for heroin in St. Louis County last year. In Ramsey County, with 2½ times the population, 511 people were treated for heroin last year.

As recently as 2009, only 23 people were treated for heroin in St. Louis County.

The county attorney’s office said several people have suffered heroin overdoses in the past year because users rarely know how pure the heroin they buy may be.

Most of the heroin sold in Duluth is brown heroin, usually produced in Mexico, the county attorney’s office said.

Riley said the heroin that ended up in Minnesota was largely produced in South America, including Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, with Mexican drug cartels used as a conduit to ship it north. Other officials spoke of the ease with which drug abusers could switch from opiate-based prescription painkillers to heroin, a fact currently being capitalized on by the cartels.

Brian Mueller, head of investigations for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, cited six overdose deaths so far this year — as well as a 600 percent increase in heroin seizures over last year, and a 500 percent increase in undercover purchases.

“That is absolutely significant,” Mueller said.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said there were 56 fatal heroin overdoses in his county last year — with the month-to-month numbers this year roughly 50 percent higher.

“People are dying at alarming rates,” Stanek said. “The numbers speak for themselves. In my 30 years of law enforcement, I’ve never seen a problem like this before.”

Forum News Service and its media partner, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, contributed to this report.