Feds: Backyard fentanyl operation in WA could have made 2.5M pills
In the floorboards below the bathroom sink, $20,000. In the insulation behind a water heater, $100,000. In a hole below the dishwasher, $200,000.
And in the drywall behind a toilet paper roll, plastic bottles filled with gold coins.
There was so much cash — $1.1 million — concealed at the headquarters of what prosecutors describe as one of the state's most significant illegal drug operations that it took four searches over a span of several weeks for agents to find it all. There were more than two dozen guns, homemade silencers and thousands of rounds of ammunition in a secret room.
Three years later, the conspiracy's leader, Bradley Woolard, 42, of Arlington, was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison — one of the longest federal drug sentences ever handed out in Western Washington. Authorities said he and his right-hand man, Anthony Pelayo, ordered enough supplies to make around 2.5 million fentanyl-laced pills before they got caught — an amount so vast that their guideline sentencing ranges called for about three decades to life in prison.
“It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of drugs. It’s a tragedy,” U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour said. He told prosecutors he was surprised they didn't ask for more than 20 years for Woolard.
The pair ran a backyard pill-pressing operation with fentanyl powder they ordered from China beginning in 2015 — just as the synthetic opioid was taking hold as a cheaper, more powerful and more deadly alternative to heroin. They obtained stamps that could mark their product “M30” — making the small, blue pills appear to be pharmacy-grade oxycodone, not fentanyl.
Their case offers a look at how the production of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl or related drugs became a cottage industry across the country in those years. They enlisted a number of other people to receive shipments of fentanyl powder they ordered on the “dark web” using bitcoin or wire transfers; investigators initially didn't know if the different shipments were part of the same conspiracy. Some of the shipments were labeled “lab supplies.”
They also bought pill presses and learned how to run them, first in a workshop at Woolard's home in Arlington and later at Pelayo's property nearby.
“The presses used by Mr. Woolard and Mr. Pelayo were capable of pressing thousands of pills an hour, and Mr. Woolard and Mr. Pelayo pressed so many pills over the course of the conspiracy that they wore out multiple presses,” assistant U.S. attorneys Karyn S. Johnson and Mike Lang wrote in a sentencing memo.
Because the pair were manufacturers and wholesalers, agents were unable to link any overdoses to their operation.
But deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses soared in Snohomish County while the conspiracy was active — from eight in 2015, to 13 in 2016, to 26 in 2017 and 58 in 2018, according to data from the Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute at the University of Washington.
The number of people overdosing on fentanyl has only skyrocketed since then, in Snohomish County, Washington state and across the country, with massive amounts of the drug being smuggled in from Mexico in recent years, federal authorities say. Overdose deaths have soared to about 100,000 per year nationally.
Lang told the judge Tuesday that he looked for people ravaged by the pills Woolard sold, some of whom likely did not even realize they were taking fentanyl.
“It's hard to find them,” he said. “They don't show up in the courtroom. But they have a voice. There is suffering out there.”
A jury convicted Woolard and Pelayo of drug, gun and money laundering charges in August after a two-week trial. A top distributor, Jerome Isham, was also convicted of drug and gun charges. Eight other people were also charged in the case, with several, including Woolard’s estranged wife, receiving lighter sentences after cooperating with investigators.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office sought 25 years for Pelayo, 35, of Marysville, who was convicted of an additional gun charge, before Coughenour sentenced him to 15 years last week. Isham got 10 years.
Woolard and Pelayo both have young children. Neither had significant criminal records or had ever been convicted of using violence, though prosecutors said Woolard threatened to kill a cooperating witness.
“They make me sound like Pablo Escobar of Marysville, which is not true," Pelayo told the judge at his sentencing.
While Pelayo indicated in text messages to others that he wouldn't take the pills he helped make because they were too dangerous, Woolard had a long-running pill addiction that began after he broke his ankle in 2001. His habit ran about $1,000 a day by the time he was arrested, he wrote in a letter to the judge.
Woolard spent some of the proceeds of the conspiracy attending spa-like drug treatment resorts in Costa Rica and Mexico at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 per month.
His attorney, Peter Camiel, told Coughenour that Woolard would likely be dead if he hadn't been arrested.
When they were sentenced, both Woolard and Pelayo apologized to their families
“I've really seen the damage drugs have caused,” Woolard said, weeping. “They destroy lives. I've experienced that. I'm experiencing it now.”
Information about fentanyl and how to respond to overdoses is available here.