A San Diego woman known to her dark web customers as the “Drug Llama” has been arrested on charges of shipping more than 50,000 fentanyl pills throughout the country, authorities said Tuesday.
Though the charges against Melissa Scanlan stem from a federal grand jury indictment in Illinois, the 31-year-old woman is also being investigated in connection with two overdose deaths closer to home.
Scanlan is suspected of selling fentanyl that killed a 10-month-old boy and a woman in San Diego County in separate instances last September, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Sherri Hobson.
In one case, Scanlan is suspected of selling fentanyl to a father who then allegedly left the drugs within reach of his infant. The baby was found unresponsive in bed with his parents.
The second overdose victim was a 41-year-old woman.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has invaded the nation’s drug supply because it is cheap to make, easy to procure and extremely potent — up to 50 times stronger than heroin. It is also extremely deadly, especially if a user is not accustomed to its strength or takes a concentrated dose. A fatal dose of pure fentanyl can be the equivalent of a pinch of salt.
According to the investigation, the fentanyl in this case was smuggled from Mexico, sold via the dark web and shipped in the mail — all tactics that have been commonly used to distribute the drug to customers in the United States in recent years as the demand for opioids has exploded.
The federal charges are the result of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration undercover operation in both San Diego and St. Louis, Hobson said. Other investigating agencies include the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Department of Homeland Security.
From April to July, agents purchased nine items from the Drug Llama on the dark web’s hottest underground marketplace, known as Dream Market. Her specialty was fentanyl pills, called “pressed blues,” which were disguised as oxycodone and stamped with “M30,” Hobson said.
When authorities searched her San Diego home last month, she admitted to obtaining the pills from a Mexican cartel, Hobson said. The indictment alleges she trafficked fentanyl since at least Oct. 1, 2016.
The indictment charges her with distributing more than 400 grams of fentanyl, but Hobson told a San Diego federal judge on Monday during a detention hearing that she was responsible for shipping more than 50,000 pills.
Pressed blues were not the only product on the menu. Hobson said the Drug Llama also offered “genuine” oxycodone, amphetamine, morphine, Percocet, temazepam, flexeril and an “opiate powder pack.”
The key to linking Scanlan to the sales rested in the return address on the parcels shipped to the undercover agents, Hobson said. The sender was listed as “Samantha Cooper” — a fake identity that turned out to be the names of Scanlan’s two dogs, Hobson said. The address traced back to an old business of hers, Hobson said.
Agents looking into a related PayPal account also discovered thousands of transactions linked to the drug sales, Hobson said.
When one undercover agent reached out to the Drug Llama in late July for an order, she boasted she could sell 100 to 500 pills at a time, Hobson said. But the seller did not want to meet in person, and instead offered to mail it, Hobson said.
Scanlan was arrested in early August on state drug charges after a search warrant was executed at her home. She was released from custody a few weeks later and proceeded to go to Mexico to negotiate two new deliveries of fentanyl — believed to be 500 pills each — to her house, Hobson said. Scanlan also redirected her customers to another dark web marketplace, Hobson said.
She was arrested on the Illinois charges Sept. 4. The charges include accusations that she conspired with others to distribute the drugs, that she misbranded drugs and that she was part of an international money-laundering conspiracy, according to court records.
Hobson argued to the San Diego judge on Monday that Scanlan was a flight risk and also a danger. Scanlan is about five months pregnant and was continuing to engage in criminal conduct, she said.
Scanlan’s attorney in San Diego could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
Online, Scanlan describes herself as a “young professional that specializes in Operations Management for Start-up, Small, and Mid-Size Business.”
Her past employment includes IriSys, a San Diego pharmaceutical product development and manufacturing service, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her duties there included ordering raw materials and managing overhead costs, resulting in reduced costs by 62% over two years, she said.
Her latest venture is Luxury Carbon Fiber, a business that “ingeniously designs and manufactures Carbon Fiber products for the ‘Modern Gentleman,’ ” according to its Crowdfunder.com site. Advertised products include money clips, leather business card holders and laptop cases.
Hobson said that in many of the parcels sent to the undercover agents, fentanyl pills were contained in the same kind of leather pouches.