One of three defendants accused of illegally manufacturing and distributing fentanyl from a Newport Beach residence has been sentenced to seven years and three months in federal prison, according to court documents.
Duc “Kevin” Cao of Orange was accused in a federal complaint in April 2018 along with Isaiah Suarez of Newport Beach and Wyatt Pasek of Santa Ana of obtaining fentanyl and an analogue called cyclopropyl fentanyl and manufacturing and distributing counterfeit pharmaceutical pills designed to look like brand-name 30 mg oxycodone pills, court documents show.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Pharmaceutical fentanyl was developed to treat patients with severe pain.
The defendants were charged after an investigation by the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Costa Mesa Police Department.
Prosecutors alleged the three used encrypted dark net marketplaces to arrange sales that were distributed through the mail.
Cao, who was 20 at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty May 20 to a felony charge of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. In addition to his prison term, he was sentenced to three years of supervised release, according to court documents.
Suarez, who was 22 at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty Aug. 28 to one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, court records show. He was remanded back into custody Wednesday and is scheduled for sentencing June 24, according to his attorney, Katherine Corrigan.
Pasek, who was 21 when he was arrested, agreed to plead guilty Nov. 2 to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and one count of money laundering. He is scheduled for sentencing Aug. 26, Corrigan said.
An affidavit attached to the federal criminal complaint said Cao, Pasek and Suarez manufactured the drugs using a pill press at Suarez’s home on East Balboa Boulevard in Newport Beach and distributed them through the Postal Service.
The affidavit, by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Lindsey Bellomy, said FBI agents became aware from a confidential source that “home-pressed” pills containing fentanyl were produced by one of the defendants, who had an inventory of 100,000 pills.
On March 5, 2018, a Costa Mesa police detective saw Cao leave the Balboa Boulevard residence and deposit multiple small USPS Priority Mail parcels in a mail collection box on the same block, according to the affidavit.
The detective prevented any additional mail from being deposited in the box while waiting for a USPS inspector to arrive and retrieve the contents. Once the box was opened, the detective found seven parcels of the same size and shape with the same sender, according to the affadavit. The packages were addressed to recipients all over the country.
Three days later, the USPS inspector obtained a warrant to search the packages and found that each contained a clear zip-lock plastic bag. Each bag was labeled either with the number 100, 250 or 500, apparently correlating to the approximate number of small blue circular pills it contained, the affidavit said.
“I believe the blue pills imprinted with ‘A/215’ were counterfeit oxycodone,” the agent wrote.
On April 2, 2018, Cao visited Pasek’s Santa Ana residence, then traveled to the Newport Beach home and a Santa Ana post office, investigators said. Authorities later found boxes similar to those seized from the Balboa Boulevard mailbox the previous month. The 13 additional boxes contained more than 4,000 “A/215” pills, prosecutors said.
The defendants were charged in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana on April 4, 2018.
“Mr. Cao deeply regrets getting into the sales. He now realizes the full scope of the harm he caused,” Cao’s attorney Dean Steward said Thursday.
In a letter before his sentencing, Cao detailed to District Judge James Selna how he got involved in the operation and expressed remorse.
“I am an inherently good-natured person whose moral compass was skewed bit by bit until I was unable to see that I was pointed in the entirely wrong direction,” the letter said.
Cao, a citizen of Vietnam, came to the United States in 2012. He attended Brethren Christian School in Huntington Beach, where he said the language barrier caused him to struggle academically and be the subject of bullying. He later transferred to an Anaheim Christian school, where he graduated with “excellent grades,” he said. He enrolled at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa in 2015, he said.
“My college years were typical; I studied hard and spent my spare time tutoring other people,” he said.
His father’s financial situation in Vietnam became strained and he worried for his family and how he would support himself. Eventually, marijuana and later cocaine became part of his coping mechanisms, he said.
Soon, a cocaine addiction caused him to look for ways to make money more quickly, he said.
He claimed it took months before he found out the pill-pressing operation involved fentanyl. “But it was too late,” he wrote. “I was trapped in this money-cocaine-drug making cycle that I was aware of but couldn’t get myself out of.
“I was once a good person and a positive influence on those around me. I have fallen so far from that in such a short amount of time. I know that I can be that person again.”
This article was originally published at 2:05 p.m. and was later updated with additional comments.