Tens of thousands of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl have been traced back to illegal pill presses being operated out of basements and apartments in Minnesota, according to state court records and interviews with federal investigators.
Agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration say it's part of a growing and dangerous trend that is already leading to more deadly overdoses.
So far this year, federal agents have seized about four times as many counterfeit pills compared to all of last year.
While most of those pills are coming from drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, investigators say thousands are being manufactured by drug dealers right here in the Twin Cities who can sell them for as much as $100 per pill.
'It absolutely can be a very lucrative business. But the fact is, people are dying at an exponential rate,' said Steve Bell, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the DEA field office in Omaha, Neb.
Demarlo Hudson of Spring Lake Park was indicted by a federal grand jury earlier this year for allegedly selling pills that looked like real narcotics provided by a pharmacy. Hudson has pleaded not guilty.
Investigators with the DEA, FBI and Hennepin County Sheriff's Office believed Hudson operated a commercial-grade pill press that produced tens of thousands of pills that appeared to be oxycodone but actually contained fentanyl, according to a search warrant filed late last year.
A DEA lab test determined 'the amount of fentanyl found in these pills could be fatal by only ingesting two pills.'
5 INVESTIGATES traveled to a DEA field office in Omaha this fall where agents gave a demonstration on why pressed pills are so dangerous.
Bell, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge, used salt and pepper in a mixing bowl -- the pepper acting as the fentanyl that gives users either an intense high or causes them to overdose and die.
'You can see right off the bat, that there is no uniformity to what I just did,' Bell said as he described the mixture. 'And now you have some spots that are heavily contaminated.'
If that mixture was real and pushed through a pill press, there is a high likelihood it would make several lethal pills, according to Bell.
'It's literally playing Russian roulette,' said Rolando Ruiz, who used to regularly take counterfeit pills that were laced with fentanyl from China.
The 30-year old said he bought the pills from a friend who made them with his own press.
Pill presses are legal to purchase and easy to find online. Operators are only breaking the law if they obtain a counterfeit mold that makes the pills come out with all the markings of a real Oxycontin or Vicodin, according to the DEA.
A 2019 study found pill presses operated by inexperienced 'garage manufacturers' have created millions of doses of 'nearly perfect-looking counterfeits' and have led to deaths in at least 30 states.
Police in St. Paul suspected a deadly overdose last March was connected to 'fraudulently pressed pills' made to look like Oxycodone, according to a recently filed search warrant.
Another warrant from October says a woman was found dead inside a St. Louis Park apartment after telling her roommates she took a 'dirty 30' -- oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl or heroin.
'Every time you give it away to someone, you're selling death. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when,' Ruiz said during a recent interview at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge where he is currently in recovery.
Tim Walsh, vice president of the organization, says ever since pill presses exploded in popularity in 2016, he keeps hearing stories like Ruiz'.
'They throw caution to the wind,' Walsh said. 'These are amateurs. This is not like Breaking Bad. These folks don't know chemistry, they don't know how to be a pharmacist, and they don't know how to combine in a safe way. None of these folks do.'
People like Ruiz started turning to counterfeit pills after access to legitimate narcotics started drying up several years ago, said Angela VonTrytek, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the DEA in Minneapolis.
'I believe a large part of the counterfeit pill problem in Minnesota… is basically since the medical profession has stopped prescribing the volume of opioids to patients in this country,' she said. 'People that do have issues in that realm have been forced to an underground market, so to speak.'
Ruiz, who says he's been clean for more than a year for the first time in his adult life, now wants to warn others about the risk that's not worth taking.
'Everybody has a family that loves them and cares about them, and you're giving them a loaded gun to shoot themselves in the head basically,' he said about counterfeit pills. 'I just encourage people to think about that when they're trading pills and buying and selling them. There's another side that we have to face.'