The little package bound for a South Akron home New Year’s Eve was listed on a DHL manifest as a single screw.

But inside, authorities say they found a mold that could be used to press fentanyl or other drugs into near-perfect replicas of “percs,” the street name for the painkiller Percocet and its variations.

Akron police and Summit County health officials have warned the community about fake prescription pills for a couple of years, saying there has never been a more dangerous time to use drugs sold on the street or online because you never know what you’re getting.

In Summit County, there has been a decline in overdose deaths. And, after a spike at the beginning of January, the number of people seeking emergency room help after overdosing has again slowed.

The latest weekly report from Summit County Public Health — covering Jan. 11-19 — shows that ERs reported helping 27 people with overdose symptoms.
 
Yet the danger lurking in fake prescription pills troubles local health officials. It’s not clear how many fake prescription pill mills are operating in Greater Akron, but counterfeit drugs have killed people across the country in recent years.

The most famous case is probably the accidental overdose of musician and artist Prince. Investigators concluded Prince likely thought he was taking the prescription painkiller Vicodin when he was actually taking a fake version that had been laced with fentanyl.

Details of probe

An affidavit filed this month in federal court reveals how U.S. officials and Akron narcotics investigators worked together to shut down what they say was one source of fake prescription pills in Akron.

The brief investigation began Dec. 31 at a DHL facility.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Andrew Thomas was searching for opioids and opioid-related items arriving from foreign countries when he spotted waybill #3645201523.

A manifest said the package, which weighed about a pound, was a screw worth $5.

Thomas was suspicious. At the Cincinnati airport, officials had recently discovered items related to the black market trade of opioids. They were coming to the U.S. from China in lightweight, low-value packages, the affidavit said.

Some were pill dies, molds to press fake prescription pills. Shippers tried to disguise what they were sending by saying the boxes contained screws, screw samples and drill bits.

The package Thomas was looking at was bound for a home on Bellows Street in South Akron.

Thomas checked DHL records to see if there had been other similar packages shipped through DHL to the same address. Since September, at least six packages had, the affidavit said. Five were from China and included three separate screws, a tablet stamping mold and something labeled “hardware tools.”

The other package came from the Netherlands. The manifest listed it as a “greeting card sample.”

Thomas said in the affidavit that tablet stamping molds can be used in pill presses and that the Netherlands is a producer of the drug Ecstasy.

Looking inside

On Jan. 2, Thomas opened the package bound for Bellows Street and found six pill press die pieces to press what looked like the prescription pain reliever oxycodone containing acetaminophen.

Thomas and Akron Narcotics Detective Chris Carney seized the molds and quickly obtained a search warrant to launch a sting operation.

Investigators rigged the package from China with a device that would send them a signal when someone opened it. And on Jan. 3 at 1:55 p.m., Thomas knocked on the door of the Bellows Street home and made the delivery himself.

Donyea Nelson answered the door, signed the manifest and told Thomas, “I’m not sure what it is,” the affidavit said.

Thomas walked away and a few minutes later, at 2:06 p.m., investigators received an alert that the package had been opened. Investigators entered the Bellows Street home and found Nelson in the living room and the opened package in the kitchen on a chest freezer.

While searching the home, investigators found numerous powders, pills,and capsules, along with a pill press, the affidavit said, adding that the items found were “consistent with a large scale pill pressing operation.”

Investigators also found a Ruger .45 Blackhawk pistol, marijuana, crack cocaine, a crack pipe, and methamphetamine, the affidavit said.

An hour later, Thomas and Carney interviewed Nelson at the Akron Police Department.  

Nelson told them “he had experience operating and maintaining a pill press” and said he ordered parts for a pill press several times, the affidavit said.

Nelson, who had previously been convicted of felony drug charges in Michigan, now faces federal charges of illegally possessing a pill die and illegally possessing a firearm.

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.