Updated 5:26 p.m. | Posted 8:38 a.m.
A federal grand jury has indicted 41 people in connection with a drug trafficking ring focused on two Indian reservations in Minnesota.
Authorities say the ring distributed drugs including heroin, methamphetamine, oxycodone and others in and around the Red Lake and White Earth Indian reservations starting in April 2014. Drugs were obtained in Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis.
Heroin and prescription drugs have blazed a horrific path on the reservation, said Randy Goodwin, White Earth director of public safety. He said even newborn babies have been exposed to heroin because of their mothers' addictions.
"Many lives, families, and communities have been damaged or destroyed from this poison," Goodwin said. "Lives have been lost from overdose. Families have been destroyed. Our elders have been victims of threats, abuse, and theft."
Prosecutors describe Omar Sharif Beasley, 37, as the ringleader of the operation, alleging that he "recruited sources, supervisors, managers, distributors, facilitators, couriers, drivers." A former federal fugitive, Beasley has a history of drug convictions. For the past month, he has been held at the Anoka County jail on an unrelated charge of violating his probation.
Others charged include residents of North Dakota, Chicago, Milwaukee and the White Earth and Red Lake reservations.
Each suspect has been charged with conspiracy to distribute the drugs. Other charges for some of the suspects include drug possession with intent to distribute, illegal possession of a firearm and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine and prescription painkillers.
The indictment was filed last week but unsealed on Wednesday.
Dan Moren, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the Twin Cities, said the group's members made millions by operating from far-flung corners of the state where they faced less competition and could try to hide the extent of their organization.
In northern Minnesota, where authorities have noted an increase in heroin use, Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp hopes the drug bust will slow drug sales.
"Our region has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of heroin being trafficked into this area, particularly onto the reservation," Hodapp said. "It's our belief that this investigation and these arrests are going to have a significant impact on the amount of drugs that are being brought into this area."
Audrey Thayer, a White Earth member who lives on the Leech Lake reservation, hopes the most recent arrests also will put a dent in the amount of drugs that ravage her community. She said her 39-year-old daughter has been using drugs since she was a teenager. Now in treatment, Thayer's daughter has been off of heroin and methamphetamine for seven months.
"For families to become healthy, it takes work," Thayer said. "I can only speak on my own behalf and my family — we've worked hard and have had very little success. That is devastating, and you can see where families give up hope."
In Red Lake, illegal drug use has reached an epidemic level, Public Safety Director Bill Brunelle said.
"There are many good people living in the Red Lake community who are not addicted to drugs, but others have children that are longing for their parents to be drug free," he said. "And unfortunately a percentage of these children take it upon themselves to report their living situation regarding neglect due to illegal drug abuse."
Making matters worse, Brunelle said, was a long-standing perception by drug traffickers that Indian country was an easy target given the lack of resources by tribal police. But he said what his department lacks in manpower, it makes up for in collaboration with federal agencies.
The bust dismantled the drug ring and will hinder any attempts to spawn new operations targeting tribal communities, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said Thursday.
"We didn't want to just take down the head of the organization or the people bringing the heroin into the state of Minnesota," Luger said. "We wanted to make it as difficult as possible for somebody to come in and pick up where this organization left off."
As of Thursday morning, authorities had arrested 35 people, from North Dakota to Gary, Ind.
MPR News reporters Dan Gunderson and John Enger contributed to this story.
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