Federal drug agents and prosecutors in Colorado held a press conference in July to promote their work taking fentanyl off the streets amid a string of high-profile drug overdose deaths.
“I wanted to give you something different today — not just a doom and gloom story,” said Brian Besser, the special agent in charge of the Denver Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “I wanted you to see behind the scenes aggressive and persistent policing and prosecutions to save lives and bring people to justice.”
One of the cases Besser highlighted was the June seizure of 114 pounds of pure fentanyl — enough, he said, to kill more than 25 million people. He described it as the largest fentanyl bust on an American highway in history.
“We don’t sleep at the wheel,” Besser said.
It was a curious turn of events in terms of what had happened right after the record-breaking fentanyl attack — a stunning blunder that went unmentioned during the July 6 press conference.
The DEA lost track of the man transporting the massive amount of fentanyl.
The suspect, David Maldonado, 27, had agreed to cooperate with federal agents and help them arrest the drug traffickers in South Bend, Indiana, where he said the fentanyl was on its way, according to the Colorado State Patrol. But en route to close the deal, Maldonado managed to lose the DEA agents and remove the tracker they had placed on his car.
He is now considered a fugitive.
The case represents an embarrassing episode for the DEA at a time when drug cartels are flooding the US with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, and overdose rates are on the rise.
A spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol, which made the first discovery of the fentanyl, gave a blunt account of the botched operation.
“DEA worked with us and they made a deal with the driver,” said Master Trooper Gary Cutler. “He ran up to them after they worked on the case, and that was their debacle.”
Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former DEA consultant, said the agents should have known they needed extra supervision of a potential employee they didn’t have enough time to investigate.
“This is a fiasco for the DEA,” Haberfeld said.
DEA spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff declined to comment on NBC News, citing the ongoing investigation. But after this story was published, a DEA official confirmed the seizure of 114 pounds of fentanyl.
“Those drugs have remained in law enforcement’s possession ever since,” the official said. “DEA relentlessly pursues those involved in the trade in the seized fentanyl and will continue to do so.”
Overdose deaths in the US topped 100,000 for the first time last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fueled largely by fentanyl. Of the 107,622 fatal overdoses reported in 2021, 71,238 or 66% involved fentanyl.
The highly potent opioid is cheaper than other drugs and comes in the form of a white powder, allowing traffickers to mix it with cocaine and other drugs or mash it into prescription pills like Xanax to increase their supply and boost profits. In many cases, cocaine and pills laced with fentanyl have killed people who had no idea they were consuming it. But some drug users are now turning to fentanyl for its intense high.
In Colorado, the number of deaths from fentanyl has increased more than tenfold in the past five years — from 81 in 2017 to more than 900 in 2021, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Overdose deaths have also risen in Indiana, where Colorado bust fentanyl apparently went.
“How bad is it? It’s everywhere,” said Robin Vida, director of health, outreach, promotion, and education for the St. Joseph County Department of Health, which covers South Bend.
The Maldonado case, first reported by The Denver Gazette, started with a routine traffic stop. An arrest warrant application filed in Colorado court by a state agent details the events leading up to Maldonado’s disappearance.
At approximately 10:37 a.m. on June 18, the trooper spotted a car weaving in and out of traffic on Interstate 70 just west of Denver.
The trooper stopped the car and noticed the driver was “exceptionally nervous”.
The driver, identified as Maldonado, told the trooper that he had spent a week in the city of Grand Junction visiting family. But the trooper knew the story was a lie; he had checked Maldonado’s license plate before the stop and found that it had been scanned by a license plate reader in Southern California about 24 hours earlier.
The trooper scanned the inside of Maldonado’s car and saw that it was empty except for a few energy drinks, some snacks at the gas station and a blanket in the back seat.
“Maldonado’s nervousness did not diminish throughout the contact,” although the trooper told him he was not getting a ticket, just a warning, the warrant says.
Maldonado claimed he wasn’t nervous; he just had to “really” go to the bathroom. He initially refused to allow the trooper to search his car, but then relented because he wanted to get back on the road, the court document says.
The trooper had him drive 3 miles to the next exit to use the restroom. While Maldonado was in the bathroom, the trooper let his drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle. The dog signaled the presence of drugs, the affidavit says, prompting the trooper to search the car.
The trooper found two traps used to hide contraband in the floorboard, the affidavit says. When he took them out, he made a staggering discovery: 48 packets of fentanyl powder. In total, they weighed 114 pounds, the court document says.
After the trooper arrested him, Maldonado agreed to speak to a DEA agent. In addition to telling the officer the drugs were on their way to South Bend, Maldonado said he picked up the fentanyl in California and performed a drug run at least once before, the affidavit says.
Maldonado agreed to complete the delivery of the drugs so that the DEA could identify traffickers higher up in the criminal network.
The next day, Maldonado left for the controlled delivery with a tracking device attached to his car. But at some point in his journey — it’s not clear where — he managed to slip away from surveillance and remove the tracker from his car, the affidavit says.
Maldonado is wanted on two charges: unlawfully distributing more than 225 grams of a controlled substance and introducing that substance into the state of Colorado.
The US Marshals confirmed that the Colorado Violent Offender Task Force is on the hunt for Maldonado, who was described in the affidavit as six feet tall and weighing 245 pounds.
“Due to the sensitive nature of our investigation, we are unable to provide additional information at this time to avoid compromising any aspect of our case,” the agency said in a statement.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director and NBC News national security officer, said the DEA is most likely conducting an internal investigation.
“We have a record amount of fentanyl here, in fact enough fentanyl to kill everyone in the state of Colorado,” Figliuzzi said. “The person who delivered that amount of fentanyl is now up in the air. And it seems there are no other bad guys in custody as far as we know, so that’s a massive failure.”
Maldonado has family in Mexico, but he grew up in the small town of West Liberty, Iowa (population: 3,800), according to the warrant’s application.
According to high school sports website Max Preps, he was a member of the West Liberty High School varsity football team for at least one season.
But Maldonado started breaking the law when he was still in his teens.
In August 2013, he was detained by police who allegedly found a marijuana pipe in his car, as well as a gun wrapped in a pillowcase, according to a report in The Muscatine Journal in Iowa. A search of his bedroom yielded more than 21 grams of marijuana in 23 bags, along with a scale, the paper reported.
The charges were later dismissed, according to the online court.
Maldonado has two Facebook accounts, but rarely posts.
His last was in March, three months before traffic stopped in Colorado. It consisted of a photo of him standing on a large rock with something resembling a machete.
On an older Facebook page, in July 2020, he posted a comment lamenting how only nine people had responded to a new profile picture.
“And not one belongs to anyone close to me,” Maldonado wrote in Spanish. “What good is being born here if my loved ones can’t be here? man, what a path has been given to me!”
NBC News contacted several family members, but they did not respond or declined to comment.
“I don’t know anything about (Maldonado) and I don’t want to worry about what he got into,” said a relative.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com