By Ken Dilanian and Michael Kosnar —NBC News
It all started with the death of a 20-year-old mother, just a month after her baby's first birthday. She is one of 70,000 Americans who have died from the fentanyl crisis in 2021.
Police officers were unable to save Diamond Lynch, who overdosed in his Washington, D.C., apartment after taking a pill laced with the powerful opioid.
However, they quickly began investigating how the woman died, with the help of federal prosecutors and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
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It all started with a few text messages and a handful of pills. Authorities unraveled a massive fentanyl distribution network that stretched from the D.C. area to California and Mexico.
So far, 25 people have been charged. According to court documents, traffickers did business with impunity, mostly on Instagram, and smuggled fentanyl-laced pills in candy boxes. The pills mimicked the appearance of Percocet and other prescription opioids.
The investigation was part of a DEA initiative called OD Justice, an effort that involves taking overdose deaths to try to hold traffickers accountable and make a dent in the flow of fentanyl.
"We're doing hundreds of investigations like this across the United States," DEA Director Anne Milgram told NBC News.
Selling on social media
Investigators used messages on Diamond Lynch's phone to find the traffickers who sold him the lethal dose, Milgram said. "Then we expanded it to who supplied them. We tracked it all the way to Los Angeles, San Diego, and finally to Mexico."
In an investigation dubbed Operation Blues Brothers, federal agents profited from the carelessness of accused drug traffickers, who communicated through social media posts that can be easily obtained with warrants. This also demonstrated how "social media has become the drug superhighway," according to Milgram.
"What we see day in and day out across the United States," he said, "is that these pills (the fentanyl that's killing Americans) are being sold openly on Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook Marketplace and Instagram."
Fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat we've ever seen in the United States
Anne Milgram, director of the DEA.
Milgram detailed that "these people used Instagram for almost every aspect of their business. They used it to choose the blue color of the [pills] they bought from wholesalers to sell on the streets. They were using it to coordinate shipments from Los Angeles to D.C. They were using it to arrange payments. Basically, Instagram facilitates every part of the business which, in this case, ultimately resulted in Diamond's death."
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment on the case. The company has said that the sale of drugs is banned on its platform and that the issue of the fentanyl crisis is a "society-wide" issue.
The Sinaloa Cartel's Involvement
Two of the 25 defendants pleaded guilty: Larry Jerome Eastman and his sister, Justice Michelle Eastman, who admitted to supplying the drugs that killed Diamond Lynch. He was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison and she to just over three years. The other defendants pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, drug trafficking, and weapons trafficking, among others.
According to court records and an internal DEA document obtained by NBC News, investigators seized nearly 95,000 fentanyl-laced pills linked to the network and more than 14 pounds of the drug, enough to kill more than 400,000 Americans.
At the same time, Milgram acknowledged that law enforcement doesn't appear to be making a dent in the overall flow of fentanyl into the United States, and that the risk to drug users is greater than ever.
"We have seized nearly 70 million counterfeit pills containing fentanyl this year to date," the DEA administrator said. "Last year, for the whole year, we seized about $58 million. Now, seven out of 10 of those pills contain a life-threatening dose. Last year it was six out of 10."
Milgram warned that "fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat we've ever seen in the United States."
Court records say investigators found Larry and Michelle Eastman through CashApp transactions on Diamond Lynch's phone, leading them to photos of him on Instagram showing cash and drugs.
The Eastmans' evidence led authorities to a larger retail network in D.C., which purchased drugs from a wholesale network in California, records show. Instagram photos showed members of the California group posing with illegal guns, some of which were seized in court-ordered searches.
The Californians bought their drugs from Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, which manufactures them using precursors imported from China, according to authorities.
"Why are the cartels sending more pills and fentanyl into the United States?" asked Milgram. "Why do they make them stronger and deadlier? And the short answer is that all they care about is making money and selling more. They want people to get addicted to fentanyl. That way they sell more. So, the fact that some people die... They see it as the cost of doing business."
"A Chemical War Against the Americans"
Diamond Lynch's mother, Paula Lynch, knew her daughter had a drug problem. He had overdosed before, but was saved with two doses of Narcan, which can counteract the effects of opioids.
However, Paula told NBC News that she had no idea how much risk her daughter was taking by buying what she thought were prescription opioid pills from a street dealer.
"We didn't know," he said. "I thought it was more of a recreational thing. ... We never heard the word 'fentanyl' until she passed away."
Paula, who is now raising her grandson, says she will live forever regretting that she wasn't able to help her daughter.
"What I would say to young people is that definitely a pill can kill," he said. "It's chemical warfare against U.S. citizens, period."