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Saugus woman among four area residents charged with producing and trafficking fentanyl

  Nicole Benton got an early morning visit on Wednesday (June 30) from federal agents who came to her home with a search warrant as part of a major investigation into an alleged prolific drug trafficking organization that supplied counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl to suppliers on the North Shore. The 45-year-old Saugus woman was one of five area people charged in connection with a pill press capable of generating up to 15,000 pills per hour, which they allegedly used to produce counterfeit Percocet pills containing fentanyl.

  “A firearm was located in Benton’s purse along with an amount of blue pills that I believe to be pressed fentanyl, red pills, and a blue substance believed to be fentanyl,” FBI Special Agent Craig R. Harvey wrote in his affidavit.

  Benton was charged with one count of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl and one count of conspiracy to conduct financial transactions affecting interstate commerce involving the proceeds of dealing in a controlled substance. Court documents identified her as “a drug distributor on behalf of the Caruso DTO [Drug Trafficking Organization]” and somebody who was “frequently travelling to stash locations” and the home of the organization’s leader.

  Vincent Caruso, 26, a/k/a “Fatz” and “Big Boy,” and Ernest Johnson, 33, a/k/a “Yo Pesci,” both of Salem, were charged with one count of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl; one count of conspiracy to conduct financial transactions affecting interstate commerce involving the proceeds of dealing in a controlled substance; and one count of conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking conspiracy. Vincent Caruso was also charged with one count of conspiracy to possess a tableting machine to manufacture a controlled substance. Laurie Caruso, 51, of Lynn, faces one count of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl and one count of conspiracy to conduct financial transactions affecting interstate commerce involving the proceeds of dealing in a controlled substance. Cesar Rivera, 22, of Revere, was charged separately with one count of possessing controlled substances with intent to distribute and one count of conspiracy to possess and use a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

  According to the charging documents, Vincent Caruso, a self-admitted Crip gang member, operates a large drug trafficking organization with codefendants Johnson, Laurie Caruso (Vincent’s mother) and Benton, among others, to sell counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl to street gangs for further distribution on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Vincent Caruso allegedly possessed multiple pill presses, which can generate thousands of pills per hour, to produce counterfeit pills designed to resemble Percocet pills, but in fact they contained fentanyl. According to the charging documents, a counterfeit fentanyl pill retails at prices between $10-$20, thereby generating millions of dollars in retail sales. It is alleged that Caruso possessed multiple pill presses, including one described as being capable of producing 15,000 pills per hour and weighing 1,000 pounds.

  It is further alleged that Vincent Caruso and Johnson possessed and used firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking activities. Vincent Caruso and Johnson posted and messaged photos and videos using social media that depicted firearms (including an AR15), fentanyl pills, cash and high-end jewelry. In several videos, Johnson allegedly described his involvement in shootings, beatings and drug trafficking and identified people he believed to be a “rat” or a “snitch.” In addition, it is alleged that Benton and Laurie Caruso conducted cash transactions to launder portions of the illegal proceeds of the drug trafficking operation by placing sports bets at a New Hampshire casino.

  The charge of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl provides for a sentence of up to life in prison, at least five years and up to life of supervised release and a fine of up to $10 million. The charge of conspiracy to conduct financial transactions affecting interstate commerce involving the proceeds of dealing in a controlled substance provides for a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $500,000. The charge of conspiring to possess firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking conspiracy involving a machine gun provides for a sentence of up to life in prison, five years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. The charge of conspiracy to possess a tableting machine to manufacture a controlled substance provides for a sentence of up to four years in prison, one year of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. Sentences are imposed by a federal district judge based on the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

  The major investigation was conducted by a multi-agency task force through the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations, and those primarily responsible for the nation’s illegal drug supply. More information on the OCDETF program is available at https://www.justice.gov/ocdetf/about-ocdetf.

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