Operation Cookout: 39 people accused of using Hampton Roads as a distribution point for heroin, fentanyl

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia G. Zachary Terwilliger announces the results of Operation Cookout in a news conference. (Southside Daily/Melanie Occhiuzzo)
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia G. Zachary Terwilliger announces the results of Operation Cookout in a news conference Thursday Aug. 29, 2019. (Southside Daily/Melanie Occhiuzzo)

NORFOLK —  U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia G. Zachary Terwilliger stood alongside federal and local law enforcement officials from Newport News and Hampton to announce “a significant law enforcement action” at his office here Thursday.

Over the last three days, 35 people have been arrested and indicted on 106 charges related to the trafficking and distribution of enough fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, and cocaine base to kill everyone in Virginia and Maryland in what authorities tagged as “Operation Cookout.”

Law enforcement is still looking for four people: Jennifer Lynn Bing, Mark Christopher David, Parris Daevon McMillan, and Travis Oneal Walters.

“This massive interdiction of narcotics, which included enough fentanyl to kill over 14 million people, is proof positive of the power and strength of federal, state, and local law enforcement collaboration,” Terwilliger said.

Law enforcement from 30 agencies out of North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia seized 24 firearms, 30 kilograms of fentanyl, 30 kilograms of heroin, 5 kilograms of cocaine, and more than $700,000 in cash during the three-day “takedown.”

Terwilliger said the defendants had “specialized roles” in their drug distribution organizations like suppliers, packagers, transporters, distributors, and dealers.

According to the indictment, the 39 were involved in a large-scale drug trafficking conspiracy that began in March 2016.

“We attack organizations with our statutes because they have specialized roles which makes them that much more dangerous and that much more effective,” he said.

The 39 defendants had been using Hampton Roads as a point of distribution for narcotics they bought from Mexico, California, and New York, and fentanyl coming directly from China Terwilliger said.

“In one example detailed in the indictment, the defendant allegedly ordered fentanyl from a vendor in Shanghai and had it mailed through the U.S. Postal Service and delivered to a neighborhood in Newport News,” he said.

The indictment indicated the defendants would buy and receive the drugs from suppliers in Mexico, California, and New York, and would arrange for heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and cocaine base to be transported to and “within the Eastern District of Virginia using hidden traps in privately owned vehicles, couriers, and semi-trailers, trucks, and recreational vehicles.”

The conspiracy entailed the use of locations in Hampton Roads — houses and parking lots of businesses in Newport News, Hampton, Suffolk, Carrolton, Yorktown, Lawrenceville, South Hill, and Richmond.

Prosecutors said the suspects used prepaid cellphones, Facebook, and encrypted communications apps like FaceTime and WhatsApp to conduct the day-to-day operations, including negotiating prices, and arranging locations for buying and selling the drugs.

Terwilliger has said in past forums his priority is to focus federal attention and presence here after data from the DEA and other official intelligence agencies have shown fentanyl and opioids land in the Tidewater area first.

“This crisis is not an issue that is happening somewhere else or to someone else, it’s happening right here in Norfolk, on the Peninsula, Richmond, Alexandria, and in communities across the eastern district and the commonwealth,” he said Thursday.

RELATED STORY: U.S. Attorney talks opioid crisis in Virginia Beach

This operation serves as affirmation the strategic approach to “fish with a spear, and not a net” is working to dismantle narcotic distribution organizations from the top down, he said.

“This case is representative of all of our commitments not only to remove street-level dealers who are pushing these dangerous drugs into our communities but of our strategic approach to work our way up the distribution chain to sources of supply in Mexico and China,” Terwilliger said.

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Lucretia Cunningham is a multimedia journalist at Southside Daily covering hyper-local stories in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Her stories focus on public safety, tourism, and city government. She is a Virginia transplant and military spouse originally from Chicago. Lucretia also served on active duty from 2006 to 2016 and started her journalism career as a broadcaster in the Virginia Air National Guard. When she’s not covering stories on the Southside, she’s covering stories with her Air National Guard unit.