The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside a truck in Nebraska, troopers found enough fentanyl to kill millions of people

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is quickly becoming a major contributor to the U.S. addiction crisis. Here are the top things to know about the drug. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

In a record-breaking drug bust in Nebraska, state troopers seized 118 pounds of fentanyl — containing enough lethal doses to kill tens of millions of people.

Nebraska State Patrol Col. John Bolduc announced Thursday that a massive amount of suspected opioids seized last month in the state have tested positive for fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Nebraska officials said it marked the largest fentanyl seizure in state history and one of the largest in the United States.

“I'm especially proud of our troopers and our staff, because these drugs, as we know, are contributing to the opioid crisis in our country, which is killing Americans every single day,” Bolduc said Thursday at a news conference. “This work is saving lives. We can't even extrapolate out the number of lives that this particular bust has impacted.”

Fentanyl linked to thousands of urban overdose deaths

But, as the Kansas City Star reported, that amount of fentanyl would contain enough lethal doses to potentially kill more than 26 million people, given that the DEA says as little as 2 milligrams can be fatal.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration use by medical professionals, can be prescribed as a legal painkiller, but it's the illicitly manufactured fentanyl that has experts particularly concerned amid a nationwide drug crisis.

The DEA states that people who have been exposed to the drug may experience drowsiness, nausea, confusion and sedation; in fact, the agency has even warned law enforcement officers not to touch the white powdery substance or inhale it while on the job. The agency said that with repeated use “comes tolerance, addiction, respiratory depression and arrest, unconsciousness, coma and death.”

Opioids, including fentanyl and heroin as well as other painkillers, are the main drivers of overdose deaths across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the years, opioid deaths have continued to spike, with more than 42,000 fatalities reported across the country in 2016, according to the most recent numbers released by the agency.

Nebraska state troopers discovered the 118 pounds of fentanyl late last month while conducting a routine traffic stop along Interstate 80 near Kearney, about 130 miles from Lincoln.

A trooper spotted a Freightliner tractor-trailer weaving April 26 onto the shoulder along the interstate and switched on his emergency lights, according to a probable-cause affidavit. After following the truck for about two miles, the trooper pulled alongside the vehicle and waved at the driver to pull over, according to information from the court documents and a statement from Nebraska State Patrol.

The driver, identified by authorities as 46-year-old Felipe Genao-Minaya, appeared nervous and was “shaking visibly in the truck,” according the court records.

During the stop, the trooper became suspicious of criminal activity — the driver stated that he and his passenger, 52-year-old Nelson Nunez, were driving an empty truck and could not say what their previous load was. He did not have an electronic log and did not seem to mind that the trooper was placing them out of service, according to the records.

Court records say that the trooper asked to search the truck, then located a concealed compartment underneath the refrigeration unit inside the trailer.

Inside, he found dozens of foil-wrapped packages.

The substance initially tested positive for cocaine and an unknown powder believed to be fentanyl, the troopers said.

“Because of the dangerous nature of the substance, troopers do not perform field testing on suspected fentanyl,” according to the statement, so the powder was sent to the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab for confirmation.

Bolduc, with the Nebraska State Patrol, told reporters Thursday that the initial test showed a false positive for cocaine.

In fact, he said, lab testing confirmed the substance — all 118 pounds of it — was fentanyl, which he said would be worth more than $20 million on the street.

Genao-Minaya and Nunez, both from New Jersey, were arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, a felony that carries a maximum of 20 years in prison, according to court documents. It was not immediately clear whether Genao-Minaya has an attorney, and Nunez's public defender could not immediately be reached for comment on the case.

The two are being held in lieu of $100,000 bond at the Buffalo County Jail. They are scheduled to appear in court June 20.

This article has been updated.

Read more:

At the heart of Canada’s fentanyl crisis, extreme efforts that U.S. cities may follow

Suspected drug kingpin charged with trafficking enough fentanyl to kill 10 million people