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Canadian prison inmate may have helped U.S. dealer import deadly W-18 drug, investigators say

A man convicted of smuggling drugs into the U.S. had a large quantity of the deadly new synthetic opioid W-18 — and help from a Canadian prison inmate, according to court records obtained by CBC.

Court records show American drug dealer’s negotiations with Quebec prisoner

(ALERT )

A man convicted of smuggling drugs into the U.S. had a large quantity of the deadly new synthetic opioid W-18 — and help from a Canadian prison inmate, according to court records obtained by CBC. 

Aldolphe Joseph of Florida, who is also identified in court records as "Adolphe Joseph," "Aldore Joseph," "Aldor Joseph" and "Abraham Joseph," recently pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and weapons charges. He now faces 10 years in prison.

When American police arrested Joseph, they found several thousand grams of drugs in his possession. The largest quantity was an opioid they couldn't even charge him for having: the 100-times-more-toxic-than-fentanyl, invented-in-Alberta, still-legal street drug called W-18. 

Joseph's takedown is one of the first stemming from a multi-level undercover operation that tracked secret emails and phone calls from inside a Canadian prison, and linked them to drug shipments in North America and China.

His case opens some of the inner-workings of this international drug ring to the public for the first time, and shows just how easy it has become for dealers to use cell phones, the web and traditional mail to send synthetic drugs around the world.

This picture, purported to show a powder sample of W-18, appears on a website based in China that promises to ship it. 'Not for human consumption,' reads the caption. (Smallorder)

He used his real name and photo to buy drugs from a prisoner

Court records show the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) found Joseph through his contact with an aspiring criminal kingpin at a medium security prison in Quebec.

The finer details read like something out of a spy novel. But they're actually on a list of facts the American courts agree would have been proven beyond reasonable doubt, had the case gone to trial.

Police say he used aliases like "Joe Bleau " and " Darkwebtycoon " to set up false-front email accounts.

An undercover DEA agent first got in touch with prison inmate Daniel Ceron, aka Daniel Vivas Ceron, in 2014 as part of a long-term investigation looking at the movement of drugs from Canada into the United States.

Ceron is currently named in a U.S. indictment as "manager, supervisor, and leader of the criminal organization that facilitated the unlawful importation" of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues from Canada and China.

Parole documents say Ceron was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2004 for four counts of attempted murder. During that prison term, police say he used aliases like "Joe Bleau" and "Darkwebtycoon" to set up false-front email accounts, and talk to people on the outside.

DEA agents found Aldolphe Joseph in the "Google Circles" list for one of Ceron's alias gmail accounts. Joseph's gmail used his full legal name and a photo that police found matched his Florida driver's licence.

In October 2014, investigators intercepted an international parcel mailed from Canada and addressed to Joseph's registered home address in Florida. When they opened it, they found 100 grams of fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl, a fentanyl analogue.

Eight months later, on June 3, 2015, RCMP and the DEA searched Ceron's cell. They found a mobile phone and ledger with several handwritten names, addresses, tracking numbers and drug references.

They also found lists of WICKR account names. WICKR is an encrypted instant messenger app, which RCMP believe Ceron used to talk to drug dealers and make sales. An account associated with Joseph was on that list.

Police say W18 could be mixed in with fentanyl. (CBC)

'He only wanted to buy narcotics from Canada'

Those same court records show that in June 2015, an undercover agent created a WICKR account "to contact Daniel Ceron's customers." Posing as Ceron, the agent received several messages from Joseph that summer.

In June, the Florida man talked to the undercover officer about unpaid debts Joseph owed Ceron. He also asked to trade an order of Roxicodone pills that he said were not selling.  

In July, Joseph sent a WICKR message to the agent saying "he lost about $40,000 worth of shit" and believed his address was now "hot." But he seemed to want to reassure Ceron he was still interested in doing business, claiming "he only wanted to buy narcotics from Canada and had people waiting to sell to."

Huge profits ultimately being made from the stupidity of human beings who want to ingest these drugs.- Dr. Rob Gordon

At the beginning of September, Joseph paid the agent 13.153 Bitcoins (worth just under $3,000 US) to pay off part of his drug debt. He then arranged to buy one kilogram of acetyl fentanyl for $20,000, plus 1,000 acetyl fentanyl pills that looked like Roxicodone to ship to a woman in Maine.

Weeks later, Joseph sent a shipment of pills to a Washington address that the undercover agent gave him. They looked like blue Roxicodone pills but when tested, most of the pills contained a combination of a fentanyl analogue (beta-hydroxythiofentanyl) and diphenhydramine.

Officers arrested Joseph at the end of September in Miramar, Florida, soon after he picked up a Canada Post package filled with fake drugs, mailed to him by U.S. investigators.

Fentanyl, pictured here, had the reputation as one of the deadliest street drugs available in Alberta — until now. (Calgary Police Service)

Deadly business

During Joseph's sentencing hearing on March 18, 2016, prosecutor Anita White pointed out the irony of seizing W-18 from his home, but not being able to charge him for it. 

"It kills people," she told the judge. "The fact that he would possess so much of this and knowing that he intended to distribute it into the community is very concerning."

W-18 was invented and patented in the 1980s at the University of Alberta. Researchers developed this compound as part of a series of painkillers which were never tested on humans, nor picked up for clinical or medical use.

The drug shot up from obscurity in recent weeks when police seized it during two separate drug busts in Alberta, and warned of its potency. But it's still technically legal in the U.S. and Canada. 

The drugs were either being shipped from a facility outside of the jail in Canada, or possibly coming from China.- Anita White

In an interview with CBC, White explained the DEA investigation revealed no specific mention of W-18. But the evidence shows Joseph ordered several drug shipments from Canada through Ceron, over an unknown length of time. She believes "it's possible" one of those shipments contained the deadly opioid they later found in his home.

"The drugs were either being shipped from a facility outside of the jail in Canada, or possibly coming from China. There were other individuals working on the outside to ship the drugs from various locations in Canada," she said.

"I hadn't seen anything like that before."

Neither had Dr. Rob Gordon, professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University and a former police officer who has worked in the United Kingdom, Australia and China.

He calls this case "astonishing," and says it shows W-18 may be so new that even people deep inside the illicit drug trade haven't caught up to it yet.

New data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) shows New Brunswick is bucking a national trend by dispensing higher quantities of opioids in 2016, compared to 2012. (The Canadian Press)

'If there was no demand, this wouldn't be happening'

"What's worrisome is that these substances fall into the hands of people who don't realize what it is that they have, and don't realize the dangers of ingesting it," Gordon said.

Gordon said he is particularly concerned about the proof of importation from China, which he calls a "mysterious black box" of law enforcement, with risky exports.

While he believes there's "not a lot" Canadian police can do to stop W-18 and other synthetic drug traffic, he says the danger to the public makes the effort worthwhile. 

"Huge profits ultimately being made from the stupidity of human beings who want to ingest these drugs," he said. "If there was no demand, this wouldn't be happening."

The Parole Board of Canada ruled to deport Ceron, with conditions, to his native country of Colombia on July 15,  2015.

He was arrested in Panama days later and awaits extradition to the U.S.

Ceron faces several charges, including conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death.

Both American and Canadian authorities have taken first steps to place W-18 on their respective controlled substances lists, which would make the drug illegal.