Fentanyl swapped for long underwear, sex acts on streets of Portland’s Old Town, feds allege

A man swapped fentanyl pills and powdered fentanyl for long underwear and sex acts on the streets of Old Town earlier this week, federal prosecutors say.

Officers arrested 14 people and seized thousands of fentanyl pills, $5,000 and a cap gun in a two-day undercover crackdown on street-level dealing and related assaults, stabbings and shootings in Portland’s core.

Federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations teamed up Tuesday and Wednesday with Multnomah County deputies and police officers from Portland’s Central Precinct’s bike squad, neighborhood response team and the Police Bureau’s narcotics unit.

Four of those arrested now face federal drug distribution charges.

Carlos Javier Melendez-Contreras, 44, is accused of swapping a small amount of powdered fentanyl for three boxes of long underwear near the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and Davis Street, according to a federal affidavit in support of a criminal complaint.

It was one of multiple hand-to-hand sales that investigators watched Melendez-Contreras conduct around noon Tuesday near that intersection before they saw him walk to a parked minivan with a woman and go inside it, the affidavit said. A short time later, the woman got out and Melendez-Contreras drove off.

Melendez-Contreras is accused of selling the woman 10 fentanyl pills for $19, Homeland Security Investigations agent Guy Gino wrote in the affidavit.

When Melendez-Contreras was asked why he charged such a low price for the drug, he said he provided five of the pills in exchange for touching the woman’s breasts while she rubbed his genitals over his pants inside the van, according to the affidavit.

A short time after Melendez-Contreras drove off, investigators watched as he parked near Northwest Eighth Avenue and Glisan Street, the affidavit said. Melendez-Contreras walked over to a red Toyota, got inside and emerged about five minutes later.

Two men in the Toyota were his drug suppliers, according to federal prosecutors. About 12:15 p.m., officers moved in to arrest Melendez-Contreras and the other two men, the affidavit said. The three are cousins, investigators said.

Crackdown on street-level drug dealing

Federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations teamed up with Multnomah County deputies and Portland police to target street-level drug dealing on Tuesday and Wednesday. They seized thousands of fentanyl pills, more than $5,000 dollars and made 14 arrests.Portland Police Bureau

One of them, Edulio Membreno-Zuniga, 47, told investigators that he and Henry Noel Navarro-Zuniga, 25, typically sold 2,000 pills for $3,000 every week to Melendez-Contreras, the affidavit said.

Inside Melendez-Contreras’ minivan, police found 104 blue counterfeit prescription pills with “M30” stamped on them, a Taser and three boxes of thermal long underwear, according to the affidavit.

Inside the Toyota, police seized two digital scales from the front passenger door pocket, a vacuum-sealed bag containing 3,546 counterfeit M30 pills from the center console, more than 400 pills from the glovebox and a Sentry safe found beneath the front passenger seat, Gino wrote in the affidavit.

Police found a key to the safe in one of Membreno-Zuniga’s shoes, unlocked it and located a sandwich bag with more than 400 counterfeit pills, as well as fentanyl powder and 57 grams of heroin, the affidavit said.

All the pills found are suspected of containing fentanyl, according to police.

Membreno-Zuniga, Melendez-Contreras and Navarro-Zuniga were each charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. A federal magistrate judge ordered them to remain in custody pending trial.

A fourth man appeared Thursday in federal court, also on fentanyl distribution and possession charges.

Investigators said Herbert Olandon Wadell, 62, had about 50 fentanyl pills hidden inside a Trident gum container in his left pants pocket, a baggie of 30 pills in his left sock and an Altoids tin containing alleged Xanax bars in another pants pocket, according to a court affidavit.

The four in federal custody remain in jail. The case will now be presented to a federal grand jury for potential indictment.

Some arrested in the sting were taken into custody on outstanding arrest warrants, police said.

Portland Central Precinct Capt. James Crooker said the coordination with federal agents and prosecutors allowed arrests under federal law in some of the cases instead of drug citations based on less strict state law.

“We’re planning on doing it on an ongoing basis,” Crooker said.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Matt Ferguson said his unit supported Portland police in trying to “interrupt the flow of drugs” into downtown and stem associated shootings.

“We’re trying to find creative ways with limited staffing to combat this problem, make our community safer and clean up the neighborhood,” he said.

So far this year, nine people have been killed in the Old Town district and six people in downtown. At least one of the killings stemmed from domestic violence, while others involved spur-of-the-moment disputes, sometimes involving people using drugs and people living on the street, according to police. The city has recorded 89 homicides so far this year, putting it on pace to surpass last year’s record 92 homicides.

Nonmedical-grade fentanyl has overtaken heroin and methamphetamine as the No. 1 threat in the region, causing a rise in overdose deaths, according to the Oregon-Idaho High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area 2023 Threat Assessment.

In the Portland metro area, fentanyl typically has been found pressed into counterfeit prescription pills resembling M30 oxycodone tablets. In July, the Oregon Health Authority reported that unintentional fentanyl overdose deaths in the state increased from 71 in 2019 to 509 in 2021, a 617% jump. Deaths involving fentanyl made up about 47.5% of total overdose deaths in Oregon last year, compared to about 14% in 2019 and 32% in 2020, the state health authority found.

Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. Most people don’t know they’ve taken fentanyl because it’s typically pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription pills. Users typically die from asphyxiation from the drug’s effect of depressing the respiratory system.

— Maxine Bernstein

Email mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian

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