Last Spring, Iredell County deputies made a drug bust along Interstate 77, one of the Charlotte region's busiest highways.
Initially, the bust was considered the biggest OxyContin bust in the county’s history. But, investigators discovered the pills were fentanyl disguised as OxyContin.
Now, prosecutors said the leader of the drug ring Robert Thatcher is heading to federal prison.
In May 2017, deputies found thousands of pills labeled to look like OxyContin, hidden inside a paint can with a false bottom.
Agents later identified the pills as fentanyl, which is more potent than morphine.
"At first we thought it was OxyContin, but still amazed at the sheer number of them. You're talking over 5,300 pills and then to find out it was fentanyl pills. Then, of course, that took it to a whole new level," investigators said.
Officials said the operation started in Elmira, New York, where Thatcher used Ebay to buy presses to make the pills, ordered pure fentanyl from China, and sent the pills to Charlotte to be distributed across the East Coast.
Prosectors told Channel 9 Thatcher was sentenced to 23 years in federal prison.
Investigators said they know lives were saved in Charlotte and across the area because they were able to make this bust. They said they blame at least two overdose deaths in New York on Thatcher's pills.
"From small amounts to large amounts like this case, all makes an impact," investigators said.
Doctors can prescribe fentanyl for cancer patients in extreme pain, but only in patch form.
Fentanyl in pill or powder form is illegal and very dangerous.
Read more top trending stories on wsoctv.com:
- 'Sad to see this happen': Massive flames gut Statesville church
- Homeowner: Mooresville Airbnb guest shot confronting break-in suspects
- 9 investigates: Tainted gasoline complaints on the rise across NC
- FORECAST: Damp and dreary start to the work week
- Trial set to begin for man accused of murder during 2016 Charlotte riots
© 2019 Cox Media Group.