Fraternity members and students at three North Carolina universities allegedly helped funnel more than $1.5 million worth of illegal drugs on and near their campuses, according to a federal investigation revealed Thursday.
The alleged drug ring — said to have involved students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and Appalachian State University (ASU) — trafficked more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana, several hundred kilograms of cocaine, and "significant quantities" of other drugs, including ecstasy, to fraternity members and other students, according to the Department of Justice.
A total of 21 individuals are facing federal charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, conspiracy to distribute marijuana — which is still illegal in the Tar Heel State — and other charges as a result of the investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Orange County Sheriff's Department.
“The amount of illegal narcotics being sold and used in this case was not only astonishing; it also reflected a very serious public health crisis," Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said in a statement. "This investigation and the prosecution of those involved in the drug trade on university campuses should send a clear message that such activities will not be tolerated.”
According to the DOJ, the federal investigation began in November 2018 after the sheriff's office received information about the sale of illegal drugs at the UNC–Chapel Hill campus. Early on, investigators were able to connect the distribution of the drugs to UNC fraternities, specifically the campus chapters of Phi Gamma Delta, Kappa Sigma, and Beta Theta Pi, occurring between 2017 and the spring of 2020.
They ultimately discovered that individuals in California were shipping cocaine through the US Postal Service and transporting marijuana by vehicle to the college towns. Proceeds from the drug sales were also shipped in cash through the Postal Service, as well as through money orders, Western Union, and Venmo.
The DOJ described the distribution of the drugs as "pervasive" in and around the UNC fraternities. In one case, a defendant said that all 22 members of his pledge class at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house "went in" to purchase an ounce of cocaine for spring break in his sophomore year. Another defendant who supplied the house with the drugs said most of the transactions occurred around the fraternity's events. A thread on the Kappa Sigma house's GroupMe messages showed that a defendant was selling marijuana from his room at the fraternity.
Other transactions also involved a student at Duke who allegedly distributed cocaine to other Duke students and fraternity members from UNC. Students at ASU also allegedly distributed other controlled substances, like LSD and cocaine, to fellow students.
“No one is above the law, including college students and fraternity members at elite
universities. This serious drug trafficking is destructive and reckless, and many lives have been ruined,” US Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina Matthew G.T. Martin said in a statement, calling the fraternity culture at the universities "dangerous."
“University administrators and national chapters cannot turn a blind eye to the impact on these students and the environment on their respective college campuses," Martin added.
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed News, UNC–Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said none of the defendants are currently enrolled at the university but that they were working to better understand the involvement of campus individuals and organizations "so that disciplinary action can be taken."
“We are extremely disappointed to learn of these alleged actions on our campus," Guskiewics said. “We will remain vigilant and continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and address any illegal drug use on our campus. Our community can be certain that the University will enforce the student conduct code to the fullest extent possible.”
On Friday, Guskiewicz announced the university had suspended the three fraternities. "We are taking swift action today because the serious nature of the alleged criminal behaviors is contradictory to our code of conduct and endangers the health of our student body and community," he said.
ASU said in a statement that the university was "fully cooperating" with the investigation.
"We are committed to providing a safe campus, and will continue our work with education and prevention, as well as utilizing student conduct and law enforcement processes, to do so," the statement said.
Michael Schoenfeld, chief communications officer for Duke, said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News that the university was taking the allegations "very seriously" and cooperating with law enforcement officials.
“The use and distribution of narcotics is against the law, it is against our code of conduct, and it endangers the health and safety of our students and community," Schoenfeld said. "Duke will respond accordingly through our disciplinary process.”
One of the primary suppliers, Francisco Javier Ochoa, Jr., 27, of Turlock, California, was first indicted in November 2019 as a result of the investigation. According to the DOJ, Ochoa supplied approximately 200 pounds of marijuana and two kilograms of cocaine weekly to another defendant in North Carolina from March 2017 to March 2019. Last month, he was sentenced to 73 months in prison, with five years of supervised release, and ordered to pay a $250,000 judgment.
Twenty additional defendants, including 19 who reside in North Carolina, were charged between July and December of this year. Seven of those defendants have already pleaded guilty to one or more of the charges against them and are scheduled to be sentenced in March, according to the DOJ.