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12 charged in Northland drug trafficking ring

Investigators used wiretaps, intercepted packages and recovered a machine gun conversion kit during the execution of more than 50 search warrants, resulting in the seizure of roughly $1 million worth of drugs.

Drug arrests.jpg
Twelve suspects were arrested in a recent investigation into a Twin Ports-wide drug trafficking organization.
Contributed / Duluth Police Department
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DULUTH — Sizable quantities of heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine were mailed cross-country for distribution throughout the Twin Ports region, according to an investigation that has resulted in charges against a dozen people locally.

The Lake Superior Violent Offender Task Force said Tuesday that it dismantled a regional drug-trafficking organization and seized more than 20 pounds of fentanyl-laced meth and other controlled substances during the course of a monthslong investigation.

Nine firearms, a homemade explosive, a machine gun conversion kit, 10 vehicles and more than $74,000 in cash also were seized during the execution of more than 50 search warrants, according to complaints filed in State District Court in Duluth. The drugs allegedly were sold throughout Duluth, Superior, Cloquet, the Fond du Lac Reservation and surrounding areas in St. Louis, Carlton and Douglas counties.

Arrests were carried out last week in Duluth and Superior, resulting in formal charges against 12 people. Five others were released, and investigators indicated that they are continuing to pursue several suspects.

“The outstanding work performed by members of the Lake Superior Violent Offender Task Force and other law enforcement agencies during this extensive operation is an essential part in keeping the Northland clean from opioids and free of violent offenders,” said Deputy Chief Nick Lukovsky of the Duluth Police Department. “I’m extremely proud of all those involved for their dedication in continuing to provide a safe Northland for all.”

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Ten of the 11 overdose deaths in Douglas County in 2021 listed fentanyl as a factor.

The organization allegedly was led by Nicholas Allen Vanholbeck, 30, of Superior, who supplied and managed a network of local dealers. While the investigation first started in July, the charges rely primarily on court-authorized wiretaps and in-person surveillance of Vanholbeck conducted between Oct. 4 and Nov. 30.

The complaints allege that Vanholbeck would keep track of sales and fire dealers who were not selling enough product or collecting payments from customers. He allegedly stored most of the stash at the Lincoln Park residence of Joseph Allen Felver, 31, who would additionally help package and weigh the drugs.

The charges state that Vanholbeck would often refer to drugs in communication using slang terms such as "slow," "coffee," "milk," "yuck," "go" or "the whatever." Investigators also observed and recorded Vanholbeck and associates conducting transactions on a daily basis over the two months, the complaints state.

On at least one occasion, investigators said they followed Vanholbeck and Felver to the Dead on Arms gun shop in Saginaw, where Felver allegedly purchased a handgun to give to Vanholbeck, who is ineligible to possess firearms due to prior convictions.

Vanholbeck in November also rented a duplex unit in the Central Hillside neighborhood, and the two men allegedly went to Menards to purchase lumber and hardware to "fortify" the front door. The complaints state that investigators also intercepted a package that was en route to Vanholbeck containing a Glock switch — a device that allows a semi-automatic handgun to become a fully automatic machine gun.

As opioid overdoses continue to spike regionally and nationally, a team based within the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Task Force is paving its own path to get people into recovery.

Another defendant, Marshaun Deeandre Brown, 36, allegedly flew to Los Angeles on Nov. 20 and mailed nine packages to addresses in Duluth and Superior before returning Nov. 29. The complaints state that cellphone records also showed Brown to be in contact with a Mexican phone number during the California trip.

Investigators indicated they were later able to confirm that Brown was the one who sent the packages, using fictitious addressee names to send them to several residences connected to the drug organization.

In a flurry of warrants executed Wednesdays, investigators reportedly seized 11,046 grams of methamphetamine laced with fentanyl, 150 grams of fentanyl, 446 hydrocodone pills and approximately 3,306 grams of marijuana, along with numerous firearms — which together would have had a street value of more than $1 million, according to police.

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During the two-month surveillance period, Vanholbeck allegedly was responsible for selling approximately 7,228 grams of meth, 687 grams of heroin/fentanyl and 900 grams of marijuana, according to the complaints.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Ceynowa said there is substantial need for more community treatment resources, indicating there have been 46 fatal opioid overdoses and 466 non-lethal overdoses reported in St. Louis County in 2022.

Felver in a statement allegedly admitted that he assisted Vanholbeck in selling controlled substances throughout the Twin Ports area, calling himself the "Doordash driver" for the business.

“The opioid epidemic continues to be a significant issue in our Task Force area,” Lt. Chad Nagorski, the task force commander, said in a statement. “I am extremely proud of the members of the Lake Superior Violent Offender Task Force who worked tirelessly during this investigation, who missed many family events and holidays working to hold the members of this DTO accountable for profiting off community members who are experiencing substance use disorder.”

Despite lifesaving measures undertaken in recent years, the region continues to experience record levels of overdoses and fatalities — a trend attributed to highly potent and constantly evolving synthetic opioids.

The suspects were arraigned in court last week, drawing substantial bail figures. Judge Leslie Beiers set Vanholbeck's bail at $1.5 million with conditions or $2.5 million without; several others were set in the range of $500,000 to $1 million. Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nichole Carter is prosecuting the cases.

“While the work of the task force and our local office is critical to stopping drug trafficking organizations from selling these poisonous substances to our fellow citizens, the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office is also committed to working with the Minnesota County Attorney’s Association to advocate for stricter laws regarding the possession and sale of fentanyl," County Attorney Kim Maki said.

Authorities announced charges against the following:

  • Nicholas Allen Vanholbeck, 30, of Superior.
  • Marshaun Deeandre Brown, 36, of Maple Grove, Minnesota.
  • Steven Maurice Green, 45, of Duluth.
  • Charlice Patrice Buck, 34, of Duluth.
  • Joseph Allen Felver, 31, of Duluth.
  • Nicholas John Wosmek, 30, of Duluth.
  • Glenda Rae Cronin, 37, of Duluth.
  • Zachary Ryan Bissell, 40, of Duluth.
  • Chad Ethan Jasper, 32, of Duluth.
  • Aaron Michael Ellerman, 27, of Duluth.
  • Kyle Lee Davis, 28, of Duluth.
  • Brodey Wallace Jensen, 25, of Duluth.

Other agencies involved in the investigation were the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office; Superior Police Department; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Department of Homeland Security Investigations; Drug Enforcement Administration, and United States Postal Inspection Service.
Confidential resources are available to those struggling with addiction by contacting the task force's Substance Use Response Team at 218-730-4009.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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