An alleged Tri-Cities drug dealer was stopped Monday on Interstate 82 with about 53,000 fentanyl-laced pills in his car after making a weekend run to Los Angeles.
Michael L. Vantiger described himself to detectives as a “load driver” and said once a month for the past five months he’d been traveling to Southern California, according to federal court documents.
The Kennewick man said he was paid about $5,000 per trip, and admitted knowing that the packages he was picking up at a hotel contained drugs, documents said.
A criminal complaint was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court against Vantiger for possession with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl.
Vantiger, 39, faces between 10 years to life in prison if convicted.
In a 15-page probable cause affidavit, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration said Vantiger’s name came up as one of the area’s local distributors in a number of fentanyl and other drug investigations over the last two years.
A member of the Tri-Cities Metro Drug Task Force started monitoring Vantiger’s Snapchat account in October 2019 after his friend request was accepted. One month later, Vantiger sent a message to another Snapchat user with his cellphone number.
In January, detectives used that number to subpoena his wireless provider for account information and toll records. Then they applied for a court order to track Vantiger’s cell for up to 45 days.
The investigation allegedly broke open last week when Vantiger, who goes by “Mikey,” did a Facebook post saying, “Someone wanna make some decent cash must have dl (driver’s license) and credit card and can be gone from sat until Monday let me know ASAP inbox me for details.”
Detectives, familiar with Vantiger’s movements, suspected Vantiger was planning to leave town this past weekend and needed a driver to help him move drugs, court documents said.
They watched Saturday morning as a white Chrysler 300 pulled into Vantiger’s driveway and he loaded a large suitcase into the trunk. He then got into the passenger seat and detectives followed the sedan a short time as it went south on I-82 toward Oregon, documents said.
The Chrysler was discovered to be a rental car from Portland.
Investigators watched over the next two days as Vantiger’s phone traveled down Interstate 5 to the greater Los Angeles area, then started heading back north.
But, instead of taking I-5 again, he allegedly drove on desolate highways through much of southern and central California, which detectives said is common for drug traffickers to avoid law enforcement, court documents said.
Detectives on Monday got a search warrant for Vantiger’s home, while also preparing for his return to Eastern Washington.
The DEA and Metro Drug Task Force team then met with Kennewick police and Pasco K9 Detective Andy Corral to go over the expected events of the day.
The Chrysler 300 was seen that afternoon in the eastbound lanes of Oregon’s Interstate 84. Vantiger was in the passenger seat and the woman who initially picked him up was behind the wheel.
Corral and his drug-detection dog Ezra stopped the car at 3 p.m. on I-82, at the Locust Grove Road exit, as it was nearing the Tri-Cities.
The two reportedly gave conflicting stories and displayed “abnormal behavior,” and Corral noted that Vantiger was becoming increasingly nervous. That’s when the detective brought out Ezra, who indicated that she detected illegal drugs inside the car, court documents said.
Vantiger and the driver were taken to the Pasco Police Department, where Vantiger continued to act nervous and anxious in an interview room, said the documents. At one point he went into medical distress and paramedics were called to check him out.
A later search of the Chrysler turned up the 53,000 pills in the trunk, hidden underneath the carpet next to the spare tire.
While most fentanyl tablets, or “mexis,” are a lighter blue, detectives said the seized pills were royal blue and off white.
In the search of Vantiger’s house, investigators seized 150 pills of suspected fentanyl, packaging materials, cellphones and “an undetermined amount of bundled U.S. currency,” documents said.
Vantiger claimed he threw away the phone he had been using to communicate with the person in Southern California who handed off the package.
However, investigators said they found a phone on him during arrest, and a second cell tucked under the front seat where he was sitting at the time of the traffic stop.
He told detectives he did not know the name of his contact in Los Angeles.