Joseph Richard Caruso being held into Portland, linked to Chinese drug investigation

CARUSOFederal investigators arrested a Lake Oswego man last week and charged him with importing cyclopropyl fentanyl from China in a case that investigators say may be linked to an overdose death in Wisconsin.

Joseph Richard Caruso, 33, made his first court appearance in U.S. District Court on Nov. 22. He is being held in Multnomah County Jail and stands accused of unlawful importation of a controlled substance with intent to distribute and attempted possession with the intent to distribute a controlled substance.

Cyclopropyl fentanyl — an opioid — is a derivative of fentanyl and has been the cause of several recent overdose deaths in the Portland area, according to a federal complaint. In Oregon, 80 people have died in accidental overdoses from synthetic opioids since 2014, but the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office says the rate of deaths is increasing.

According to the federal complaint, Caruso first came to the attention of investigators in mid-November when authorities came across a package that was being shipped to him from Shanghai, China. The package was supposed to contain a "knitting needle," according to the complaint, but when investigators picked up the package, they determined the contents did not feel like a knitting needle. Instead, they found a white powdery substance inside a heat-sealed Mylar bag.

The package was then transported to the Oregon State Police Crime Lab, where 27.1 grams of the substance was confirmed to be cyclopropyl fentanyl.

Because the cyclopropyl fentanyl contained in the package was in powder form and very dangerous, the U.S. Attorney's Office authorized the delivery of the package to the Lake Oswego address without the suspected drugs. The cyclopropyl fentanyl was replaced with an "inert powder and vacuum sealed inside the original envelope," according to the federal complaint.

(Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid similar to morphine, but it crosses the blood-brain barrier faster than more commonly encountered opioids and can be 100 to 10,000 times more potent than morphine or heroin.)

Meanwhile, members of the Portland Police Bureau's Drugs and Vice Division had learned of the fentanyl overdose in Wisconsin and eventually linked the drugs involved to a package that was shipped from Lake Oswego to Green Bay. They say they also discovered that Caruso was identified by Chinese investigators as a suspect in a dismantled drug-trafficking organization that was sending fentanyl to the United States from China.

Investigators also learned that as many as six packages had been sent to Caruso between October 2016 and October 2017, according to the federal complaint. Warrants were served last week for a home in the 100 block of Kerr Parkway, as well as for two banks and a vehicle. Caruso was taken into custody on Nov. 21.

"Illegal use of opioids in our community affects everyone and is an epidemic in our country," Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw said this week. "I am proud of the work that is being done by the members of the Drugs and Vice Division and our partner agencies in regard to these complex investigations, to locate those individuals selling these dangerous drugs and hold them responsible."

Criminal defense attorney Conor Huseby has been appointed to represent Caruso.

KOIN 6 News, The Review's broadcast news partner, contributed to this story.

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