FBI: North Shore gang was manufacturing fentanyl disguised as Percocet

BOSTON — Federal investigators announced the arrest of four suspected North Shore gang members accused of trafficking large amounts of fentanyl disguised to look like Percocet pills.

Vincent Caruso, 26, and Ernest Johnson, 33 of Salem, Laurie Caruso, 51, of Lynn, and Nicole Benton, 45, of Saugus, and a fifth suspect already in custody, Cesar Rivera, 22, of Revere, are charged in connection with a large drug trafficking operation throughout the North Shore and Maine, investigators said.

“Today’s operation dealt a crippling blow to the large-scale criminal enterprise that for years has been accused of bringing nothing but poison, mayhem and violence to the North Shore of Massachusetts,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Joe Bonavolonta said.

The arrests Wednesday are part of a months-long investigation dubbed Operation: Street Sweepah, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Federal law enforcement officials began looking into the activity of three North Shore gangs in October. To date, 14 defendants have been charged and 92 search warrants have been executed, Bonavolonta said.

According to investigators, Caruso, known on the streets as Fatz and Big Boy, bragged online about owning six pill presses, including one machine that could produce 15,000 pills an hour. Bonavolonta said Caruso was playing “Russian roulette” with his customers by manufacturing fentanyl pills to look like Percocet.

“The brazenness is remarkable,” acting U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Mendell said. “The criminal complaint shows one of Caruso’s pill presses in a cell phone video and showcases it in action. The fentanyl, the pills, the whole production.”

Mendell said the suspects routinely posted pictures and videos boasting of criminal behavior, including images of Caruso and Johnson brandishing firearms on YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. Investigators obtained “extensive evidence” of criminal activity, he said.

“It’s not an undercover video, it’s a video that was posted on social media,” Mendell said.

Investigators said the operation netted dozens of firearms, many used in the commission of violent crimes, as wells as hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and drugs.

“No longer will they be supplying fentanyl to gangs like the Tiny Rascal Gang, Little Crip Gangsters, and Epic Nation the Label,” Mendell said. “They made the pills in an apartment, and they sold them in the tens of thousands. All of that stopped today.”