Two police officers led a frantic mother into a Bismarck, North Dakota, hotel room in 2018 to identify the tattooed arm of a body found sprawled on a bed.
Investigators held up a sheet to cover the ashen face of the young Native American woman, while Rhonda Packineau confirmed the victim was her 21-year-old daughter, Cheyenne.
The 6-foot-2 basketball standout’s left forearm displayed “Kasten,” the name of her 1-year-old son, inked in black Old English font. Cheyenne named him for her favorite court move, “casting” three-pointers.
Her talent playing for the high school in the town of Parshall, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, secured Cheyenne a college scholarship. But sports injuries led to a pain pill addiction that ultimately cut short her studies — and eventually, her life.
Cheyenne’s doctor first prescribed opioids years ago, before physicians and patients understood the addiction risks. Once Chey was hooked, she easily found illegal drugs in Bismarck and on the reservation, a two-hour drive northwest of the city.
Both areas are largely supplied by dealers from the Detroit area who get their drugs from Mexican cartels that are flooding the U.S. every year with thousands of kilos of methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.
“The biggest problem we’re experiencing is the Detroit connection, Detroit gangs,” Bismarck Police Deputy Chief Randy Ziegler said, blaming that pipeline for 70% of the city’s counterfeit pills containing deadly fentanyl.
“We knock off two, and four more come.”
Cheyenne and hundreds of other Native Americans in North Dakota have been ensnared by Detroit traffickers, who set up a drug pipeline more than a decade ago targeting North Dakota cities and reservations, according to tribal police and a supervisor with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
It started with a few Michigan men who were visiting the remote area and saw an opportunity: fewer police, fewer armed competitors and rampant addiction generating plenty of customers ready to spend royalty money from the state’s oil boom.
Dawn White, a 45-year-old tribal drug agent who grew up on the reservation, teamed with Cheyenne’s parents to get the young woman into treatment and has made it her mission to target those supplying the deadly drugs killing so many people there.
In the past few years, DEA agents say the danger has intensified as traffickers began cutting drugs with the opioid fentanyl, America’s most potent killer — and the drug that took Cheyenne’s life.
Often, fentanyl is pressed into counterfeit pills dyed to mimic prescription pain tablets. An estimated 80%-90% of the reservation’s counterfeit pills originate from Michigan, mainly Detroit and its suburbs, according to Angela von Trytek, who oversees DEA operations in North Dakota.
She said Detroit dealers typically get fentanyl from Mexican cartel members, picking up the drugs in border states.
Neither the DEA nor tribal police could say which cartel is supplying the drugs that ultimately end up on the reservation and surrounding cities. But DEA reports show that the majority of fentanyl in the U.S. is coming from two cartels: Sinaloa, once headed by infamous boss “El Chapo,” and the ruthless Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación or CJNG, based in Guadalajara.
Both are billion-dollar organizations with an army of followers that outnumbers agents with the DEA and a reach across the globe. Both have hubs in Detroit.
A special investigative report by The Courier Journal in 2019 detailed CJNG’s surprising reach into small-town America, devastating families and communities while its leader, known as “El Mencho,” remains a top and elusive U.S. target.
Earlier this year, The Courier Journal reported how the shooting of a Louisville police detective was linked to a large drug ring with Detroit ties.
This summer, reporters followed the spread of drugs from Detroit to Bismarck and the Fort Berthold reservation, spending a week riding with tribal police on patrol and interviewing community leaders, former drug users, admitted dealers, local and federal agents, residents and tribal elders.
A reporter also reviewed court cases to understand the scope of the drug problem and efforts to curtail it.
The Courier Journal found families and communities marred by addiction and a group of new tribal drug agents doggedly pursuing the outsiders who are bringing in the poisons.
The Fort Berthold reservation is home to an estimated 5,628 enrolled members of the MHA Nation, which includes members of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.
They’re spread over a million acres live in small towns in the middle of open green plains with roaming cattle, golden wheat fields, yellow canola fields and rocked buttes.
The reservation sits on the Missouri River and stretches across a million acres, crossing the border of six counties, so tribal police and local sheriffs must cooperate to fight the influx of drugs.
The Tribal Business Council is based just outside New Town, a community of less than 3,000 that attracts gamblers to its casino and hikers and boaters to its parks and 180-mile-long Lake Sakakawea.
Nearby, oil rig sites punctuated by neon flares lure outsiders with more sinister motives.
Traffickers are particularly drawn to Fort Berthold. An oil boom means tribal members have royalty money to spend and the Detroit dealers can blend in on the reservation amid a bevy of diverse workers brought in to extract and carry off the oil.
“It’s a tempting target, a big target,” said Bismarck defense attorney Kent Morrow, who has defended suspected traffickers. “Lots of money, lots of cash.”
It’s a 19-hour drive from Detroit to New Town. But for dealers, it’s a drive worth making.
In New Town and throughout the reservation, there are far fewer guns and shootings are rare — unlike in Detroit, where 13 people were shot in one night this summer. There are fewer police and less competition among drug dealers.
And the financial rewards are immense. In Detroit, DEA agents say one opioid pill sells for $5-$8 wholesale. On the reservation, traffickers can get $80-$100.
Across North Dakota, DEA agents intercepted 1,541 fake pills in the fiscal year that ended in September 2018 — with seizures skyrocketing to 16,035 so far this fiscal year.
“The illegal drug trade is so devastating,” said MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox, an attorney and U.S. Marine Corp veteran. Traffickers “have destroyed many of our families.”
Fox persuaded tribal leaders to create their own version of the DEA on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in 2015, called the Division of Drug Enforcement.
Gerald “Chip” White Jr., who grew up there, leads this team of six special agents — police or military veterans — who team to root out cartel associates and dealers and intercept drug shipments and payments.
“You got to hurt their pocketbooks, make it less profitable — and reduce demand,” Fox said.
The drug division chief’s brother, Jeff White, leads a team of six canine handlers and eight dogs to find drugs, bombs, guns and cadavers.
Along with the increasing enforcement, the tribe built a residential recovery center in Bismarck in 2018. It incorporates the Three Affiliated Tribes’ culture through customs such as smudging and sweats in an effort to strengthen the spiritual foundation of those in recovery.
Many of those recovering at the center were arrested by Dawn White, who nudged them into treatment.
But, as she knows too well, many die before getting the chance to recover.
Dawn White and other tribal drug agents first noticed a Detroit link to an influx of drugs in 2012 when they came across Victor Nicholas Wakefield.
Wakefield, who grew up in a rough area of Detroit and began his life of crime as a teen, was seen near the town of White Shield with an associate, a Native American woman willing to sell drugs to feed her addiction.
Wakefield later admitted he began his pill pipeline into North Dakota and the reservation in 2011 because he knew people willing to bring the drugs and users ready to buy them.
Other Michigan men joined him, meeting women from the reservation in person or on dating apps, then using the women’s connections to recruit area dealers and build a customer base, said von Trytek, who oversees DEA operations in North Dakota as the assistant special agent in charge of the Minneapolis-St. Paul District Office.
“Detroit-based guys came over and dated native women, living with them so they have a foothold and a reason to be on the res,” she said. “I don’t think it’s about love.
“It’s all about product and money.”
The men ingratiated themselves with the women’s families and then exploited those ties, which Dawn White called a very personal betrayal against the close-knit community.
“I guess growing up where they do, you either grow up hard or you don’t grow up at all,” she said.
Dawn White is petite and often wears her raven hair in two long braids. Her slight smile hides an inner fierceness.
Fellow officers dubbed her the “Rainman of Narcotics” because she closely studies the suspects and their associates and doesn’t forget a name or face. She fields calls from tipsters and worried parents even on days off.
“I’m Arikara,” she said, referring to her native tribe. “We’ve always fought our enemies. For me, this is the biggest enemy against our people.
“Why wouldn’t I be passionate to fight this?”
Cheyenne Marie Packineau’s abrupt downfall illustrates how drugs shatter potential and threaten the community’s future.
In 2015, she was the district’s Senior Athlete of the Year.
By 2017, she was in the grip of addiction.
By 2018, she was dead.
Her mother saw the change in her eyes.
“In every picture she took, she had this big smile and bright eyes,” Packineau said. “Then there was this darkness, this void of life.”
Cheyenne, whose Hidatsa name means “Cherry Blossom,” used to dote on her son. She called him her “little sunshine,” tickled him while changing his diaper and loved keeping him by her side. But then she starting withdrawing from him and the rest of her family.
Her parents pushed her to go to treatment, and her mom drove her 26 hours to a recovery center in Phoenix.
Packineau recalls sobbing as she drove off without her daughter: “You look at your child and you just will them to get better.”
Cheyenne suffered several relapses, which is common. With fentanyl increasingly tainting more drugs, each relapse became potentially more deadly.
Once, Rhonda Packineau called Dawn White, who she casually knew through charity events, and pleaded for help. Cheyenne had disappeared again.
The agent learned the missing athlete’s location and shared it with the mother. Cheyenne’s father pulled her from the drug house.
“She was a bear doing everything she could to protect her daughter, putting herself in danger,” Dawn White said. “That’s a lot of love and frustration.”
By the fall of 2018, Cheyenne agreed to make a bold change and return to Phoenix to reenter treatment. She planned to move there and share an apartment with her younger sister and resume her studies to become a nurse.
Their parents drove a U-Haul to Arizona and helped set up their daughters’ bedrooms. The sisters wanted to say goodbye to friends in North Dakota and reserved a hotel in Bismarck.
Cheyenne’s sister, Sheridyn, was with her friends when Cheyenne called her mother from the hotel. Cheyenne seemed upbeat and said they decided to stay one more night.
It would be their last conversation.
The next day, Oct. 15, 2018, Packineau began to worry when she couldn’t reach her daughter by phone. She was in Bismarck, taking a relative to a medical appointment.
As she sat in the doctor’s office, her phone kept buzzing. She went into the hallway, and a police officer asked: “Do you think your daughter is in Bismarck?”
The officer continued: “I’m in a hotel room and we have a female. She’s unresponsive.”
“What does she look like? Is she short or tall?” Packineau asked him.
“Tall,” the officer responded.
She knew it was Cheyenne.
Cheyenne died alone in the hotel room, one of many from the reservation and across the country who succumbed to a fentanyl overdose.
Whoever she was with, possibly the person who brought her the fatal dose, emptied her black makeup bag and took her purple Michael Kors purse and left. A housekeeper found the body.
Packineau is haunted by a question: What if the last person to see her alive had called 911? Officers, paramedics and even many drug users carry the opioid antidote naloxone.
No one has been charged in the death, but police know that Cheyenne and her circle often were supplied by drugs from Detroit, White said.
When Packineau visited her daughter’s grave this summer, she found a little blue plastic dinosaur that Kasten, now 4, left near his mom’s granite tombstone. She remembered how excited Cheyenne had been as she planned his dinosaur-themed first birthday.
“She really did try,” Packineau said, nearly whispering as she knelt beside the grave.
She stood up to leave and glanced around the cemetery, pointing to two gravestones side by side — brothers who overdosed in the same week, leaving another family reeling from the drug epidemic.
“It’s taking so many lives,” she said. “And good kids.”
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In Bismarck, 74 victims overdosed and eight died last year, according to police data. This year has already surpassed that, with 81 overdoses and 10 deaths by mid-August.
On Fort Berthold, 108 people overdosed last year, and 10 died.
Each death rattles the reservation, where many people are related and the sense of community is strong.
Dawn White has attended several funerals of loved ones lost to drugs, including a cousin considered a little sister.
Before the funeral in 2014, White tracked down her relative’s friends who were drug users and told them to stay away from the service or face arrest.
“You had her in life,” White told them. “Let us have her in death.”
White is haunted by all the losses in her community, and prefers to stay away from the funerals:
“That’s somebody you didn’t get to save.”
Dawn White also is haunted by the traffickers she didn’t catch sooner.
She’s seen more and more fentanyl-laced pills, with dealers who supply the reservation also setting up hubs in the closest cities across North Dakota: Bismarck, Minot and Williston.
One of the most notorious traffickers was Wakefield.
A convicted felon by age 17, he moved from Detroit to Minot with relatives and spotted a business opportunity a decade ago.
“I knew people in Minot who wanted pills and I knew people in Michigan who could get them,” Wakefield later told investigators, according to court records.
Wakefield insists he wasn’t the mastermind who decided to target North Dakota, his attorney, Kent Morrow, told The Courier Journal.
“It was all directed from Detroit,” Morrow said. “He might have been one of the bigger players here, but he wasn’t one of the bigger players in the overall conspiracy.”
In 2011, at the age of 22, he built his first North Dakota drug network.
Wakefield recruited associates in Michigan to bring shipments of OxyContin, court records show. They smuggled the pain pills by train, plane, bus and car.
“He had some money, flashed it in Michigan,” White said. “Others saw an opportunity.”
Wakefield established networks of area dealers and users in various North Dakota cities and on the Fort Berthold reservation, about an hour southwest of Minot, according to drug agents and court records.
By 2012, he had a solid customer base but was back behind bars in 2013 after he was caught dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school in Minot.
Wakefield left prison in 2015 and made new contacts in Michigan and North Dakota, building a second drug network using Native Americans and Detroit associates as area dealers.
White and the tribal drug force, Bismarck police, a local drug task force and agents with Homeland Security Investigations and the DEA teamed to nab Wakefield and several others in 2017.
Wakefield pleaded guilty in 2018 and is serving a 12-year sentence in federal prison.
One of Wakefield’s associates, a Detroit trafficker dubbed “Blue,” took over the network.
White teamed with agents with Homeland Security Investigations to build a case against Blue, but he was shot dead in Detroit in 2018.
“It was a heartbreaking moment,” White said. “We just took 1,000 pills off him. We were finishing our paperwork,” to secure a federal indictment.
It’s hard for police to quantify the scope of the Detroit pipeline to the reservation and North Dakota, which remains fluid. But court and police records on Detroit traffickers illustrate the pipeline, which agents blame for bringing in millions of dollars in drugs annually.
In June, a federal judge in Bismarck sentenced Mario R. Garmoo, 32, of Detroit, to 15 years in prison for smuggling hundreds of opioid pills into North Dakota cities and the Fort Berthold. He had been living with a woman on the reservation in the town of White Shield.
Barry Christopher Brown Jr., 28, known as “Big Splash,” of Taylor, Michigan, was indicted by a federal grand jury in February on drug trafficking charges. Police searched his Bismarck hotel in January, finding fentanyl pills designed to look like oxycodone, court records show. Brown maintains his innocence and is awaiting trial.
Larry Owens III, 26, of Lincoln Park, Michigan, was indicted by a federal grand jury earlier this year on fentanyl trafficking charges. He was caught June 10, 2020, while transporting hundreds of suspected fentanyl pills. Owens posted bond and was rearrested three months later by the Ward County Narcotics Task Force, with police finding more than 5,000 fentanyl pills in an apartment in Minot.
Owens opted to plead guilty to trafficking fentanyl, according to his plea agreement. A judge is scheduled to sentence him in January.
White has plenty of new drug traffickers to chase, yet a white 3-inch binder on the two-year investigation into Blue still sits on her desk.
“It’s there so I don’t lose my focus,” she said.
“There’s more cases out there, more dealers out there who are probably worse than him.”
Reporter Beth Warren: firstname.lastname@example.org; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
Two police officers led a frantic mother into a Bismarck, North Dakota, hotel room in 2018 to identify the tattooed arm of a body found sprawled on a bed.