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Four suspects arrested in North Shore drug bust allegedly supplying fake prescription pills containing fentanyl

Guns collected during a recent drug bust are displayed during a press conference at the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston on Wednesday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Authorities on Wednesday arrested four people for their alleged involvement in a drug ring that supplied counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl to suppliers on the North Shore, and prosecutors said the crew used one press that could pump out 15,000 pills on an hourly basis.

In a statement, Acting US Attorney Nathaniel R. Mendell’s office identified the defendants as Vincent Caruso, 26, of Salem; his mother Laurie Caruso, 51, of Lynn; Nicole Benton, 45, of Saugus; and Ernest Johnson, 33, of Salem.

Tracy Miner, a lawyer for Linda Caruso, noted via email that her client has been charged via criminal complaint, not an indictment handed up by a grand jury.

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“If Ms. Caruso is indicted or if probable cause is found to support the complaint (which has not yet happened), she will enter a plea of not guilty to the charges and defend against the charges,” Miner wrote. “Of course, she is presumed innocent of the charges and does not have to prove herself not guilty.”

Lawyers for the other defendants either declined to comment or didn’t immediately return emails seeking comment.

The prosecutors’ statement said Vincent Caruso, a self-admitted Crip gang member, allegedly runs a “large drug trafficking organization” with his co-defendants, selling pills containing fentanyl that are designed to look like Percocet painkillers.

Caruso, the statement said, allegedly possessed multiple pill presses, including the one capable of spitting out 15,000 pills per hour. Prosecutors said the street value of the typical “counterfeit fentanyl pill” ranges from $10 to $20, meaning Vincent Caruso’s alleged drug ring could generate “millions of dollars in [retail] sales.”

Prosecutors said he and Johnson allegedly used firearms to further their drug activity, and that both men posted content to social media depicting guns including an AR15, fentanyl pills, cash and jewelry. In multiple videos, the statement said, Johnson allegedly boasted of his involvement in shootings, beatings and drug trafficking and discussed people he suspected of cooperating with law enforcement.

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The government also alleges that Benton and Laurie Caruso made cash transactions to launder some of the illicit proceeds by placing bets at a New Hampshire casino.

Vincent Caruso and Johnson, the statement said, both face charges of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl; conspiracy to conduct financial transactions affecting interstate commerce involving the proceeds of dealing in a controlled substance; and conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking conspiracy. Vincent Caruso also faces one count of conspiracy to possess a tableting machine to manufacture a controlled substance, officials said.

Prosecutors said Laurie Caruso and Benton both face charges of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl and conspiracy to conduct financial transactions affecting interstate commerce involving the proceeds of dealing in a controlled substance.

All four defendants had initial appearances slated for Wednesday in federal court in Boston. Hearing results weren’t immediately available.

Joseph R. Bonavolonta, FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Boston office, said during a morning briefing Wednesday that the alleged drug ring had flooded the region with fentanyl, a potentially lethal opioid, according to a written transcript of his remarks.

As part of the probe, Bonavolonta said, authorities to date have arrested 14 people including the four defendants apprehended Wednesday and seized at least 1.2 kilos of fentanyl, three pounds of meth, half a kilo of cocaine, and various amounts of heroin, crack cocaine, and other controlled substances with an estimated street value of $275,000.

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“As if that’s not troubling enough, we believe they were playing Russian roulette with people’s lives—disguising fentanyl pills as the prescription painkiller Percocet—and distributing them not just here in Massachusetts, but as far away as Maine,” Bonavolonta said. “Putting Vincent Caruso, Ernest Johnson, and their alleged fellow drug traffickers out of business will make the North Shore a safer place for its citizens to live.”



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.