NBC News - Federal authorities broke up a massive drug trafficking ring that supplied cocaine and marijuana to college students across North Carolina, leading to nearly two dozens arrests, officials said Thursday.
The 21 defendants include students and they're accused of funneling drugs, often through fraternities, to schoolmates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and Appalachian State University, authorities said.
"This is about saving lives," U.S. Attorney Matthew Martin told reporters in Hillsborough. "This really is a public health crisis. We really have to stand together, cut off the supply."
The probe goes back at least two years and examined about $1.5 million in sales, officials said.
While the investigation is ongoing, officials said a primary supplier was Francisco Javier Ochoa, a 27-year-old from Turlock, California. He supplied about 200 pounds of marijuana and two kilograms of cocaine on a weekly basis to North Carolina codefendants, authorities said.
He pleaded guilty to federal narcotics charges in November and was sentenced to 73 months behind bars, officials said.
Martin insisted that his office wasn't targeting low level offenders.
"I want to make it very clear, this is not a situation where you have casual users, where you have a 19-year-old sipping a beer or you have someone taking a puff off a joint on the back porch of the fraternity house," the prosecutor said.
"These are 21 hardened drug dealers. This conspiracy moved thousands of pounds of marijuana over the course of several years, hundreds of kilos of cocaine."
The youngest defendant named on Thursday is 21 and 13 of them are no older than 24.
"We are extremely disappointed to learn of these alleged actions on our campus," UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in statement. "Although none of the individuals named today are currently enrolled students, we will remain vigilant and continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and address any illegal drug use on our campus."
A spokeswoman for Duke declined to comment on Thursday.
Megan Hayes, an associate vice chancellor at App State, said the school is "fully cooperating with this investigation" and remains "committed to providing a safe campus."
This is a developing story, please refresh here for updates.