EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - The East Grand Forks man whose driving under the influence stop broke open an investigation into the distribution of fentanyl-based pills in the Red River Valley pleaded guilty this month as prosecutors turn their focus to four young men they believe were responsible for trafficking large amounts of narcotics in the region.
Joel Anthony Ryan, 22, pleaded guilty July 13 to one felony count of third degree controlled substance crime, driving while intoxicated and contempt of court. He will be sentenced Sept. 7, likely to 27 months in prison, based on a plea agreement letter filed in Polk County District Court.
East Grand Forks Police came across Ryan slumped over in his vehicle on March 21, and a search revealed the same blue pills stamped with "A 215" officers believed were linked to a non-fatal overdose in Grand Forks.
Officers in Grand Forks had found 160 of the pills, which are designed to appear like 30 milligram OxyContin but contain the powerful opioid fentanyl, in the apartment of 20-year-old Tucker Christian Collings. Collings was the first man charged in the case and faces felony distribution charges in both Minnesota and North Dakota.
Police questioned Ryan about the origins of his pills, and then subsequently made moves to file conspiracy charges in April against Benjamin David Gottberg, Ryan John Benson Powell and Cody Allen Stengl, all age 20. Investigators believe the three, in addition to Collings and a Grand Forks man, Jan "Honza" Cervenka, were distributing a wide variety of narcotics in the area, including cocaine, Xanax, ecstasy and the fentanyl pills, according to court documents. Witnesses have told law enforcement that Cervenka and an associate were ordering the pills online from the dark web, per affidavits.
When Minnesota charges were filed against Collings on May 17, the charges against Powell and Gotteberg were bumped up from conspiracy to commit controlled substance crime to aggravated controlled substance crime with harsher potential penalties, court records show.
In May, the Polk County Attorney's Office filed notices of intent to seek aggravated sentencing against Gottberg, Powell and Stengl, which would allow a judge to sentence the men to penalties beyond the typical scope of Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines if they are found guilty.
Gottberg and Collings have both entered not guilty pleas in the case.