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At least 13 former and current University of Texas students were arrested and charged in connection with trafficking counterfeit prescription drugs laced with fentanyl and methamphetamines to UT students in Austin.
"During the course of this investigation, two of the targets died from drug overdoses," U.S. Attorney Gregg N. Sofer said in a statement Friday. "When unsuspecting college kids and other drug seekers put these pills in their mouths, they are playing Russian roulette. They are gambling that profit-seeking drug dealers did not place lethal doses of unknown chemicals or fentanyl in these pills."
Federal, state and local authorities announced the arrests on Friday following a search effort the day before that led to the seizure of large quantities of fentanyl, Adderall, Xanax, LSD, marijuana and psilocybin, or hallucinogenic mushrooms, as well as several firearms and approximately $100,000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The defendants allegedly conspired to distribute the drugs in the Austin metro area since April 2019 and to launder the profits, per a press release.
The Austin Tactical Diversion Squad, a law enforcement task force targeting counterfeit drug trafficking, conducted "Operation Spider Web," as the investigation was called, along with partner agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Travis County Sheriff's Office and the Austin Police Department.
"This has potentially saved many people from the dangers and risks associated with illegal drug use and furthers our mission of keeping Austin residents safe," APD Chief Brian Manley said in a statement.
Local officials noticed a significant increase in overdoses among UT students over the course of the investigation, which began following a tip submitted early last year, according to a report by the Austin American-Statesman.
If convicted of the drug conspiracy charges, the defendants face between 10 years and life in federal prison. The money laundering conspiracy charges carry sentences of up to 20 years.
Those arrested include:
- Varun Prasad, 23, of Austin
- Charles Zenker, 26, of Houston
- Benny Daneshjou, 68, of Austin
- Ashley Larue, 26, of Austin
- Drew Zarate, 21, of Austin
- Christopher Edwards, 32, of Portland
- Jacob Schelling, 21, of Cypress
- Madison Scott, 22, of Houston
- Adrian Andreescu, 21, of Plano
- Niki Shingari, 21, of Austin
- Nolan Fogleman, 21, of Austin
- Samuel Parry, 23, of Austin
- Brandon Carpenter, 27, of Austin
Prasad, Daneshjou, Laru and Zarate were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Shingari is a current student at UT, and six others are former students, as the Daily Texan reported.
Daneshjou previously made headlines in 2004, when Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock sued the builder, whom she said did shoddy work on her Lake Austin home.
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Austin police are investigating a homicide in North Austin where a woman was shot and killed, just hours after a mass shooting in Downtown Austin hospitalized 14 people.
APD is working a suspicious death near the 1900 block of W Rundberg Ln. PIO is en route and will update with media staging location. PIO6
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) June 12, 2021
Police originally responded to Ironhorse Flats Apartments, 1900 block of W. Rundberg Lane, at 3:20 p.m. when they found the woman with multiple gunshot wounds. She was transported to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 4:07 p.m.
No one is in custody as of yet but police are speaking with potential witnesses. Officials said they believe this was an isolated incident with no danger to the public but said possible relation to the downtown shooting has not been specifically ruled out.
Officers could not provide a suspect description and the relationship to the victim is still unknown.
This is a developing story that will be updated as details become available.
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Police have arrested one of two suspects involved in a mass shooting at Austin's Sixth Street in the early morning hours on Saturday, leaving 14 people injured and two in critical condition.
The arrest was made by the Austin Police Department and the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force. One suspect is still at large.
Police started receiving 911 phone calls at 1:24 a.m about a man that fired shots into a large crowd, and responded to a chaotic scene on the 400 block of East Sixth Street. Detectives are surveying video footage captured by bystanders and cameras on the scene to identify the suspect.
The Austin Police Department has narrowed down their search to two male suspects and believes there was "some type of disturbance" between the two parties.
No deaths have been reported. Fourteen victims are receiving treatment in a hospital in stable condition with one treated in an emergency room; two are in critical condition.
According to Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon, "almost all" of the victims are innocent bystanders but police have not ruled anyone out at this time.
Shooting on 6th Street Austin Texas 6-12-2021 (Aftermath) youtu.be
The shooting occurred on the weekend of the Republic of Texas Motorcycle Rally. With lots of people downtown, police say it was difficult to get EMS in and out of the scene. Police arrived while the scene was still an "active threat," officers "immediately began lifesaving measures" and drove six victims to the hospital in their squad cars, said Chacon, and four were transported in ambulances.
Chacon said that the incident is believed to be isolated, and they optimistic they will be successful in getting the two suspects into custody. Multiple departments, including APD, the FBI, Texas DPS and the ATF, are involved in the investigation.
Austin police are also requesting state troopers for patrol assistance in the coming days. Chacon stressed staffing issues are increasingly making responding to emergency calls "very hard."
"Overall, we remain a safe city," Chacon said. "Also keep in mind when you come downtown, you need to be safety conscious. Be vigilant of your environment and your surroundings."
Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 were killed and 53 wounded in Orlando, Florida. Anyone with information on the shooting is asked to call 911 or 512-472-TIPS.
This story was updated at 2:47 p.m. to include new information and will be updated as more details are revealed.
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The shooting sent 14 bystanders to the hospital—two in critical condition. One suspect has been caught, while another remains at large.
The incident has gained national attention, including a statement from the White House:
"This morning, Austin has become just the latest American community to wake up ravaged by an act of senseless gun violence," White House spokesperson Ike Hajinazarian said. "While we pray for the shooting's victims and their families — and thank first responders for their quick, heroic work — we must not lose sight of what this tragedy again makes clear: it's long past time for the Senate to pass meaningful gun reform and allow Texans—and all Americans—to enjoy a night out without the fear of another night of gun violence."
Gov. Greg Abbott shared a statement on Twitter thanking police and inviting Austinites to join wife Cecelia and "I in prayer for those who were injured," prompting backlash from hundreds of followers, largely surrounding the upcoming bill that will allow unlicensed open carry.
This mass shooting is your fault too, @GregAbbott_TX. You've made TX streets even more dangerous. You and Cecilia may as well use your pointless prayers for yourself-you don't really give a 💩. #AbbottFailedTexasAgain
— Heels Hater (@HKR30754663) June 12, 2021
Though the bill has yet to be signed into law, Abbott has said he will sign the bill despite objections from law enforcement groups.
Law enforcement specifically asked you not to pass permitless carry but you happily signed that bill, making no one safer. Forgive me if I don't believe you really care about anyone injured or killed in gun violence or the people who have to respond.
— LauraB'sProVoting #TeamDemocracy 🇺🇸⚾️🌭🥧 (@lulujb520) June 12, 2021
Prominent Austin City Council Member Gregorio Casar also commented on the incident, calling to "double down" on efforts to reduce violence. Several people responded, placing blame on Casar for writing the plan to defund the police.
@MayorAdler and you defunded police, police numbers dropped, emergency response times skyrocketed, and now a mass shooting. Y'all are doing a bang-up job comrade.
Sad we haven't caught the criminal, & you're already pressing an agenda. I bet the gun wasn't purchased legally.
— Eric G. (@BearNATX) June 12, 2021
While investigators are confident that they will catch the other suspect, Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said that with low staff levels, responding to violent calls is getting increasingly difficult. Police said they believe Austin is still a "safe city," though residents should remain alert and exercise caution while visiting downtown.
As Sixth Street is usually one of the busiest entertainment districts, it is usually highly policed. Still, some Austinites said they were afraid themselves, having been to the street themselves.
Don't even know how to react right now. I'm just crushed. Heard approx 16 people shot downtown on Sixth Street tonight and here I was watching footage of a show tonight at The Venue. Suddenly I'm looking at footage of bodies in the street. Feeling sick to my stomach
— Justin Hawkes (Flite) (@ItsJustinHawkes) June 12, 2021
The We Are Blood community blood center is asking for donations to replenish its supply after using blood and platelet donations to treat patients involved in the shooting. Austin police are also asking for anyone with information to call 911 or 512-472-TIPS.