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A St. Paul man has admitted to being part of what federal investigators say is the biggest fentanyl pill bust in Minnesota history, carried out by several accomplices who mailed the deadly opioid in stuffed toy animals from Arizona to the Twin Cities.

Cornell Montez Chandler Jr., 25, of St. Paul pleaded guilty this week in U.S. District Court in St. Paul to conspiracy to distribute fentanyl in connection with the operation that ran from August 2022 to February 2023.

One of the investigating agencies, the Washington County Sheriff's Office, said the capture of the unprecedented haul totaled 280,000 pills. They weighed more than 66 pounds and had a street value of roughly $2.2 million.

Fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, was involved in 92% of all opioid-involved deaths and nearly two-thirds of all overdose deaths statewide, according to the early data for 2022.

Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said at the time charges were filed late last year that "with this seizure, we know that hundreds, if not thousands of lives have been saved."

Eight others from the Twin Cities were charged as accomplices, and their cases have yet to be resolved.

Chandler remains in federal custody in the Sherburne County jail ahead of sentencing, which has yet to be scheduled. Depending on how the court sizes up Chandler's criminal history, federal guidelines call for him to serve anywhere from 12⅔ to 24½ years in prison. However, federal judges have full discretion when sentencing defendants and are not bound by guidelines.

According to his guilty plea and the charges against him and the others, Chandler and others flew to Phoenix to obtain fentanyl pills from suppliers, hid them in stuffed animals disguised as birthday presents and mailed them to addresses in and around the Twin Cities.

"[The] conspirators lined the interiors of the packages with dog treats in an attempt to prevent drug-sniffing dogs from alerting to them," Chandler's plea document noted.

Law enforcement in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties learned of the trafficking and launched a joint investigation that led to the seizure of six packages.

Agencies involved in the investigation included the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, Dakota and Washington counties' drug task forces and the Ramsey County Violent Crime Enforcement Team.

There were 1,343 drug overdose deaths in Minnesota in 2022, according to preliminary data released in October by the state Department of Health. That is a slight decline from 1,356 the year before. Both totals are about twice what was reported in 2018.