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A 34-year-old woman is the latest of more than a dozen Minnesotans who have admitted to being soldiers in a St. Cloud woman's three-year smuggling operation that funneled into the Midwest large amounts of fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine supplied by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's Sinaloa cartel in Mexico.

Deanna Marie Gerads pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fargo to conspiracy to possess and distribute illicit drugs in connection with the trafficking that spanned from January 2019 until January 2022, when the ringleader and others working for her were indicted.

Gerads had been on the run for more than a year until her capture in Mexico in August, after which she was brought back to the United States. She remains in custody before her sentencing July 2, when she faces a sentence of 10 years to life in prison, according to the plea filing.

Deanna Gerads
Deanna Gerads

Cass County (N.D.) jail

The brains behind the smuggling ring, according to federal investigators, was 32-year-old Macalla "Kayla" Knott, who counted her father as one of her conspirators.

Knott pleaded guilty in March 2023 to conspiracy to possess, import into the United States and distribute illicit drugs, and international money laundering conspiracy. She is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 14, when she could receive 15 years to life in prison.

The group used violence and threats to ensure payment and in the effort to conceal crimes, according to federal prosecutors. The co-conspirators also used smartphone apps and financial transaction tactics to hide where the movements of their ill-gotten proceeds.

At last count, authorities said they seized more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine, 9 pounds of fentanyl powder and 120,000 fentanyl pills as part of their investigation. The drugs made their way to numerous cities in Minnesota along with Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and elsewhere, the indictment read.

Guzman was a Mexican drug kingpin who was sentenced in 2019 to life in prison for leading a multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking enterprise that spread murder and mayhem for more than two decades. Guzman, who turns 67 on April 4, is presently held in a supermax federal prison that is dubbed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" in Florence, Colo.

Guilty pleas to various drug and money-laundering counts have been entered by more than a dozen of the participants in the smuggling operation.

The ringleader's father, Jeffrey Robert Knott, 52, of St. Cloud, pleaded guilty to international money laundering and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 17.

Macalla Knott
Macalla Knott

Cass County (N.D.) jail

Prison sentences have been handed down to Kayla Marie Schutz, 30, of St. Augusta, 3⅓ years; Demian Hebert, 49 of Bloomington, 14 years; Oliver Louis Dylla, 33 of Avon, 2½ years; James Warren Garner, 24, Little Falls, 7 years; Mary Rose Thompson, Moorhead, 8⅓ years; Melanie Ann Quick, 28, of St. Cloud, nine years; Joseph Paul Myers Jr., 72, of Elk River, 11 years; and Robert Jon Ratka, 41, of Melrose, seven years.

Awaiting sentencing are David Robert Nowlan, 32, of Waite Park; Tiffany Nina Keomany, 30, of Savage; Tyler Neil Pelzer, 34, of St. Cloud; Robert Blair Gjevre, 63, of Champlin; and Brady Robert Ludescher, 28, who has had various addresses in Minnesota.

This case is part of what the U.S. Justice Department's "Operation Unfinished Business II," which investigates the international trafficking of methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.

This story contains material from the Associated Press.