Feds seize fentanyl

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James Tharpe

 A man already being sought for drug trafficking by federal authorities was allegedly found with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of a drug that kills hundreds of Knox County residents each year.

The shocking discovery was part of a stash containing nearly a half-pound each of fentanyl and heroin plus methamphetamine, cocaine, a stolen handgun and almost $37,000 in cash, reports show. 

Federal authorities haven’t made any public statements about the operation and a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case. 

The bust happened when a team from the U.S. Marshals Service went to a house on London Circle in East Knoxville just before 1 p.m. March 17 with deputies from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office providing backup, records show.

They were hoping to locate and arrest James Tharpe, 38, because he’d recently been named in a 13-count federal indictment accusing him of being part of a long-running drug trafficking conspiracy that allegedly involved at least six other people. 

Tharpe was swiftly taken into custody along with a 33-year-old man who was also found in the house. Hard Knox Wire is not naming the second man because it wasn’t immediately clear if he was charged.

The officers knew that Tharpe and his alleged co-conspirators, some of whom had already been swept up by federal agents, were accused of moving large amounts of drugs over an approximately two-year period. They had no reason, however, to expect to find the sheer volume of controlled substances they soon found stashed in backpacks, clothes and a bag from Victoria’s Secret, records indicate.

“While taking Mr. Tharpe into custody on a federal indictment for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, officers noted the odor of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, heroin, raw marijuana, and other indicia of drug sales in plain view,” said a report filed by a Knox County deputy who took part in the bust.

The most striking find was 6.8 ounces of fentanyl. The available records don’t provide any clues as to its purity, but to give some idea as to the potential scale of the bust 6.8 ounces of pharmaceutical grade fentanyl equals approximately 190,000 milligrams. For most adults, a lethal dose of fentanyl is usually reckoned as between only two or three milligrams.

It’s unusual to find such large amounts of fentanyl on the streets, as it’s usually diluted with other drugs, most commonly heroin. It is also sometimes mixed in with methamphetamine or even pressed into counterfeit pills that look the same as prescription painkillers. Because fentanyl is considerably more potent than most opiates, fatal overdoses involving the drug have skyrocketed across the nation in recent years.

A photo from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration showing heroin and fentanyl.

In Knox County, an estimated 371 people died from overdoses in 2020, according to the web site of Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen. So far this year, the estimated death toll stands at 93 people.

 Fentanyl wasn’t the only drug the officers found at the house on London Circle, reports show. 

The officers also allegedly found: 

– 9.6 ounces of methamphetamine 

– 2.8 ounces of cocaine

– 1.9 ounces of crack cocaine 

– 6.8 ounces of heroin

– 13 grams of marijuana

They also recovered a stolen 9mm Glock pistol, $36,770 in cash and several ounces of an unidentified substance that had been packaged as illegal drugs.

The federal indictment naming Tharpe and six other people was returned by a federal grand jury on Feb. 17. 

According to the indictment, each of the accused men and women took part in a drug trafficking conspiracy that lasted from Jan. 1, 2019 to Feb. 9 of this year. Various members of the group allegedly conspired to distribute heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine, although none of the defendants is accused of helping to move quantities of all three drugs. 

Tharpe, for instance, is accused of dealing in cocaine and crack cocaine. He’s also charged with possessing a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. 

His attorney couldn’t be reached for comment.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on March 30, 2021