Salem Man Pleads Guilty to Possessing a Firearm in Relation to Fentanyl Pill Trafficking Conspiracy

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FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

BOSTON – A Salem man pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court in Boston to being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition in a case resulting from his role in a prolific drug trafficking organization that supplied counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl to suppliers on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

Ernest Johnson, 34, a/k/a “Yo Pesci,” a/k/a “Mr. Live Mr. Drive,” pleaded guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of firearm and ammunition. U.S. District Court Judge Leo T. Sorokin scheduled sentencing for Sept. 13, 2022.

Johnson was arrested and charged in June 2021 along with co-conspirators Vincent Caruso, Laurie Caruso and Nicole Benton. On Oct. 1, 2021, Benton pleaded guilty to her role in the conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing which is set for Sept. 8, 2022. Additional charges were brought against Vincent Caruso by a federal grand jury on Jan. 19, 2022.

According to the charging documents, Johnson was a member of a large drug trafficking organization (DTO) operated by Vincent Caruso, a self-admitted Crip gang member, that included Benton and Vincent Caruso’s mother, Laurie Caruso, among others. The DTO allegedly sold counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl – produced using multiple large pill presses – to street gangs for further distribution on the North Shore of Massachusetts. It is alleged that one pill press weighed 1,000 pounds and was capable of producing 15,000 pills per hour. According to the charging documents, a single counterfeit fentanyl pill retails between $10-$20, thereby generating millions of dollars in retails sales.

Johnson possessed and used firearms in furtherance of the drug trafficking activities. Additionally, Johnson used social media to post and message photos and videos that depicted firearms (including an AR15), fentanyl pills, cash and high-end jewelry. In a number of videos, Johnson described his involvement in shootings, beatings and drug trafficking and identified people he believed to be a “rat” or a “snitch.” Based on prior felony convictions, Johnson was prohibited from lawfully possessing firearms.

The charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition provides for a sentence of up to 10 in prison, up to three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and statutes which govern the determination of a sentence in a criminal case.

First Assistant United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy: Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division; James Ferguson, Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Boston Division; and Colonel Christopher Mason, Superintendent of the Massachusetts States Police made the announcement today. Assistance was provided by the Essex, Middlesex and Suffolk County District Attorneys’ Offices; Essex, Middlesex, Suffolk and Hancock (Maine) County Sheriffs’ Departments; U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine; Maine Drug Enforcement Agency; and the Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Danvers, Everett, Lynn, Malden, Salem, Saugus, Somerville, Revere, Bolton (Maine), Bangor (Maine), Portland (Maine) and Westbrook (Maine) Police Departments. Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip A. Mallard of the Organized Crime & Gang Unit is prosecuting the case.

The operation was conducted by a multi-agency task force through the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations, and those primarily responsible for the nation’s illegal drug supply. More information on the OCDETF program is available here: https://www.justice.gov/ocdetf/about-ocdetf.

The details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The remaining defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.