What started as a local investigation into the criminal activities of a group of individuals swelled into a case that involved multiple area and federal law enforcement agencies and led to the indictment of more than 50 people.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas announced it identified 54 people as connected to the distribution of drugs, including heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, ecstasy, hydrocodone, cocaine and marijuana, around the Manhattan area.

Authorities found that traffickers were traveling to and from Chicago, bringing back the drugs. Officials said the opioids are being manufactured outside the United States in China and Mexico.

The investigation began about three years ago, according to the indictment. Riley County Police Director Dennis Butler said in an email that the department had already begun looking into the criminal activity of a group of people in the area, most of whom were included in the indictments.

About a month later and after the sudden death of K-State student Maxwell Dandaneau in September 2017, which was linked to a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose, investigators connected some of the people in that group to the heroin supplied to Dandaneau.

Officers then presented the investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which agreed to assist with the case. With additional resources provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Butler said police were able to widen the scope of the initial investigation as they gathered more information and intelligence.

“Dedicated investigative work by several of our staff, neighboring law enforcement agencies, including federal agencies … allowed us to develop leads that snowballed into more leads and additional suspects,” Butler said. “The defendants indicted were identified and charged through the collection of evidence to substantiate those charges.”

Throughout the week, area law enforcement officers arrested those indicted in a large-scale and coordinated bust. There was no single “gotcha” moment, Butler said. The case so far is the result of a “slow and deliberate” investigative process that unfolded to reveal more involved people. He said it is possible more indictments may be issued in the coming weeks, but authorities believe the major local players have been arrested.

“When crimes are reported or arrests are made, law enforcement never really knows the extent of the investigation they are engaged in,” Butler said. “Using existing department resources, (it) continues pursuing leads and gathering evidence for as long as feasible. In this case, we believed that we had rooted out as much criminal behavior and identified as many suspects as we could reasonably expect. Once this occurred the decision was made to seek indictments and make arrests.”

Butler said the federal entities RCPD worked with have already assured him they will help again if needed. He said RCPD also will continue to remain vigilant but asked the community to do the same and report suspicious activity.

“Manhattan and Riley County is a wonderful place to live and work, and we don’t see that changing,” Butler said. “In this case, criminals saw what they thought was an easy opportunity to infect our community by dealing large quantities of dangerous and lethal drugs. It worked for a while, but they found out that it may not have been as easy to remain anonymous as they had anticipated.”

Butler cautioned people to stay away from drugs as one may never know what is in them.

“Heroin, fentanyl, oxycontin and other opioids are deadly and often sold illegally in unknown dosages,” he said. “They are so dangerous that I implore citizens not to take any chances with these drugs.”

Officials have warned of the dangers of fentanyl in particular, a strong prescription drug and synthetic opioid that people may mix into drugs without buyers’ knowledge.

William Callahan, special agent-in-charge of the DEA St. Louis division, said Wednesday that illegally trafficked fentanyl is responsible for more than 68,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2018 and more than 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,747 people died from drug-related overdoses in Kansas from 2013 to 2017.