‘Like Breaking Bad but with opioids:’ How a St. Louis journalist exposed an international drug kingpin

Ben Westhoff published a book in 2019 detailing his trip to China to meet the man who now has a...
Ben Westhoff published a book in 2019 detailing his trip to China to meet the man who now has a $5 million target on his back for selling fentanyl ingredients.(Sara Bannoura)
Published: Aug. 4, 2022 at 9:11 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- Ben Westhoff found out Chinese companies were responsible for mass-producing chemicals for fentanyl that ended up in American cities. An investigative journalist, he wanted to see it for himself.

“I just googled ‘buy drugs in China,’” Westhoff said, “and I got all these websites from these companies that were just sort of blatantly selling it.”

He found emails for salespeople from several companies and reached out, pretending to be a drug dealer. He asked if he could go to the country and see one of their labs, and they quickly said yes.

He arrived in Wuhan, China in 2018. It was before the city became well-known as ground zero for the COVID-19 virus.

He confessed that when he set out on his trip, he expected to be led to underground labs with heavily-armed guards, or some similar setting one would expect from seeing the drug trade portrayed in movies like “Scarface.” Instead, he found a setting more similar to “Office Space.”

“I was shocked to find this giant company with hundreds of young salespeople sitting at desktop computers,” Westhoff said. “They all spoke great English. They were basically selling ingredients for fentanyl to Western customers.”

Westhoff had to travel halfway across the world to tell the full scope of the American fentanyl crisis. He published a book in 2019 called “Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Created the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.”

He found most people in China don’t even know what fentanyl is, including the nice salespeople offering to sell it to him. They could have been oblivious to the tens of thousands of people the drug was killing every year halfway across the world.

“These people have retirement plans and health plans. It was considered a really good job,” he said. “Except they were selling the most dangerous drug in the world.”

Independent investigative journalist and St. Louis resident Ben Westhoff sits down for an...
Independent investigative journalist and St. Louis resident Ben Westhoff sits down for an interview in February.(KMOV staff)

Colin Dickey, assistant special agent in charge for the DEA St. Louis Division, said Chinese companies are sending precursor chemicals to make fentanyl to Mexico, where cartels produce it and smuggle it over the southern border.

“Just the threat of fentanyl being in our communities is one thing that keeps me up at night,” he said.

Dickey joined the DEA in 2004 because he wanted to work in public service. His dad was a fire chief in southern Illinois for 40 years, but that path wasn’t for him.

“I decided that I would potentially rather be shot at than run into a burning building,” Dickey said.

Now, he’s standing in front of his own burning building, having to run in. He said he’s never seen a drug threat as prevalent as fentanyl in his 18 years on the force. Just recently, nine people overdosed on cocaine laced with fentanyl in the Central West End in February. Eight of them died.

It’s why Dickey educates his 14-year-old son about the unseen risks present in even casual drug use.

“I personally do not think it’s ever too early to have a conversation with one of your children or one of your loved ones about the dangers,” he said.

Dr. Fred Rottnek, medical director at the Assisted Recovery Centers of America, summed up the mass production of fentanyl in Chinese and Mexican drug labs by leaning on the Hollywood tropes.

“It’s kind of like Breaking Bad but with opioids,” Rottnek said.

Yuancheng salespeople sit at cubicles in a Chinese office building, where they openly sell...
Yuancheng salespeople sit at cubicles in a Chinese office building, where they openly sell ingredients for fentanyl to Western customers.(Courtesy of Ben Westhoff)

This story, however, is not fictional. This version of Walter White, the main character in the TV series “Breaking Bad,” is Chinese and his name is Ye Chuan Fa. He is the owner of the Chinese chemical company Yuancheng, the one Westhoff alleges has sold more precursors to make fentanyl than any other company in the world.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas charged Chuan Fa in December with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl precursors. There is a $5 million reward for his arrest leading to a conviction.

Ye Chuan Fa is the owner of Yuancheng, a Chinese chemical company. Journalist Ben Westhoff met...
Ye Chuan Fa is the owner of Yuancheng, a Chinese chemical company. Journalist Ben Westhoff met with Chuan Fa at one of his labs in China, where ingredients were produced to make fentanyl.(U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of Texas)

Yuancheng responded to the indictment in June by suggesting allegations and sanctions placed on the company by Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump were based on untrue reports from Westhoff. The company even suggested Westhoff may be a secret agent.

Westhoff appeared in 2019 in front of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission at a hearing regarding China’s role in global health industries. He urged the U.S. and China to do more to stop companies like Yuancheng from making fentanyl precursors.

“One problem is that most people still don’t even know what fentanyl is,” Westhoff told News 4. “And particularly young people. I like to say that it’s kind of a bad time to be a young person because any pill or any powder that’s bought on the black market could potentially be laced with fentanyl and could kill you immediately.”

Nine years before that hearing, the opioid crisis became personal. Westhoff’s friend, Michael Schafermeyer, died in 2010 of a fentanyl overdose combined with alcohol. He had prescription fentanyl patches but ended up abusing them. At that point, illicit fentanyl was years away from taking its hold in American communities.

The rate of overdose deaths in the U.S. involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl was more than 18 times higher in 2020 than in 2013, according to the CDC. More than 71,000 people died in 2021 from synthetic opioids.

Overdose deaths have been trending in the wrong way for years. The Stanford-Lancet Commission published a study this year that said the U.S. will lose 1.2 million people to drug overdoses this decade if new action is not taken.

“Unfortunately, I don’t see the fentanyl crisis getting better any time soon,” Westhoff said. “I think it’s gonna get worse before it gets better.”