(CNN)Twenty-one people have been charged with dealing drugs on and around college campuses after federal officials uncovered a massive drug ring involving students at three North Carolina universities, authorities announced Thursday.
21 charged in drug operation on 3 university campuses in North Carolina
US Attorney Matthew Martin said in a news conference that those arrested were accused of dealing drugs in and around the campuses of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke University and Appalachian State University. He said members of several fraternities were charged, and more arrests could come.
The investigation began in 2018, according to a news release from the US Attorney's Office for the Middle District of North Carolina, and the first person was charged in November 2019. The rest were charged between July and December.
The investigation conducted by a US Drug Enforcement Administration task force and the Orange County Sheriff's Office "revealed drug activity involving members of several fraternal organizations at universities in the state," the news release said.
Court filings specifically allege illegal drug activity involving the UNC chapters of Phi Gamma Delta, Kappa Sigma and Beta Theta Pi between 2017 and the spring of this year, according to the US Attorney's Office.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said Friday the university was suspending recognition of the three local chapters.
"We are taking swift action today because the serious nature of the alleged criminal behaviors is contradictory to our code of conduct and endangers the health of our student body and community," Guskiewicz wrote in a statement.
One of the 21 defendants was a student at Duke University who allegedly distributed cocaine to fellow students and to fraternity members from UNC-Chapel Hill, the US Attorney's Office said.
Two students at Appalachian State University in Boone were accused of distributing drugs to fellow students, specifically LSD and cocaine, the news release said.
Martin said that over several years the suspects allegedly moved more than a thousand of pounds of marijuana and hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and other drugs through their supply chain. The drug proceeds exceeded $1.5 million, according to the DEA.
"This is about saving lives," Martin told reporters Thursday. "This really is a public health crisis. We really have to stand together, cut off the supply."
DEA Special Agent in Charge Robert Murphy said in the news release, "These fraternity members' drug trafficking crimes contributed to a toxic and dangerous environment on these college campuses. The arrest of these drug traffickers makes these college campuses and their respective communities safer."
In statements to CNN, all three universities said they are cooperating with law enforcement.
Michael Schoenfeld, the chief communications officer at Duke, said, "Duke will respond accordingly through our disciplinary process."
A statement from Appalachian State said officials are "committed to providing a safe campus, and will continue our work with education and prevention, as well as utilizing student conduct and law enforcement processes, to do so."
Eight of the accused have pleaded guilty to at least one charge, prosecutors say. One, Francisco Javier Ochoa, 27, of Turlock, California, pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges last month and was sentenced to 73 months in prison.
The national offices of the three fraternities at UNC issued statements to CNN after the charges were announced.
"It is shocking to learn of the allegations involving our chapter and others at the University of North Carolina," read the Phi Gamma Delta statement. "These allegations are very serious, suggest conduct which violate our policies and values, and we have zero tolerance for the alleged actions. We are committed to working with law enforcement and the University to fully understand the involvement of our members."
Beta Theta Pi said the charges involve one of its members who graduated last year.
"The Fraternity does not tolerate the possession, sale, distribution or use of illegal substances and holds its chapters to high standards in maintaining a safe environment for all students," Beta Theta Pi said. "We are working in tandem with our undergraduates, volunteers and UNC administrators to determine next steps and will take appropriate action as new information becomes available."
Kappa Sigma's national organization said its leadership is "greatly concerned" about the allegations and will investigate them internally.
The fraternity's local chapter said two undergraduate senior members were among those arrested.
"The actions of these two individuals is not representative of the organization as a whole and are a violation of the code of conduct and chapter bylaws," Kappa Sigma's Alpha Mu chapter said in a statement. "The members were immediately suspended officially on November 3rd pending expulsion. As an organization and as leadership we are doing everything in our power to assist with the investigation and are willing to fully cooperate with authorities."