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How a B.C. opioid addict became one of North America’s biggest fentanyl dealers

Robert Kiessling had just put the white padded envelope on the counter at a local card shop and postal outlet when the four police officers moved in.

Inside the envelope, authorities would allege, was 10 grams of fentanyl, sold by Mr. Kiessling over the dark net.

“They were watching him,” Terry Rychjohn, owner of the Towne Centre Card Shop, recalled in an interview. “As soon as he put the package down, that’s when they took him away.”

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Mr. Kiessling was a 40-year-old occasional college instructor from Kelowna, B.C., who had a common-law wife and a 22-year-old son. His family says he was also an opioid addict. But to the U.S. Department of Justice, he was known as DougFish44 and DF44, a man who used the dark net to rack up the third-most fentanyl transactions on the continent by number of sales, accepting payment via bitcoin. The U.S. Department of Justice would describe him as one of the most prolific online fentanyl vendors in North America.

Related: B.C. alleges 20 years of deception in opioid lawsuit

Read more: Disciplined doctor ignored ‘red flags’ on opioid abuse, files show

For Mr. Kiessling, injuries from a car crash when he was younger led to a dependence on painkillers that led to dealing drugs that would in turn wreak havoc on others. Mr. Kiessling died by suicide about one week after his Jan. 9 arrest.

His story illustrates how the mechanics of drug dealing have changed: Fentanyl is so powerful, small amounts simple to send through the mail can have a devastating impact. As little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl can trigger a fatal overdose, meaning the 10,000 mg that led to Mr. Kiessling's arrest had the potency to kill thousands of people.

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died as a result of opioids in 2017, a 34-per-cent jump from the previous year, according to data from a federal task force. Almost three-quarters of them involved prescription and illicit fentanyl.

Mr. Kiessling's father, Fritz, described his son’s story as a cautionary tale in an interview at the suburban Calgary bungalow where Robert was raised. As the elder Mr. Kiessling spoke, he sat on the same plaid couch where his son lay in the week after his arrest and release, jittery and convulsing as he tried to detox.

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He said he learned only in his son’s final days that he was addicted to fentanyl and dealing drugs.

“I feel sorry for the people that he sold the stuff to because I understand the difficulty that some of those families may go through,” Fritz Kiessling said.

He said he did at one point ask Robert why he had trafficked drugs. “His answer was simply if he didn’t, someone else would have.”

An affidavit sworn in U.S. District Court by Michael Adams of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service on Jan. 12 explains how authorities set their sights on Mr. Kiessling.

Last September, it says, U.S. law enforcement was told about Mr. Kiessling by the RCMP. He was operating on various dark net markets and, as of January, had had more than 600 transactions. It did not specify the amount of fentanyl.

RCMP officers had watched Mr. Kiessling mail a parcel, later intercepted in the United States, in October and it was found to contain .09 grams of furanylfentanyl, a fentanyl analogue. Over October and November, at least five more parcels sent by Mr. Kiessling were obtained, with the drug amounts ranging between 0.5 grams and 3 grams of fentanyl, furanylfentanyl or methoxyacetylfentanyl, the affidavit says.

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In January, a U.S. law-enforcement official ordered 10 grams of fentanyl and paid Mr. Kiessling approximately $4,000 through bitcoin. Mr. Kiessling was arrested as he attempted to fill that order.

His home was searched that day and authorities found, in his basement office, shipping supplies, a scale and bags of white powder consistent with fentanyl, the affidavit says.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not provide a response when asked how much money Mr. Kiessling was believed to have collected in total.

While U.S. and Canadian authorities described Mr. Kiessling as a prolific trafficker, the number of transactions mentioned in the affidavit was well below an RCMP bust announced in May which involved several thousand transactions. In that case, involving four Toronto residents, authorities seized approximately $100,000 in cash and more than $200,000 in virtual currency.

Fritz Kiessling said he knew nothing about his son’s business dealings. He said Robert didn’t have any significant assets or estate and paid rent on his Kelowna home to his common-law wife.

His father remembers him as a happy child, but as a teenager, Robert started hanging out with a bad crowd and using marijuana. Over the years, he was often a loner, working a long line of unsatisfying jobs.

Robert didn’t finish high school, but had a knack for sales, financial services and online currency trading, his father said. A 2012 Okanagan College continuing studies catalogue shows Robert Kiessling teaching two business courses, including one on currency trading.

Allan Coyle, director of public affairs for the college, wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Kiessling was a part-time contract instructor who taught continuing studies and distance education classes starting in 2009, and was still under contract when he died.

Fritz Kiessling said a car crash about a dozen years ago left Robert with constant neck and head pain – along with accompanying prescriptions for powerful painkillers. Mr. Kiessling said his son looked unwell during each of the three to four times a year the family visited one another between B.C. and Alberta, but he thought it was fallout from the crash.

The elder Mr. Kiessling said he understood that, in recent years, Robert had started to provide escrow accounts for bitcoin, taking a cut on every electronic cash transaction. Eventually, the business morphed into fentanyl sales.

Staff Sergeant Annie Linteau, an RCMP spokeswoman, in a statement wrote its investigation into Mr. Kiessling was part of its effort “to identify, and hold accountable, people using the dark web as a means to sell illicit drugs.” She said he sold fentanyl online for “a long period of time” but she wouldn’t elaborate.

Fritz Kiessling said his eyes have been opened to the dangers of opioids. The month he died, Robert told his father that once he started taking fentanyl, there was no way out.

Research by Stephanie Chambers

B.C. has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against dozens of pharmaceutical companies for costs associated with the opioid crisis. B.C. Attorney-General David Eby alleges the companies intentionally misled the public about the safety of the opioids they manufacture. The Canadian Press
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