A man and a woman from Cincinnati were indicted Wednesday on charges of dealing heroin laced with carfentanil — the deadly animal tranquilizer officials blame for an unprecedented surge in overdoses in the United States — marking what may be the first carfentanil-related criminal case brought in federal court.

A grand jury charged Phillip Watkins, 31, and Jeannetta Crawford, 26, with distributing heroin cut with fentanyl and carfentanil, a heroin analogue that is 10,000 times stronger than the drug itself.

The indictment comes as overdoses have skyrocketed in Ohio and neighboring states, rattling law enforcement and health officials, who say heroin tainted with carfentanil has sent people to the emergency room in record numbers in the past two months.

Prosecutors called the case a new front in their crackdown on the drug.

“This is the first carfentanil trafficking case that we have ever brought in this district, in the region, in Ohio,” acting U. S. attorney Benjamin Glassman told reporters Wednesday, according to Cincinnati.com. “And I believe it is the first federal carfentanil indictment ever in the country.”

Authorities said carfentanil began turning up in the Cincinnati area, as well as other parts of the state, in mid-July. In the weeks that followed, health officials in three states had linked carfentanil to hundreds of overdoses, dozens of them fatal. In a six-day period late last month, 174 people across Cincinnati were hospitalized for overdosing on heroin that was likely cut with the drug — a number the county health commissioner called “unprecedented.”

“It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Hamilton County Commissioner Dennis Deters told the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time.

The seven-count indictment against Watkins and Crawford, said to be boyfriend and girlfriend, alleges they ran a drug operation out of their apartment in northern Cincinnati and were caught selling tainted heroin on at least four occasions.

An affidavit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio says that police first learned about the couple in late August, after they found a person overdosing in the driver’s seat of a car in nearby Springfield Township, Ohio. They used the anti-overdose drug Narcan to revive the victim, who said Watkins and Crawford sold the heroin that triggered the overdose.

Lab tests of the drugs came back positive for fentanyl, carfentanil and heroin, court documents said.

On Aug. 31, a SWAT team raided the couple’s apartment and arrested Watkins and Crawford, according to the affidavit.

After they were released, investigators said, Watkins got a new cellphone and continued to deal, and police arranged two more controlled buys. Officers arrested them again on Sept. 15, according to WCPO.

They were charged with narcotics conspiracy, operating a drug premises, and distribution of a controlled substance and a controlled substance analogue.

Attorneys for Watkins and Crawford didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Pubished by the washingtonpost.com