ROCHESTER | An Elmira man may face life in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges related to an extensive opioid manufacturing and distribution operation.

Robert Ian Thatcher, 30, of Elmira, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute U-47700 (a powerful synthetic opioid) and 100 grams or more of furanyl fentanyl.

The charge carries a minimum of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum of life.

Federal officials say Thatcher, along with co-conspirators, “ran a large-scale opioid manufacturing and trafficking organization in the Southern Tier of New York and northern Pennsylvania between 2015 and May 2017.”

Thatcher and another man, Maximillian Sams, imported bulk quantities of the two drugs from China by using the so-called “dark web” to conduct transactions.

They then reportedly purchased equipment they used to produce pills that resembled the legitimate prescription drug Percocet -- though the composition and effects were very different.

“This defendant and his co-conspirators may have thought they could elude law enforcement detection by purchasing supplies through the so-called ‘dark web,’ but as this investigation showed, that is clearly not the case,” said U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. in a press release. “Whether these criminals choose to peddle their deadly poison in urban, suburban, or rural areas, we will track you down and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”

Officials said at least two individuals – a female identified as B.S., and a male identified as C.H. – died after ingesting the blue pills containing furanyl fentanyl and U-47700. In addition, at least one individual – identified as J.M. – overdosed on more than one occasion after using the blue pills, but survived after being treated by first responders with Narcan.

After manufacturing the pills, Thatcher and Sams reportedly distributed them in large quantities to other co-conspirators – including Anthony Prettyman, Jesus Rivera, Terrance Washington, and Dwayne Banks, a/k/a Fizzle, a/k/a Fizz, who would then distribute the pills to various street-level customers in the Elmira area. Pills were also supplied to an individual in the Charlotte, N.C., area.

The investigation was a joint effort by the Drug Enforcement Administration; the New York State Police, Community Narcotics Enforcement Team Southern Tier, under the direction of Major Mary Clark and Lieutenant Kevin P. Sucher; the Elmira Police Department, under the direction of Chief Joseph Kane; Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Pennsylvania State Police; the Chemung County Sheriff’s Office, under the direction of Christopher J. Moss; the Iredell, N.C., County Sheriff’s Office; and Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Unit.