Southern Utah spice bust part of historic nationwide take down

Spice drug bust | Image by St. George News Graphics

ST. GEORGE – A major spice manufacturing organization alleged to have distributed over 2,600 pounds of the synthetic drugs to 20 cities across the United States since 2011 has been ‘decimated’ according to the Drug Enforcement Administration Wednesday. The takedown is described as a part of the largest synthetic drug bust in U.S. history.

In a press conference held at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, representatives of the DEA, Internal Revenue Service, Homeland Security and U.S. Attorney General announced charges of conspiracy to distribute spice had been brought against 14 people in Washington County, 11 of whom have been arrested. These individuals have been described as being in the upper echelon of the nationwide spice manufacturer based out of Washington County.

Map of where the spice was sent to home the operation’s headquarters in St. George | Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice
Map of where the spice was sent to from the operation’s headquarters in St. George, Utah | Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lund said the Utah arrests were a part of a greater investigation and crackdown against designer drug traffickers called “Project Synergy.” Across the nation more than 300 federal and state search warrants were issued and 150 arrests warrants were executed Wednesday morning with law enforcement actions taking place in 33 states.

In Utah, 43 seizure warrants and one civil forfeiture complaint were filed, and 21 search warrants were executed. Local agencies involved included the Washington County Drug Task Force, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George Police Department and Hurricane Police Department.

Lund said proceeds from the overall spice operation are estimated to be at $12 million and that a “significant number of assets” related to the operation have been seized by authorities.

DEA Special Agent in Charge Barbara Roach said 42 weapons, 20 bank accounts, between 20 and 23 vehicles, and two homes had been seized in the Utah portion of the investigation called “Operation Spice Trash.”

A kilo of raw spice can be worth as much as $1,500, Roach said. Processed spice can be worth as much as $2,500 per kilo. Over 1,000 kilos of spice were seized during the take down of the spice operation.

“Project Synergy is the largest strike ever against synthetic drugs,” Roach said. “We’re very proud of what has taken place in St. George.”

Charges brought against the people in Washington County stem from an investigation into a chain of  smoke shops selling spice in Illinois. The investigation turned up 9,644 spice packages that came from Washington County. Further investigation determined the chemicals used to create the spice were being shipped in from China.

IRS Criminal Investigations also followed the money involved in the operation, much of which went through St. George. IRSCI Special Agent Paul Comacho said the money helped lead to the downfall of the spice operation.

“The money trail is one of the hardest trials to hide from the eye of a trained agent,” he said; once people get the money from the drug trafficking, “they like to enjoy their money.” Comacho said lavish expenditures by suspected individuals was just one of the items the IRS tracks in such operations.

According to the complaint, eight different corporations were created in Nevada and Utah by the alleged leaders of the spice operation. These corporations were used to give legitimacy to business transactions such as renting warehouses, shipping packages, receiving wire transfers and depositing and withdrawing cash.

A collection of firearms ceased by law enforcement during Operation Spice Trash, Hurricane, Utah, June 26, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
A collection of firearms seized by law enforcement during Operation Spice Trash, Hurricane, Utah, June 26, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The complaint also alleges the main operators and organizers of the spice operation.  From the St. George area they are: Brian Merrill, 27; Joshua Davis, 37; Buck Andersen, 33; Joseph Givogre, 42; and Gary Jolley, 58. From the Salt Lake City area they are: David Flores, 32; and James Hardwick, 27.

Also charged were individuals alleged to have assisted in the manufacture and distribution of spice, as well as money laundering. From the St. George area they are: Alicia Brandom, 31; Curtis McOsker, 40; Malin Pavelka, 34; Jennifer Barlow, 22; and Richard Lewis, 61. From the Salt Lake City area they are: David Flores, 32; James Hardwick, 27; David Carter, age unspecified; and Becky Young, 36.

The potential maximum penalty for individuals charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance is 20 years in federal prison and up to $1 million in fines.

What is spice?

“Spice is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Roach said, because people who buy it actually have no idea what they are getting.  “People using spice are playing Russian Roulette.”

Spice is a synthetic drug designed to mirror the effects of marijuana. People buy it under the impression it is legal when it isn’t, Roach said. Chemicals used to create the effects similar to marijuana are called analogues, and many have been made illegal across the nation. Gov. Gary Herbert made spice illegal in Utah in 2011.

To stay a step ahead of the law, Roach said, spice manufacturers will get a hold of newly created analogues not yet criminalized and put labels on packages reading “not fit for human consumption.”

The spice packets manufactured in St. George – which sell between $20 and $30 for between one and three grams – use analogues created in China where there is no regulatory oversight. So when people buy a spice packet and proceed to use its contents, they have no idea what they are putting into their bodies, Roach said.

Bags of spice packets ceased by law enforcement during Operation Spice Trash, Hurricane, Utah, June 26, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
Bags of spice packets seized by law enforcement during Operation Spice Trash, Hurricane, Utah, June 26, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Though the spice is meant to produce a high similar to that produced by marijuana, Roach said the synthetic drug is also known to cause cases of vomiting and hallucinations to more severe symptoms, as well as death.

Komar Kibble, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations Denver, who oversees Utah investigations, said that between January and May of this year, calls into poison control hotlines involving the side effects of synthetic drugs were on the rise.

Synthetic drugs are a “new frontier for the DEA,” Roach said, and added the DEA and its partners at the federal and state level are making synthetic drugs a significant priority.

Ed. note:  Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

Spice drug bust | Image by Brett Barrett, St. George News
Spice drug bust | Image by Brett Barrett, St. George News

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  • Tyler June 26, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    And why oh why wouldn’t people just smoke weed over this unknown toxic trash?

  • Zeke June 26, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    With all the other drug activity in the area, this does not surprise me at all.

  • Casey June 26, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Was this in St. George or Hurricane? News media is saying St. George – but only photos are Hurricane.

    • Mori Kessler June 26, 2013 at 9:58 pm

      The Washington County Sheriff’s Office, where the photos were taken, is located in Hurricane city limits. We typically list the location of where a photo is taken as a part of the photo caption.
      As for the drug bust, multiple arrests were made in the St. George area, as well as Hurricane. Also, part of the spice operation is alleged to have involved a warehouse in Hurricane.

      • Casey June 26, 2013 at 10:33 pm

        Thank you for the response. I look forward to learning more specifics as they are released!

      • Jody June 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm

        This is why all the patrol cars were in dixie springs yesterday at 7 am?

  • Money Talks June 27, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Coincidentally, the owner of a well-known smoke shop in Washington County was arrested yesterday for drug manufacturing/distribution. Yet, she was not charged by the DEA. Hmmm…..something stinks.

  • tom June 27, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Please fix this typo from the article…”Not fit her human consumption”.

  • Derek Leishman June 27, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Another good reason weed should be legal. People are killing themselves off these synthetic highs from spice, bath salts, etc. weed has never killed anyone!!!!!!!!!!!

  • lucky1of5 June 27, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    The owner of the smoke shop was not charged by the DEA due to the fact that she is now probably a “snitch” “rat” CI whatever you want to call it. She most likely got cut a deal inexchange for the other distributers it’s unfortunate since one of the distributers is my brothers ex girlfriend and she is a good friend of the family

    • jakd June 30, 2013 at 8:22 pm

      Well she belongs in jail cause she broke the law. She knew What she was selling and didn’t care if she was hurting anyone all she cared about was her bank account. I hope she rots in jail

  • Dr. Andrew White June 27, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    I see the name of one of my patients up there. I guess he won’t be keeping his next appointment with me.

  • mike June 27, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    I wonder why the local drug task doesn’t go after the s.o.b.s called ms13 in littelfielpd az. For the distribution of meth,grass,cocane, herion.are they to chicken…?
    Ed. ellipsis

  • Jason June 28, 2013 at 8:47 am

    I agree with you Mike! I have ran into old friends that are still living out there being plagued by the littlefield, beaver dam area by the people manufacturing those drugs. I’ve even heard the city is part of it. They need the money I suppose. I guess no matter what town you are in. There will be corruption.

    • jakd June 30, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      Oh Yeah lol out in beaver the main dealer is a cop! Beaver will be blown up one of these days cause all it is is a dump that is full of drugs and … The cops should be concentrating on all the heroin coming from Vegas and all the Meth instead of this stupid spice crap. The only reason they concentrated on spice is cause it was am easy bust and they didn’t have to get off their lazy asses and actually do police work. The cops in St George are a freaking joke!
      Ed. ellipsis

  • BookieMama June 28, 2013 at 10:23 am

    OMG! Really? I was shocked to see one of my clients on the WA Bookings after a co-worker told me about a raid next door to her house. Reading this article put it all together. So sad. They are facing 20 years. Was it really worth it? Spice? Bummer. Oh and as for the smoke shop chick, yeah, you know she gave it up to the DEA. When will people learn..there is no loyalty in this crap. Needless to say, Im glad they got caught, spice is NO BUENO AMIGOS.

  • jakd June 30, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    I hope the owner of sues pet castle gets screwed and all the charges stick and she does a lot of jail time cause she knew What she was selling and she didn’t care! All she cared about was her bank account. In fact I talked to her son and he saidthat they didn’t sell spice that they sold aroma therapy lol that if they knew people were smoking it then they wouldn’t sell it which is bull! I laughed at him and said dude be real! You know What people do with it and you know it’s hurting people and yet you still sell it. He was playing dumb but I could see it in his eyes he knew damn well it was wrong!

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