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.
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.
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.
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.
- Pending spice prosecution, cloud over smoke shop owners fighting business license revocation, April 5, 2013
- Task force drug bust at Mike’s Smoke Shop, Jan. 11, 2013
- Of ‘Spice’ and Men: Shall we fix ourselves or others?, April 24, 2012
- Spice and bath salts operations tied to smoke shops; Local task force takes them down, April 19, 2012
- County drug task force serves multiple warrants for spice, April 18, 2012
- Tooele Woman Arrested, Three Teens Cited for Possession, May 31, 2011
- Teen Taken to Hospital after Overdosing on Spice, April 19, 2011
- ‘Spice’ Topic of City, Police Discussion Tonight, March 8, 2011
- City to Hold Free Training on the Dangers of Spice, Feb. 22, 2011
- Hatch lauds DEA decision to make synthetic marijuana illegal, Nov. 25, 2010
- DEA using emergency scheduling to control synthetic marijuana, Nov. 24, 2010
- Two arrested for smoking ‘spice’, Nov. 17, 2010
- Hatch asks DEA to make ‘Spice’ illegal, Nov. 11, 2010
- Officers arrest male on spice charges, Oct. 23, 2010
- ‘Spice’ banned in Hurricane, Oct. 8, 2010
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