Nationwide takedown targets synthetic marijuana linked to 1 death, 221 hospitalizations in Colorado

DENVER - Nine people have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Denver as part of a nationwide crackdown on the trafficking of dangerous synthetic drugs.

Federal officials said Wednesday that the nine people are part of a ring that extended from Colorado to several other states. Some of those suspects also face state charges in Douglas County.

Synthetic marijuana, also called as spice or K2, has been linked to an illness that sent 221 people to emergency rooms in Colorado during a month-long period between August and September of 2013. It's also blamed for at least one death in the state -- a 15-year-old Aurora boy, Elyjah Jones, who died last August.

"This is dangerous stuff folks," said U.S. Attorney John Walsh. "The FDA does not have the ability to monitor what labs are doing in China.  The chemicals are constantly changing in their exact form, as as a result, the effect that they have on individuals is constantly changing."

Emergency room doctors at Denver Health tell 7NEWS they still see a constant stream of sickness cases related to spice.

Court records say synthetic marijuana can be three to 800 times stronger than real marijuana and cause "severe hallucinations," elevated heart rates and overdoses.

"Spice, bath salts, or whatever name this dangerous product goes by, is made up largely of synthetic chemicals imported from abroad without any safety oversight," Walsh said. "Spice is a form of foreign-laboratory-produced poison' and has sent many users to the hospital, or even to the morgue. Just because a gas station or convenience store is selling it doesn’t make it legal, let alone safe."

Last year's spice-overdose epidemic spurred an eight-month investigation by a Colorado task force of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to combat synthetic drugs.

-- 'Spice is poison' --

"Spice is poison and pain deceptively packaged as pleasure," 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said at an afternoon news briefing.  "If you see that a loved one has any of these packages, beg them not to consume it. The things that we have seen grow out of the use of this include things like people trying to cut their own head off and people tryng to set themselves on fire."

Brauchler, whose district includes Douglas and Arapahoe Counties, obtained a racketeering indictment against five people --many of the same defendants named in the federal indictment. A district grand jury charged the five defendants with violating state racketeering laws. They ranged from national spice suppliers, to a large scale distributor in the Denver Metro area, and the owner of a retail establishment in Aurora.

Suppliers often tweak the chemical composition of synthetic drugs in an attempt to evade federal prosecution. But Colorado law has prohibited the sale of any synthetic cannabinoids since 2011. Under state law, the defendants face a mandatory minimum of eight years in prison.

"Spice has hurt too many in our community and this coordinated effort by our different agencies demonstrates how seriously this drug is being treated at all levels of government," Brauchler said. "The danger of spice is clear and those who continue to distribute it to our children and community should take heed that law enforcement will be relentless in pursuing justice in these matters."

-- Made in China --

Federal investigators have determined that the synthetic marijuana chemical was made in China and then shipped to the United States.

The Colorado federal indictment alleges the chemical was imported to defendant Daniel Bernier in Florida. There, the chemical was sprayed on a green vegetable substance, packaged and shipped to both wholesalers and retailers in Colorado and throughout the United States. 

The indictment alleges the spice trafficking network was organized by Bernier and John Gilbert Bowen of Las Vegas.

They first operated under the name "The Really Cool Stuff Company."  But after spice health hazards drew negative news coverage, prosecutors say Bernier and Bowen allegedly changed the enterprise's name to "Heart of Asia." 

The indictment alleges that Creager Mercantile Company, a Denver wholesaler, was at the heart of the distribution operation.

On Wednesday morning, federal agents and police raided Creager Mercantile's warehouse at 4900 Acoma St. in Denver, near Interstate 25 and West 48th Avenue. The business sells a variety of products, including cigarettes, soda and candy, to local stores and markets. 

Creager Mercantile is run by defendant Donald Creager III, who is accused of distributing the synthetic pot to local corner stores and gas stations in Colorado. The indictment alleges that Creager also provided spice to defendant Orlando Martinez's business, O’s Pipes and Tobacco, a Denver smokeshop on East Colfax Avenue.

Prosecutors say the trafficking ring shipped spice to retail outlets in other states, including Avalon on 4th LLC, associated with defendant Kenneth Chastain in Wisconsin; Main Stop, Inc., associated with defendant Altaf Hussain in Illinois; and "Tobacco Hut," associated with defendants Peter Karfias and Stephanie Christensen in Nebraska.

All nine indicted defendants were arrested on Wednesday,

They face charges ranging from violating the Controlled Substances Act to conspiracy to defraud the United States by mislabeling spice products and making false statements in connection with the proper use of the products.

-- Affidavit: Aurora store raking in $60,000 a month --

Court records obtained by 7NEWS show the staggering amount of money mom-and-pop stores are making selling spice.

A clerk at Star Mart in Aurora told a police informant covertly recording the conversation that, every month, the convenience store was selling 3,000 packets of spice at $20 per packet -- or a total monthly haul of about $60,000, according to a search warrant affidavit.

Aurora police and federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents raided the store at 1550 N. Sable Blvd. in January, and the DEA seized 1,656 packets of suspected spice and a "large amount of US currency," the affidavit said.

Investigators also seized a store ledger showing that in just a two-day period -- Jan. 16-17 -- the store raked in $12,305 by selling 2,030 packets of spice with brand names like "Scooby," "Diablo," and "Bling Bling Monkey." Police also seized store surveillance camera video which investigators believe shows the store owner and an employee selling spice to customers.

During the Wednesday roundup, police arrested Star Mart owner, 70-year-old Bok Joong Kim, and a store clerk, 49-year-old Hoe Yang Park, on warrants charging each suspect with one count of felony possession of synthetic cannabinoids with intent to sell or distribute, court records state. Kim and Park appeared in Adams County Court where bond for reach man was set at $5,000.


-- State AG Sues Denver Tobacco Shop Owner--

Meanwhile, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers on Wednesday announced the filing of a separate civil lawsuit against Orlando Martinez, owner of O’s Pipe and Tobacco. Martinez is accused of violating the Colorado Consumer Protection Act by failing to disclose to consumers that their spice products were harmful and potentially illegal.

During one month in the fall of 2013, O's Pipe and Tobacco made $221,000, Suthers said, and investigators believe most of that money came from selling synthetic marijuana.

This is the third spice lawsuit filed by the Colorado Attorney General, who previously sued Tobacco King in Longmont and Paymon’s in Aurora.

"Every other store in Colorado that offers spice products for sale is on notice that we will not tolerate the sale of this dangerous drug," Suthers warned.

-- Nationwide takedown of spice rings --

The Colorado raids and arrests are part of a nationwide takedown of spice rings by DEA agents and local police. Authorities have arrested more than 150 people and seized more than $20 million in cash and assets.

Law enforcement officers in 29 states began serving search and arrest warrants at homes, warehouses and smoke shops early Wednesday.

"In addition to targeting retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers, many of these investigations continued to uncover the massive flow of drug-related proceeds to countries in the Middle East, including Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and as well as other countries,"  a news release from the DEA said.

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