The Drug Enforcement Administration's nationwide "synthetic drug takedown" led to the arrest of five Valley men this week.
Two of the men were uncovered by DEA sources, two were busted by DEA agents pretending to be members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, and the fifth man was caught because NBC's Chris Hansen had already caught him before.
Seventeen search warrants were reportedly served in Arizona, but the U.S. Attorney's Office says just five people in the Phoenix area have been arrested -- all for manufacturing and selling the chemicals known as "bath salts."
According to federal court documents, the five men were not dealing in chemicals that are explicitly illegal, but the feds are going after them with the Federal Analog Act, since the chemicals are "substantially similar" to drugs that are actually illegal.
Even an affidavit submitted by a Phoenix DEA agent in the case explains that at least two of the five men "...discussed, in substance and among other things, the fact that their distribution of the various products is purportedly legal, that they do not allegedly ship or send such products to states where they believe their products to be illegal, and that they have purported to have received legal counsel and advice indicating that their activities are legal."
Too bad. Clinton Strunk, 42, of Mesa; Michael Lane, 51, of Cave Creek; Andrew Freeman, 25, of Tempe; Nicholas Zizzo, 25, of Phoenix; and Joshua Lowenstein, 25, of Phoenix could each spend years behind bars.
According to the DEA agent's affidavit, the agency started investigating an unidentified person for drug trafficking through a New Hampshire port at some point in 2011.
The two DEA agents posing as Hells Angels gangsters had numerous meetings with this person, who eventually revealed he was a partner in a Phoenix bath salts operation with Zizzo, manufacturing a product called "Eight Ballz."
This story was confirmed by another person, according to the affidavit, and both of the unnamed partners agreed to go into business with the fake Angels, under the guise that they were going to help sell it under the Angels' protection at New Hampshire's Loconia Motorcycle Week -- which just happened last month.
Arizona Corporation Commission documents list only Zizzo and an accountant on filing documents for the company, Consortium Distribution LLC.
The investigation then shifted to Phoenix, where the DEA agents -- still going along with the Hells Angels plot -- were introduced to Zizzo and Lowenstein.
According to the feds, Lowenstein agreed to ship 20 kilograms to New Hampshire for the biker rally.
Again, the DEA agent's affidavit says Lowenstein believed they were "utilizing chemicals or substances that weren't scheduled or analogues." In other words, he believed what he was doing was legal.
The affidavit also says Lowenstein was describing the effects of the chemicals on the human mind, so the DEA makes it sound like that throws the "not for human consumption" argument out the window.
When the agents met up with Zizzo, he said essentially the same things.
"[E]veryone who works for me, every day they show up to work they put themselves on the line, cause any day the government, the DEA, could come in, they could arrest every single one of us, they can drag us out, put us in a cell, and hold us there," the feds quote Zizzo as saying. "God knows we aren't doing a damn thing illegal."
The agents posing as Hells Angels continued to follow Zizzo and Lowenstein around, meeting with them, trying to make deals with them, and watching what they do.
On July 12, they allegedly completed the deal.
The agents negotiated to buy chemicals totaling 133.2 kilograms of chemicals, and sold the recipe for "Eight Ballz Ultra-Premium Glass Cleaner -- for which the "Hells Angels" would have to pay royalties to Zizzo and Lowenstein for their sales.
In another Phoenix-area case, Andrew Freeman had already been busted by NBC's Chris Hansen -- and not on the pedophile-busting show.
Yep, the TV gotcha-guy already got Freeman during an NBC show on bath salts.
The DEA affidavit claims agents saw Freeman and Michael Lane -- who owns a Tempe company called Dynamic Distribution -- drive large boxes from their warehouse and drive it to drop them off at a FedEx location.
The DEA got a search warrant for those boxes, and they were filled with bath salts of a very similar mixture (same active ingredient) to Zizzo and Lowenstein's.
Clinton Strunk, the other man arrested, is accused of being somewhat of a middle-man between manufactures and retailers of bath salts.
While the DEA's "confidential sources" were carrying audio recorders with them during some of Strunk's deals, he pretty much explained how he operates his business and makes money, as described in the federal court documents.
Strunk was allegedly a buyer of Dynamic Distribution's products.
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In the DEA agent's affidavit, he notes yet again that the "DEA has opined" the main chemical in all the bath salts in these arrests, alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, is an analog of a controlled substance.
The five men, if convicted, face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, a $1 million fine, or both.