A Phoenix manufacturer of the synthetic drugs known as "bath salts" was found guilty of multiple federal drug charges, despite the fact that the chemical he was selling was not explicitly illegal.
Michael Lane, a 51-year-old Cave Creek resident, didn't take a plea agreement, like his local co-defendants did, after being arrested during a nationwide DEA bust on makers of "bath salts."
-DEA Agents Pretended to Be Hells Angels to Bust Phoenix Bath Salts Manufacturers
One of the convictions against Lane, conspiracy to manufacture and distribute a controlled substance analogue, carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Plea agreements involving several of his counterparts include stipulations that their prison sentences not be more than five years, give or take a couple of years. The five other people in this case are awaiting sentencing.
Almost exactly a year ago, 17 search warrants were reportedly served in Arizona, but only a handful of people were arrested -- all for manufacturing and selling the chemicals known as "bath salts." More were arrested across the country.
According to federal court documents, the men arrested in the Phoenix area were not dealing in chemicals that were explicitly illegal, but the feds were going after them with the Federal Analog Act, since the chemicals were "substantially similar" to drugs that are actually illegal.
Some of these guys thought what they were doing was legal, and some were even acting on advice from lawyers that they would be fine.
Even an affidavit submitted by a Phoenix DEA agent in the case explains that at least two of the 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."
Clinton Strunk, 42, of Mesa; Andrew Freeman, 25, of Tempe; Nicholas Zizzo, 25, of Phoenix; and Joshua Lowenstein, 25, also were arrested in the DEA's bust.
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."
"[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 quoted Zizzo as saying during the undercover operation. "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. The agents negotiated to buy chemicals totaling 133.2 kilograms, 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.
("Eight Ballz" is one of the more nationally recognizable brand names of "bath salts.")
Before that sale, Lane had worked with Zizzo and Lowenstein at their Phoenix business, "Consortium Distribution."
Lane helped them get a new recipe when the main chemical in "Eight Ballz" was made illegal, thus helping create the new product, "Eight Ballz Ultra-Premium Glass Cleaner."
Lane ended up starting his own manufacturing company in Tempe, called Dynamic Distribution. Some of his products were called "Amped Lady Bug Attractant Exuberance Powder," "White Water Rapid Lady Bug Attractant Exuberance Powder," and "Snowman Glass Cleaner."
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, they each "contained substances similar to controlled scheduled drugs."
Lane made about $8,000 a day, just selling to individual customers online.
Allow us to repeat that: Lane made about $8,000 a day selling this stuff on the Internet.
Freeman, one of the other men arrested, had apparently gone into business with Lane. Freeman had previously been confronted by TV-gotcha guy Chris Hansen for a Dateline episode, in which Hansen confronted people in the bath salts trade in Minnesota.
DEA agents watched Freeman and Lane drive large boxes from their warehouse and 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, was 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.
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In the DEA agent's affidavit, he noted 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.
Despite the belief by manufacturers and attorneys, it appears to be true -- or, at least, a jury thought it was true in this case.
DEA Special Agent in Charge Doug Coleman issued a statement saying the verdict in Lane's case "serves notice to those who are contemplating entering this emerging area of the illegal drug industry."