More than 80 law enforcement officers from several state and local agencies made 11 arrests after a seven-month undercover investigation into manufacture and sale of synthetic marijuana across several Florida counties.
The investigation, initially launched by the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, quickly expanded when it was later discovered that the targeted crime organization was tied to manufacturing and distribution of synthetic marijuana, also known as Spice, at convenience stores across the state.
Authorities say it involved over 320 pounds of raw product, with 50 pounds ready for packaging. There were over 160,000 packets the group intended for distribution and over 1,400 packets were ready for sale.
Street value of the product was estimated at more than $400,000. Over $70,000 in cash was seized.
They said the same group was involved in the sale of drug paraphernalia used in the ingesting of these products, in Florida, as far south as Miami.
Investigators said they executed the search warrants at labs in Flagler and St. Johns counties, which they said were used for the manufacturing of the synthetic marijuana. Investigators also conducted searches of several private homes and storage units in both counties where the product was being stored for later distribution.
Investigators said they have charged five people with violating state racketeering laws, sale of controlled substances, delivery of drug paraphernalia, leasing and maintaining property used in the manufacturing of controlled substances as well as tobacco tax evasion. Conviction on these charges could result in sentences of up to 60 years in prison.
Those arrested included Alexia Perez, 48, of Jacksonville; John Abdal, 38, Kellie Barnett, 42, Mark Dickinson, 50, Robert Nicholson, 23, Ajay Patel, 37, Sheetal Patel, 39, and Martha Welzant, 51, of St. Augustine; and Edward Mims, 55, of St. Johns.
Many of those arrested were owners or managers of convenience stores who investigators said were in possession of and sold "spice."
Charges ranged from sale and possession of a controlled substance to violation of state racketeering laws.
The investigation, named Operation Bad Dreamer, involved members of the ABT, the North Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program, the Tri-County Narcotics Task Force comprised of investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam County sheriff's offices, Palatka and St. Augustine police departments, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency and U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The operation was supported by members of the Flagler and St. Johns County Sheriff's Office SWAT teams and the St. Johns County Clandestine Lab Enforcement team.
Investigators said they worked closely with the Statewide Prosecutor's Office and the Office of State Attorney R.J. Larizza of the Seventh Judicial Circuit throughout the investigation in securing both search and arrest warrants.
"The synthetic compounds are marketed to our youth and young adults," said Flagler County Sheriff James Manfre. "They become the target of drug dealers who intentionally market these compounds through slick and gimmicky packaging. Those young people who unwittingly experiment with these types of products often find themselves ending up in hospital emergency rooms across the country. It is essential that we do everything possible to keep people from using these illegal substances and that we continue to actively pursue anyone responsible for manufacturing or selling these dangerous synthetic compounds."
"Putting profit over our children, these drug dealers are hurting our communities," said Dennis Bustle, FDLE Jacksonville Regional Operations Center special agent in charge. "Law enforcement will continue to aggressively pursue both the manufacturers of synthetic drugs and those who sell them. We will do everything in our power to ensure these drug dealers pay a high price for selling these drugs."
Sheriff David Shoar, of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office added, "There is an obvious increase in the use of these types of drugs. As law enforcement continues to address this type of criminal activity, there has been an identifiable increase in the types of abnormal behavior and violence associated with the use of synthetic drugs to include bath salts."