Crime & Courts

Gaffney couple arrested in synthetic drug investigation

Drug Enforcement Administration agents hefted cumbersome plastic evidence bags stuffed with cash, some in neatly stacked $100 bundles, and hundreds of silver packets of “House Blend” in a number of innocuous sounding varieties — apple, peach, banana, fruit punch, cherry lime, Razz Berry, Casey Jones and Purple Haze — on a table as they prepared for a press conference.

The cash and the little silver packets were the fruits, so to speak, of search warrants and arrests made in Cherokee and Cleveland counties Wednesday, as part of a national operation and crackdown on designer drugs.

On each of the small silver packets was a label with a skull, designating the substance inside as less innocent than candy or flavored tobacco. The agents explained that the packets contained synthetic marijuana.

During a press conference in Greenville Tuesday, officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and federal bureaus of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security announced results of the nationwide operation, called Project Synergy, to stem the local supply of synthetic marijuana and another type of designer drug commonly known as “bath salts.”

Steven David Petty, 42, and his wife, Sirena Petty, 39, both of Gaffney, were arrested Wednesday morning and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of a schedule I controlled substance, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said.

Jessica Owen Weast, 27, of Ellenboro, N.C., a former employee of the Pettys, was arrested in North Carolina on Wednesday morning and faces the same charges, Nettles said.

Carousel Music in Gaffney and Smokers Edge in Shelby, N.C., were included in the indictment, which also contained a forfeiture allegation that notifies the defendants of a potential money judgment of $1 million, Nettles said. Each defendant faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

During Wednesday’s press conference, agents said they searched the Pettys’ home in Gaffney as well as both businesses on Wednesday morning. More than $600,000 also was seized from nine bank accounts associated with the Pettys, and agents reported finding more than $800,000 in cash from the couple’s home. About 20 kilograms of designer drugs, the “House Blend,” were seized during the searches in Gaffney, said Thomas Nuse, DEA special agent in charge for South Carolina.

The investigation, begun in 2012, included several purchases by undercover agents at Smokers Edge of the controlled substances commonly referred to as K2, Spice, bath salts, incense or plant food.

Lt. Rodney Bright of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office took time during the press conference to thank state and federal agents for their assistance.

“Cherokee County is going to be a lot cleaner place now,” Bright said.

Nuse explained during the press conference that these designer drugs are intentionally mislabeled to skirt the law. The drugs are commonly produced in “Mom and Pop” type labs and used by young people in their teens and 20s.

“There is no rhyme or reason on how they make these drugs,” Nuse said.

The rise in popularity of the drugs led to 11,400 emergency room visits by users in 2010, Nuse said. By 2012, that number rose to about 28,000.

In late 2011, Spartanburg County deputies responded to a number of incidents in which someone had ingested bath salts and hallucinated or otherwise exhibited bizarre behavior. At least a couple of incidents involved the person under the influence seeing things that weren’t there, and shooting at them.

Drug makers often altered the chemical makeup of a substance slightly so that it can skirt a legislative ban, DEA officials said.

“It’s a never ending battle,” Nuse said.

For instance, as South Carolina and other states, along with the federal government began looking at controlling the chemicals used in bath salts and synthetic pot, Spartanburg County deputies found some stores selling a new substance labeled as “glass cleaner” and after chemical testing, it was determined that it was a new version of bath salts.

“There’s absolutely no oversight in what’s going into these young people’s bodies,” Nettles said.

According to Anderson County authorities, synthetic marijuana was to blame for the death of a 19-year-old Anderson University basketball player, who collapsed during practice in October 2011 and died a few days later.

A single packet of “House Blend” like those confiscated in Gaffney Wednesday can be worth as much as $20 to $30, according to the DEA, and a single kilogram can be worth $200,000 to $250,000, so it is tempting for store owners to ignore laws on designer drugs.

“They think they’re playing cute with the law,” Nettles said. The goal of operations like Project Synergy is to dry up the supply, he added.

The Upstate investigation was part of a larger nationwide crackdown by federal and local law enforcement agencies spanning 33 states and aimed at dealing with synthetic drug trafficking, authorities said.

As part of the largest such operation to date, the DEA has executed more than 300 search warrants and more than 150 arrest warrants in recent weeks, Nuse said.

Agents also targeted suspects in Charleston in the operation. On May 21, agents searched five stores in Charleston – Exchange Factor, Factor Five, El Cheapo Convenience Store, Smoke Signals and Up in Smoke – and a home used to store synthetic marijuana, authorities said.

Agents seized business accounts they say were used to launder money from the sales of designer drugs in the Charleston area. A total of 72 kilograms of synthetic marijuana, 45 grams of heroin and five weapons were confiscated in the Charleston operation. Three arrests were made and $162,334 in cash and $689,104 from bank accounts, Nettles said.The investigation is ongoing, according to authorities, and could last months or even years.