Breaking Bad: Digital Drug Sales, Analog Drug Deaths

The feds and a prosecutor say a Houston company selling synthetic drugs on the Internet is responsible for the deaths of teenagers in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Charles Carlton was in Katy 1,400 miles away when a 17-year-old kid named Elijah started foaming at the mouth from the drugs Carlton had sold online.

In June 2012, Elijah Stai and his friend Adam Budge were in Budge's home in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, mixing a white powder called 25-I-NBOME into chocolate, having no idea what the hell they were doing. Budge didn't know what the powder was; it was something that had caught his eye after he broke into his weed dealer's apartment and found a box containing a few sweetener-sized packets of the stuff. It would cost Budge his freedom and Stai his life. Carlton, a 28-year-old father of two, wouldn't know it for a few more months, but it would overturn his life as well.

After Budge shared the special chocolate with Stai, the two went to McDonald's, then returned to the Budge home. That's when, according to media reports, Stai freaked. He shook and growled and banged his head against the ground. Budge figured his friend was just having a bad trip. Budge's father was home at the time and, incredibly, deferred to his son's unsound judgment. But later that morning, after Stai stopped breathing, Budge's father called 911. At the hospital, Stai was placed on life support. Three days later, his parents signed the papers to pull the plug.

Christian Bjerk, 18, of North Dakota, died after ingesting drugs originally purchased from Motion Research.
Christian Bjerk, 18, of North Dakota, died after ingesting drugs originally purchased from Motion Research.
Charles Carlton appears to have written under the name "Sandman" about his company's drugs on online forums.
Charles Carlton appears to have written under the name "Sandman" about his company's drugs on online forums.

Stai was the region's second casualty of Carlton's 25-I that week, according to federal prosecutors. An 18-year-old named Wesley Sweeney bought some of the drug from Budge and, two nights before Stai died, laid it out in long lines at a house party in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Sweeney and his friend 18-year-old Christian Bjerk tried some. Bjerk's autopsy would indicate that he hadn't inhaled any of the powder — he may have dabbed some on his fingertips. It was enough to cause a bad reaction. Later that night, he walked outside and died face-down on the ground. His buddy Sweeney was found in a park, naked, by cops, and taken to the hospital and later to court. His next stop will be prison.

By August 2012, an aggressive federal prosecutor in North Dakota named Chris Myers had put together a conspiracy case tying the deaths in North Dakota — and other deaths and overdoses in Minnesota — to Houston. According to an indictment, Carlton and his company's IT guy, John Polinski, bought "research chemicals" — synthetic drugs — from suppliers in China, Europe, Canada and elsewhere and sold them online.

Ever since the Federal Analog Act became law in 1986, dealers of analog drugs — substances that bear chemical makeups substantially similar to those of old favorites like meth, cocaine and LSD — have sidestepped prosecution by selling drugs whose molecular construction has been tweaked enough to create something technically new. But thanks to legislation passed in the past two years in which more analogs have been added, state and federal law enforcement agencies have been better equipped to tackle dealers like Carlton. In theory, anyway.

This far-flung conspiracy case will be one of the first to test the application of the Federal Analog Act to substances like 25-I, which was not a scheduled drug (i.e., one regulated by the federal government) at the time Carlton sold it but might be considered an analog to something called 2C-I, which has been listed as a controlled substance since 1995. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 2C-I "can be treated on a case-by-case basis as if it were a schedule I controlled substance, if it is distributed with the intention for human consumption."

However, this was not a DEA case. It belonged to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — specifically, Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The division's agents look into everything from human rights violations to arms and narcotics trafficking. Part of the division's mission, according to its Web site, is to investigate "terrorist and other criminal organizations" and combat "worldwide criminal enterprises who seek to exploit America's legitimate trade, travel and financial systems."

Carlton was now in the big leagues. In the eyes of the federal government, he wasn't just selling molecularly jerry-rigged meth to a bunch of idiots. He was a threat to national security.
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According to discussions on some online forums, Carlton's company, Motion Research, was one of the more reputable vendors of drugs euphemistically referred to by users as research chemicals.

They are so called because they were originally created in labs by legitimate scientists and tested for medicinal purposes. So there's a body of literature for what Kay McClain of the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences calls "rogue chemists" to play with. McClain, a forensic chemist, was part of the institute's team of experts who helped draw up Texas's legislation against such chemicals. The idea behind the Texas law was to craft something broad enough to address the whole glut of research chemicals, in contrast to the federal approach of listing each individual drug as it popped up.

"They can sell these things on the Internet...as something besides a drug," McClain says. "They'll say that it's an ant killer; they'll say that it's something to clean with...and they're selling it that way, so they're getting around the law that way."

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