Breaking Bad: Digital Drug Sales, Analog Drug Deaths
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.
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.
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."
She adds, "We're all sitting around the whole country waiting to see how they try a case and how they go after it, because a lot of the prosecutors...this is new to everyone. It's new to the prosecutors, it's new to the laboratory personnel that are testing these drugs. Even as we speak, they're re-looking at the Texas laws, because they're having issues knowing how to try these types of cases."
They're a chatty bunch, these amateur researchers. Although they of course don't use their real names online, most of them feel compelled to employ the term "research chemicals" or similarly benign labels like "plant fertilizer," and some will describe the drugs' potency in terms of how their "plants" have reacted. Some commenters will say they look forward to "conducting research." They're like high-schoolers who've created a decidedly unclever code for weed, one that apparently gives them no end of pleasure.
In some online forums, the users seem to consider themselves members of an exclusive club, and they love chatting about the chemical components of the crap they consume, about how stupid the media is for always misreporting something that some kid OD'd on as 2,5-Dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine when it was actually N-(2-methoxybenzyl)-4-iodo-2,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine. Their superior grasp of chemistry allows many of them to know for certain that it's never the substance alone that kills people, it's that some greenhorn hasn't done his homework, which in turn fuels a media frenzy and hollow political outrage. The story you are reading will no doubt be parsed to shreds on these forums faster than you can say "4-hydroxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine."
However, they're often right, and the Carlton prosecution is a good example: It appears that none of the regular commenters on the forums reviewed by the Houston Press would snort a bag of mystery powder or knowingly mix 25-I into chocolate and chomp it like a Snickers. There are a lot of consumers, but not so many reported deaths.
Even more confusing, some of the substances Carlton is charged with selling were legal in many states at the time — as long as they were not used for human consumption or sold with the knowledge that buyers were using them to get high.
The wiggle room granted by this disclaimer, and the fact that a lot of substances hadn't yet been added to the list of controlled substances, appear to have led Carlton and his business partner, Harry "Scootdog" Mickelis, to launch Motion Research as a legitimate company. They filed articles of incorporation with the Texas Secretary of State in late 2010, moved into an office building and set up shop. Adding to this patina of legitimacy, Motion Research's drugs were sold with material safety data sheets explicitly stating that the products were "not for human use," and customers were required to fill out a registration form explaining their purchases' intended use. The site's terms-and-conditions page stated, "By purchasing any material from Motion Research Co you acknowledge that you work for or own a research company, are a legitimate researcher with a proper laboratory facility and are skilled in the art of handling hazardous materials."
Prior to launching Motion Research, Carlton worked at a company that repaired X-ray machines and was on probation. He had received deferred adjudication after pleading guilty to a charge of attempted deadly conduct. Court records show that he pulled a knife on a 21-year-old man in 2009 but did not actually stab him. Although the details aren't included in the court records, the would-be victim in the case told the Press that the incident occurred at a McDonald's; Carlton, appearing out of sorts, was a customer who reportedly got into an argument with the manager; when the man intervened, Carlton brandished a knife. Ultimately, Carlton was released from probation two years early, and, per the terms of his deferred adjudication, the charge was dismissed.
Carlton's business partner, 39-year-old Mickelis — who preferred to be called by his middle name, George — was a man with no obvious source of income. He had four minor drug-possession charges on his record, two of which were dismissed and two of which resulted respectively in probation and a 40-day stint in Harris County Jail. In a 2007 charge for his second DWI, his employment was listed as part-time jobs at a courier service and an IT-consulting firm.
Although Mickelis co-founded the company that prosecutors say sold deadly drugs to teenagers, his name doesn't appear in court records for this case. That's because, it seems, he cooperated with federal agents.
While his business partner and IT guy waited to post bond in jail, Mickelis put pictures on Facebook of himself and his buddies enjoying themselves at a casino. Sources say he nearly cleaned out the company's bank account before calling his lawyer and cooperating with federal agents, who should have been able to make a slam-dunk case without such assistance in the first place.
Mickelis seems to illustrate a very important lesson in the war against analog drugs: If you drop a dime on your fellow drug dealers — after you've made a handsome profit — you are no longer considered a threat to national security.
The real threat, on paper anyway, is Carlton and 25-year-old Polinski, who took care of Motion Research's IT needs. At the time Polinski accepted the job offer, according to his girlfriend, Derien Mattingly, he was living out of Mattingly's car. He had served four days for a 2009 theft conviction and five days in 2011 after pleading no contest to possession of muscle relaxers for which he had no prescription.
Over the previous few years, Polinski had worked a series of mostly retail jobs, but after a recent layoff, he was unable to contribute his share of the rent, and he and Mattingly were evicted. This led to a breakup. Mattingly moved in with her mother, and, not wanting to put Polinski out on the street, she let him borrow her car so he could look for work and have a place to sleep. They have since reconciled.
"John's pretty much been on his own since he was 16 — family-wise, at least," Mattingly says. "He's got...really strong friends and adopted family."
Mattingly says Polinski met Carlton through a mutual acquaintance, and Polinski jumped at the chance to get a job. She says Carlton let him crash on his couch until he found a place of his own.
Polinski's ex-wife, Bonnie Hensel — with whom he remains on good terms — echoed Mattingly's explanation of how Polinski came to work for Motion Research in the first place. Hensel wrote in an e-mail, "Charles Carlton needed some work done on his company's Web site and offered John the job. John was excited to be offered a job doing what he really wanted to do, and saw it as a good opportunity to gain experience since he doesn't have much official training in Web design. He then started working for [Motion Research]. The company was a legitimately operating LLC based out of an office building in Houston, TX...I know he was receiving a weekly salary with a real paycheck, with taxes taken out and everything. I don't see how anyone could allege that he was receiving profits from any kind of drug money or taking part in some kind of illegal operation, at least that he could reasonably discern."
She adds: "I know that John had no idea about any kind of drugs, or could suspect the company was involved in anything illegal, because I don't think he would have knowingly took such a risk with something he was counting on as a stepping stone to a bigger career. The only things he always talked about regarding work was the fact he was learning a lot of new Web design skills and would hopefully get a reference for a better paying job. He was just trying to further his career in Web design; he didn't own any part of the company, and the company was started long before he was hired to work on their site. Now he is being charged with a crime that he had absolutely nothing to do with...he is being held responsible for the gross negligence of these people across the country who he's never even met."
As it turns out, Polinski would have been better off living out of his girlfriend's car.
For starters, whether Polinski knew it or not, his boss appears to have been openly discussing the recreational use of research chemicals on a forum called LegalHighGuides.com, which flies in the face of Motion Research's claim that the substances were not to be used for human consumption. This implicated both Polinski and Mickelis.
On that forum, a representative of Motion Research who called himself "Sandman" quickly built up the company's reputation as a vendor with integrity that sold quality products at reasonable prices. It's unclear whether Mickelis and Polinski knew "Sandman" was posting on LegalHighGuides.com. Either way, Sandman wasn't doing them any favors.
Unlike Mickelis and Polinski, but like Carlton, Sandman was married. This fact came up under troubling circumstances approximately one month before Carlton was released from his probation. Sandman's post suggested that his wife was less than pleased with his business endeavors.
"MY WIFE HAS COMPLETELY DESTROYED MY OFFICE," he wrote. "I'd take some pictures to prove it to you guys but she broke my camera. She also destroyed a laptop, my copy/[scanner]/printer, my desktop, two monitors, my scales, paper shredder and about half of my inventory. THANK GOD she did NOT find the 4-AcO-DMT!! I'm about to kill her. Please pray for me to have some strength in these hard times."
Sandman was smart enough, later on, to delete all of his original posts on LegalHighGuides.com, but he had no control over other members pasting those comments into their own.
Cached screenshots for Motion Research show that the site was closed by early October.
"Our offices were recently compromised by Federal authorities," the home page said. "We have thoroughly dedicated our company to legal compliance. However, circumstances arise where this dedication can be overlooked, regardless of that fact. With that being said, we feel that the liability which the operation of this endevour demands is too high a liability for us to keep our business in Motion [sic]."
The deaths in North Dakota and Minnesota demanded the investigative efforts not just of state authorities, but of Homeland Security.
And while state investigators traced the drugs back to a Grand Forks, North Dakota, drug dealer and self-styled "hobby chemist" named Andrew Spofford, the U.S. Attorney's Office received a call from Houston: Motion Research co-founder Harry Mickelis wanted to talk.
That's what Homeland Security agent Jim Grube testified in Carlton's December 2012 detention hearing. Of course, Mickelis was never mentioned by name — nor has his name been reported in the media . It's one of the perks of being a snitch. (Although Mickelis apparently wanted to talk to authorities, he didn't want to talk to the Press; he didn't respond to requests for comment sent via Facebook, and he removed his profile shortly after we contacted him.)
Among the spectators at the December hearing was a woman with a strong interest in Polinski's fate: his girlfriend, Mattingly.
Mattingly saw Polinski as a guy who might have made a dumb decision but one borne of financial desperation and whose role in the company was purely technical. She wondered how Polinski could face life behind bars when one of the men who had actually started the company, Mickelis, got to walk.
That's why Mattingly bristled when she heard Grube mention this "cooperator."
"Anyone in the room that knew anything about Motion, really, could figure it out," she says. "And it, God, took everything in me to bite my tongue..."
According to Grube, after the "cooperator" heard about the deaths and the arrest of Spofford, he went through Motion's records and discovered that Spofford had been a customer. This spooked him so much that he removed four hard drives from the office "in an effort to preserve evidence" and called his attorney. (Representatives of both Homeland Security's Houston office and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fargo, North Dakota, declined to comment for this story.)
Grube testified that Spofford subsequently admitted to being a customer. Now they had two people pointing to Motion Research. In August 2012, agents executed search warrants at Carlton's Katy home, Motion Research's office and a UPS store post office box linked to the company.
At the Motion Research office, Grube testified, agents found drugs, international wire transfer records, invoices and a black briefcase containing a journal kept by Carlton that detailed his various experiences with a chemical called 4-ACODMT.
To Mattingly, it seemed, investigators were suggesting that Polinski and Carlton knew Spofford personally. According to Mattingly, however, the opposite was true. The first time they heard of the deaths in North Dakota and Minnesota, she says, was on a TV news program.
"They were devastated that it was linked to their product and that it was so grossly misused," she says. "When it comes down to it, they didn't have any way of knowing — the whole process was taken out of their hands the moment that product left the door."
It was shortly thereafter, Mattingly says, that "George [Mickelis] started acting differently. Started to get really flaky. Started to accuse Charles of doing business behind their backs...[He] kept changing phone numbers, kept changing his phones — it was really hard to get ahold of him."
For Debbie Bjerk, though, whose son had overdosed on drugs that came from Motion Research, Polinski was just as culpable as Carlton or the kid who provided the drugs at the party her son attended the night he died.
Even though the hit that killed her son Christian came from a batch stolen from the drug dealer's house, Bjerk says, "Without that company in Houston, my son would be alive today."
When asked how she felt about the company's co-founder escaping criminal charges in her son's death, she says, "I think anybody in that company that certainly knew what was going on and didn't...and went along with it and did nothing, they'll have to answer to their maker some day for their role in this. They should all be charged if they willingly did this and they knew that it was to be used for consumption of drugs."
Christian Bjerk's death has turned his mother into something of a crusader. She testified before her state's legislators about the need for a broader law encompassing all analogs. Such drugs are especially dangerous, she says, because they're described online as "synthetic," luring teens and young adults into a false sense of security — a belief that somehow the substances are safer than their "pure" counterparts. To her, nothing could be further from the truth.
"There are so many different strengths; there's never been any testing done on humans with these drugs," she says. "It's like playing Russian roulette."
Carlton and Polinski are facing the possibility of life in prison. They also owe the government $385,000 — the amount prosecutors say Motion Research cleared in its lifetime.
Mickelis, for now, is scot-free. Before he left Carlton and Polinski holding the bag, Mattingly says, he nearly cleaned out the company's account. Grube, the Homeland Security agent, testified that Motion Research had only a few thousand when it was raided.
However, the prosecution of 13 people in the Motion Research case has done absolutely nothing to curb the online sale of analogs. It hasn't even curbed the exchange of Motion Research's inventory, which some former customers are shilling online. In a February post on LegalHighGuides.com, a user was looking to unload approximately 440 mg of a drug called DALT that he claims he purchased from Motion Research. Last September, on another site, someone calling himself Eric the Man was also looking to sell his cache of Motion Research product, which he kept "refrigerated to make sure it didn't degrade."
Such shady deals are precisely why some consumers of analog drugs want them legalized and regulated. At least that's how the founder of chemsrus.com feels.
Calling himself Midas WS, the founder intends his online forum to be a "harm-reduction Web site." And unlike the moderators of some other sites, Midas was eager to answer the Press's questions about the Motion Research case and research chemicals in general.
"Unsound laws promote unsound people to run unscrupulous businesses," he writes. "Most of the new designer drugs are provided with very little information about dosage, route of administration, effects, etc., and this is where accidents and overdoses can and do happen. These legal substances are sold labeled as 'not for human consumption,' so no information can be given regarding any of this at the point of sale."
Moreover, "Very little is done to actually keep people safe. Instead, measures are made to keep people on the right side of the law, with little regard for their health."
In conclusion, he writes, "We are living in an age where information can be easily accessible, but if no information is tolerated and there are skewed laws in place that allow for no control other than putting a silly 'not for human consumption' label on products, tragedies such as the one in the 'Motion Research' case will continue to happen."
With the proliferation of online vendors, some of whom have live-chat capabilities on their sites to make buying analogs even easier, it seems Midas has a point.
In an online chat with a representative of one vendor, we wrote, "I'm interested in 25i. But I'm also a little nervous, since I'm in Texas and I was just reading about a bunch of people being busted for buying stuff from people who bought stuff off another Web site. Like, these people were so far removed from the original purchase, but they still got in trouble. So I guess I'm a little wary. Does that make sense?"
Our helpful customer service rep assured us, "You don't have to worry for anything."
The product, he wrote, would be coming from their distribution center in Richmond, Virginia, but our Western Union payment would go to their "branch in Turkey." The minimum purchase order would be 25 grams for $350.
Later we called the company on the phone and got the same rep. We again expressed our concern over the Motion Research bust, but again he assured us, "We do ship every day to Texas...to Houston, to Austin, to Dallas," and that it was "no problem." (We didn't order the stuff.)
Conceivably, Polinski and Carlton — but not the company's co-founder — could be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. But the product they sold, it seems, isn't going away.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.