BANGOR, Maine — The investigation into the state’s biggest synthetic bath salts bust, which happened in Hermon two weeks ago and resulted in the seizure of 8 pounds of the drug and the arrest of four people, led to a second major seizure of the substance in Texas, investigators said Thursday.
The Hermon bust took $563,000 worth of the dangerous drug off the streets, Darrell Crandall, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Division II commander, said at a news conference held at the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office. Investigators learned one of the suspects in the Hermon arrest had mailed himself a second package of bath salts, with a street value of more than $700,000, to Houston, which was later seized by Texas authorities, Crandall said.
The drug sells for around $150 a gram, he said.
Arthur Coy, 49, his girlfriend, Elizabeth Fuentes, 29, both of Houston; Leonard Wells, 53, of Hermon and Greenbush; and Stephen Warren, 29, of Corinth were found by two Penobscot County deputies on Jan. 18 divvying up the 8 pounds of bath salts at a home owned by Wells at 6 New Boston Road in Hermon.
“I received some information through another agency” that something illegal may be happening at Wells’ home, Deputy Bobbie Pelletier said Thursday of the bust, adding that he could not provide any specifics because of the ongoing investigation.
Pelletier, who was accompanied by now Detective Andrew Whitehouse, didn’t just stumble across the drugs, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said.
“It’s a case that didn’t happen by accident,” the sheriff said. “I would call it very, very good police work.”
Ross said Pelletier got the tip, did his own investigation and then waited until he knew a big shipment of bath salts had arrived from Asia before he decided to do a bail check on Wells, who was arrested on a charge of bath salts possession in Brewer earlier in the month and was released on bail with search conditions.
When the officer saw the massive amount of bath salts spread across a table covered in wax paper with residue of the white powdery drug all over it, digital scales and mixing bowls, he said he was in shock.
“It was just a large quantity and was something I was not used to seeing,” Pelletier said.
Investigators learned that Coy had mailed himself a package to the UPS Store in Houston, and the Maine authorities contacted the Texas Department of Public Safety.
A search warrant enabled Texas authorities to seize 10 pounds of bath salts the week after the Maine bust, Crandall said.
“It came from China to Maine and then to Texas,” Crandall said.
Even though the state enacted laws in 2011 banning bath salts, and later strengthened them to add derivatives and toughen penalties, and the federal government also banned them in 2012, residents are still able to order the dangerous drugs online, the drug agent said.
“We’ve seen it quite frequently, especially in the northern half of the state,” Crandall said.
Bath salts first emerged on the streets of Bangor in early 2011 and spread like wildfire all over the state in mid- to late 2011. It continues to have a stronghold in Bangor, Rockland and three communities in Aroostook County — Presque Isle, Mars Hill and Caribou, Crandall said.
Bath salts — called “monkey dust” in Bangor and “Rave-on” in Rockland — have caused agitation, hallucinations, paranoia and even psychotic episodes in users.
President Barack Obama sig ned the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 on July 9, 2012 banning the sale of three most widely used synthetic bath salts components, synthetic marijuana and nearly two dozen other man-made drugs, that also designated the hallucinogenic stimulant a Schedule 1 drug, the same class as heroin and LSD.
The federal law is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough, Ross said, which is a sentiment other law enforcement officers have expressed.
“Maine had the foresight to get out and ban [derivatives of the lab-made drugs]” that now total in the hundreds, the sheriff said.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is part of the investigation and the Maine Office of the Attorney General will handle the prosecution. Messages left for U.S. Postal Inspector Michael Desrosiers on Thursday for comment about the agency’s role in the drug bust were not immediately returned.
Coy, Fuentes, Wells and Warren have been charged with aggravated trafficking in synthetic hallucinogenic drugs, a Class A crime, and face up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000 if convicted. Wells was released from the Penobscot County Jail on $50,000 cash bail, but the other three remain behind bars, Ross said.
Coy’s bail was set at $300,000 cash; Fuentes’ at $50,000 and Warren’s at $75,000.
Crandall said that so far, little can be done to stop people from ordering the drugs over the Internet, so his agents are left trying to catch the shipments when they arrive.
“Certainly, it would be nice if you couldn’t go online and order this, but you can,” he said.
The FBI, which typically covers drugs in relation to gangs, is keeping an eye on the situation, said
Greg Comcowich, a special agent with the FBI in Boston.
“We know bath salts are a big problem, especially in rural areas,” he said Thursday. “We recognize it on a federal level. We recognize it has become a serious problem. It’s just exploded. It’s unbelievable.”
The FBI has an agreement with the federal DEA about releasing information about drugs in Maine, so Comcowich referred all calls to the local DEA resident agent, who didn’t return messages left for comment on Thursday about whether the DEA tracks overseas bath salts orders.
Police in the Bangor region are responding daily to bath salts-related incidents, Ross said.
“As you can see here, now with this seizure, that the problem is still a significant one,” the sheriff said. “It has hit every community across the region.”
A large amount of public education about the street drug when it first arrived in Maine two years ago has proved effective with younger, first-time drug users who are avoiding the drug, Ross said, but has been less effective with older, long-term drug and alcohol users.
“No community is immune,” the sheriff said. “By my calculations, this is about 18 pounds of bath salts, which amounts to about $1.2 million dollars in seizure at street value. It’s very, very significant.”