A Salisbury woman accused of dealing synthetic marijuana has been in trouble before.
Letha Dean, 71, pleaded guilty to prostitution-related charges in 2009, long before she was arrested last week and charged with peddling thousands of packets of synthetic marijuana, which is plant material that’s been sprayed with chemicals. The drug, said to have horrible side effects, gained popularity as a way to get high while passing drug tests administered by employers or law enforcement authorities. Exactly what’s in the drug isn’t clear, with makers tweaking recipes in hopes of avoiding prosecution on the theory that changes in chemical composition will render the products legal.
While undetectable in standard drug tests, users report that the drug is addictive. Experts say it can trigger psychosis while also placing users at risk of heart attacks and kidney failure. At least three people have died in Illinois in recent weeks after smoking synthetic marijuana that includes ingredients found in rat poison. More than 100 users in Illinois have been hospitalized, and scourge has spread to the East Coast, where at least three people in Maryland have been taken to hospitals after experiencing bleeding. Blood can flow from eyes and ears, and it also can show up in urine.
Federal prosecutors say that the case against Dean is part of a larger investigation that began in 2013 and stretches from St. Louis, where drugs were manufactured in a clandestine lab, to a money laundering operation based in the Detroit area that has sent millions of dollars to Yemen. Eight people, including Dean, have been charged with federal drug offenses. Two men arrested in 2016 have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Charges against five others filed earlier this year are pending. Besides Springfield, authorities say that convenience stores, gas stations and smoke shops in Decatur peddled the drug.
Dean allegedly sold the drug through a store called Mystic Enhantments, where she started work after admitting in 2009 that she had run a house of prostitution in a Springfield residential neighborhood near the intersection of College Street and Lenox Avenue. Dean’s brothel, prosecutors said, was part of an interstate ring run by madams who sent prostitutes from one state to another. More than a dozen people were charged. Dean and the other defendants, some from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida, received probation.
At sentencing in 2009, Dean portrayed herself as a madam with a heart who didn’t allow drugs and made sure that the women who came through her house had plenty to eat. She testified that she counseled the women and told them that they couldn’t be prostitutes forever.
“We tried to do it the best way we could,” Dean told U.S. District Court Judge Jeanne Scott, since retired, before sentence was pronounced. “We just tried to better everybody and not hurt anybody.”
According to court documents filed Friday by the U.S. attorney’s office, the investigation began in 2013. Prosecutors say that Abdul Alsamah, who owned a liquor store called The Crossing II, was “likely the largest synthetic cannabinoid distributor in the Springfield area.” Federal authorities based in Springfield have not charged Alsamah with a crime, according to the federal court docket. Neither he nor anyone who could speak on his behalf could immediately be reached for comment.
Sharon Paul, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Springfield, would not say whether Alsamah will be charged. "I can't comment on that other than to say it's an ongoing investigation," Paul said.
In July of 2015, more than a year after authorities say they identified Alsamah as a suspected drug dealer, prosecutors got court approval to videotape and overhear conversations at Mystic Enchantments, which was adjacent to Alsamah's liquor store at 2828 East Clearlake Avenue. Undercover agents started making buys in 2014, but the initial effort, a $50 buy, suffered a glitch, according to court documents. “The interaction was audio and video recorded, however, due to technical difficulties the audio and video failed to record, Sean Simpson, a state attorney general investigator assigned to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, officer, wrote in a court affidavit.
Subsequent transactions went more smoothly, according to court documents.
On Feb. 2, 2015, the undercover agent who made the first buy visited Mystic Enchantments again and spoke with Dean about purchasing a larger amount, according to court filings. The conversation was recorded on an audio and visual recording device, prosecutors say. The agent purchased 25 packets containing $1,000 worth of illegal synthetic marijuana less than a week later, according to Simpson’s affidavit. With the help of court authorized recording devices, federal agents also kept Mystic Enchantments, which also offered candles, oils and incense, under surveillance for one month in the summer of 2015 and found plenty of activity.
“During the period of July 31, 2015, through Aug. 2, 2015, agents monitoring interceptions of audio and visual, non-verbal conduct at Mystic Enchantments observed a regular influx of foot traffic into Mystic Enchantments,” Simpson says in his affidavit. “Agents observed that nearly every individual who entered the business purchased synthetic cannabinoids from Letha Dean, and even those who did not purchase synthetic cannabinoids asked about the brands of synthetic cannabinoids available. The interceptions established that virtually no legitimate business was conducted at Mystic Enchantments.”
Federal agents with recording devices in 2015 watched and listened as Dean added up sales with the help of an adding machine at day’s end, according to Simpson’s affidavit. They also heard her speaking with Alsamah, her alleged but uncharged partner. “I think we’ll have another good day tomorrow,” she told him, according to court documents.
Simpson and an investigator with the Illinois state attorney general’s office visited the shop more than two years ago and spoke with both Dean and Alsamah, Simpson says in his affidavit. Simpson writes that he and the investigator confronted Dean about suspected illegal drug sales, asking her if she was selling synthetic marijuana and informing her that such sales were illegal. She denied selling synthetic pot, according to Simpson’s affidavit. Simpson says he left his business card with Dean and Alsamah.
The friendly visit didn’t help, authorities say.
In March of 2016, federal agents served a search warrant at Mystic Enchantments and found 339 packages of synthetic marijuana, plus 24 vials of a liquid containing suspected synthetic pot products. All told, the seized illegal substances, bearing labels such as Scooby Snax, Mr. Nice Geeked Up and Mr. Happy, weighed about five pounds, according to Simpson’s affidavit. That same month, federal agents established surveillance on Dean’s house in Salisbury, pulled her over when they saw her leave and hauled her into DEA offices for questioning. She told agents they were free to search her house, and they did, finding and seizing nearly $2,500 in cash found in a sock stashed in a dresser. But no charges were filed.
Last Wednesday, after people started dying and bleeding from smoking synthetic marijuana tainted with suspected rat poison, agents retained an informant to buy synthetic pot from Dean. The informant was hoping for help on a pending drug case against him Tazewell County, according to Simpson’s affidavit. The price, Dean told the informant, had increased from $7 a packet to $10. “Everything went to shit after this scare out here,” Dean told him. An undercover state police investigator with $5,000 in his pocket went to Mystic Enchantments, which had moved to 1020 West Lawrence Ave. since the 2016 bust, to make the buy last Thursday. “I knew it,” Dean reportedly said as the cuffs went on, after she’d handed over a garbage bag containing 520 packets to the undercover investigator.
Police who searched the store found an additional 1,445 packets. Between the undercover buy and the stock remaining in Dean’s shop, agents recovered nearly 26 pounds of synthetic pot. It is, U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough wrote in ordering that Dean be jailed, a grave allegation that carries a potential sentence of 20 years and a $1 million fine. Dean, Myerscough wrote, poses a danger to the community.
“The nature and circumstances of the offense charged are very serious,” wrote Myerscough, noting that evidence of Dean’s illegal drug trafficking dates back years and involves large amounts of synthetic pot.
Outbreaks of bleeding from smoking synthetic pot have been centered in the Peoria area, although cases of bleeding also have been reported in Maryland in recent days. There is no indication in court documents whether drugs allegedly sold by Dean and others who've been charged in the investigation caused potentially deadly bleeding, but court documents suggest that making synthetic marijuana can be tricky.
According to court documents, drugs came from a St. Louis lab that produced hundreds of pounds. In 2015, Walid Alansawi, who was charged in February and identified as a source of synthetic pot sold in Decatur stores, told two store owners in search of the drug that there was none available because the maker hadn't properly produced the last batch. Authorities say Alanasawi used the code word "milk" to identify chemical ingredients in the drug.
"The problem was that the milk wasn't good for the last cook," Alanasawi told the store owners in a three-way telephone conversation that was wiretapped, according to court documents. "Therefore he refused to give us any. ... Also, not to mention, that they try everything before they give it to us."
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.