The three clerks employed by The 420 Emporium and arrested Wednesday by federal agents have already been arraigned on charges that could send them away for as much as 20 years.
But with an investigation that's still pending and boxes and boxes of evidence to sort through, the defendants may yet find more charges piled on.
Authorities are especially interested in hearing from any potential witnesses who may have purchased synthetic drugs from the clerks, later ingested them and wound up in the hospital as a result.
The sentencing guidelines for people convicted of selling a controlled substance or its analog that leads to serious bodily harm requires a mandatory minimum of 20 years in a federal penitentiary.
"The judge has no choice," said William Hochul, U.S. Attorney for Western New York, during a press conference in Batavia on Wednesday evening. "You have to go to jail for at least 20 years and up to life imprisonment. As we’ve indicated in court, we believe that there is a possibility of that kind of sentence in this kind of case regardless of whether we proceed under the Analog Act or Title 21."
Taken into custody Wednesday were Joshua Denise, 37, a Batavia resident, Michelle Condidorio, 30, of Le Roy, and Austin Szczur, 22, of Rochester.
Denise and Condidorio are believed to have been employed at The 420 Emporium's Batavia location and Szczur reportedly worked in Brockport.
All three are suspected of selling packages of a product that contained alpha-PVP, a chemical that is an analog to MDPV. They are charged with possession with intent to distribute, and distribution of, a controlled substance analog.
MDPV became a controlled substance July 9 when President Barack Obama signed into law an act to ban a wide range of chemicals that are believed to be used in the synthetic drug trade.
An analog of a controlled substance is a chemical that has the same or similiar effect on a person as an illegal drug and was sold with the intent of human consumption.
"This stuff in the DEA’s eyes is just as bad as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin," said James Burns, assistant special agent in charge for the DEA. "When you’re charging $60 for a 3-gram pack of some of this stuff and it’s labeled glass cleaner or plant food or bath salt, I mean that raises a red flag with me.
"It should raise a red flag with any rational individual because we all know you can go down to the five-and-dime and buy a box of bath salts for far less than 60 bucks, or a bag of potpourri for far less than what these substances are being sold for."
The alleged sale of these synthetic drugs appears to have been quite lucrative for Charles Darwin Fitzgerald, who is the owner of The 420 Emporium chain of five stores, according to federal authorities, and his live-in girlfriend Amber Snover, who has proclaimed herself the owner, on Facebook and in a public meeting, of at least four of the stores.
The couple's home at 21 West Hills Estate in Greece is worth at least $224,000.
Authorities say they recovered more than $700,000 in cash from the six locations raided by law enforcement Wednesday.
Authorities displayed potato-sack-sized bag of cash at the press conference, stuffed full of bundles of cash in denominations from $5 to $100.
Investigators said they couldn't publicly indentify at this time which location that bag of cash was seized from, but news reporters on the scene of 21 West Hills Estate yesterday said they saw officials carrying a large sack of cash from the Fitzgerald/Snover residence.
Neither Fitzgerald nor Snover were arrested Wednesday and so far are facing no federal charges.
They are free to reopen all five of their stores today.
All of their employees who were arrested were released from custody following their arraignments.
Officials reportedly, however, seized all of the computer and electronic communication devices in the possession of Fitzgerald and Snover, including mobile phones.
The search warrant also reportedly allowed authorities to seize any written records.
With the investigation still pending, DEA agents will presumably be looking for evidence that connects Fitzgerald and Snover to knowledge of actual sales to the public or possession of a controlled substance.
According to a search warrant affidavit, the owner or owners of the 420 were able to monitor activity in the stores via remotely operated cameras.
Burns said the only reason people sell synthetic drugs is to make money.
"Even though something is called legal doesn’t make it safe," Burns said. "These are chemicals that have never been tested on either animals or humans.
"We have no idea what the long-term effects of these substances will be, and trust me ladies and gentlemen, the folks who are selling these substances and manufacturing this stuff, they’re not in it for humanitarian reasons or altruistic reasons. That (Burns pointed to the bag of money) right there is why they’re selling thses substances."
Local and state law enforcement officials spoke to the problems synthetic drugs are causing in neighborhoods and said they have presented a serious public safety hazard and difficult law enforcement problem.
"They’re manufactured in so many different ways you don’t know what's in the contents of these packages until you actually go and test them," said Major Christopher Cummings, Troop A commander, State Police. "You don’t know the reaction that can occur when a person consumes (these products) so it makes it difficult at our level in trying to address this situation.
"Some of the drugs in these packets here may be a controlled substance under New York State penal code, but then again they may not. Our federal partners are critical in addressing this fast-moving situation that we’re in."
Hochul praised the community support in alert law enforcement to what was happening with bath salts in their neighborhoods and said that law enforcement will continue to need community support if the potential damaging effects of illicit drugs is to be minimized.
"We in law enforcement will never be able to arrest our way out of any narcotics problem, including synthetic drugs," Hochul said. "I think with the public’s assistance in identifying (the availability of) these substances in these packets as being sold in the community then they can at least help to identify targets for us."
Lt. Jim Henning, Batavia PD, said the community cooperation and support as the bath salt problem seemed to spread throughout the city in recent months has been tremendously helpful.
"It’s very reassuring when the majority of your community realizes the danger that these drugs pose to the entire community," Henning said. "We’re just extremely happy with the events that took place today in our community because we realize on a daily basis the effect it has on our community and on our citizens."