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Prior to his 2013 Christmas Eve death, Ryan Bergman struggled to find his place in the world

By Howard B. Owens


Ryan C. Bergman
Photo courtesy the Bergmans

Just before Thanksgiving, 2013, a month before his death, 26-year-old Ryan C. Bergman sat at the dining room table after an evening dinner with his parents in their home on Fargo Road, Darien, and talked with his mother about his mental health.

At age 10, his fourth-grade year, all his troubles seemed to start, Ryan told his mother as they talked through his life on a chilled and snowy November evening.

That made sense, Bernadette Bergman said. She always thought there were two turning points, downhill points, really, for her son — when he was 10 and when he was 13.

Ryan spent that fourth-grade year with a Pembroke teacher whom Bernadette described as rude, cruel and largely uncaring about Ryan’s struggles.

Bright, articulate but unable to stay focused, Ryan was a misfit among his peers. He was oblivious to social norms, craved attention and found it difficult to complete his assignments in the manner expected by his teacher.

To a public school teacher with 30 other kids to manage and guide, Ryan was, perhaps, more like a distraction than a promising literary master, a potential mathematician or computer scientist.

Bernadette, herself a teacher, recalled one parent-teacher conference that didn’t go well.

She had a notebook with her from a parenting workshop with information meant to help a student like Ryan, but Ryan’s teacher dismissed the binder and its contents as useless.

“She literally, right in front of me, ripped it apart page by page,” said Bernadette, mimicking the teacher ripping page after loose-leaf page from the book.

“‘Oh, he doesn’t need that. He doesn’t need that,’” Bernadette recalled her saying.

“If you’re rude to the parent, you can imagine what she was like in the classroom,” Bernadette said.

Her husband Richard added, “We learned from other kids later that when he got kicked out of class, he would go to the class of the grade above and he would just be rolling around in the back and the teacher would ask the class a question and nobody would know the answer, no hands would go up, and Ryan would yell out the answer. He wasn’t even paying attention and he would know the answer and shout it out.”

The first inkling the Bergmans got that Ryan might be struggling to find his place in the world came after a day out sledding with neighbors who had children right around Ryan’s age.

Ryan was a bit disruptive and the other mother told Bernadette that Ryan was “a little wild.” Bernadette was unfazed. He was just a squirrelly kid.

Later, at a pool party with the same family, Ryan found ways to irritate both children and adults. He would annoy, pester and bother, ignoring the social signals other children might decipher and realize their behavior went a little too far.

“Ryan would just do aggravating things to get people’s attention,” Richard said. “Like, he might poke you under water. He wasn’t nasty, maybe borderline nasty, just to get their attention, with it never clicking in his brain that maybe they were going to want you around less.”

Ryan was trapped in a world where his verbal skills allowed him to converse knowingly with adults, but as a matter of age and experience, his time was properly spent with children, and typically, children with minds that couldn’t grasp his meaning and tongues muted by more limited vocabularies.

Ryan’s mind worked fast, fueled by a voracious appetite for printed words.

He was reading above his grade level when he started kindergarten.

“It was like a switch,” Richard said. “A switch went off and he could read and that was it. He could read.”

From kindergarten on, he always had a book open, if not in his hand, within arm’s reach.

“He would read everything,” Bernadette said. “He would read anything. You couldn't be any place and he wouldn't read. He would read the toilet tissue roll, you know what I mean. He just loved the language. He spoke early. He loved to play with words. When he was real little he would say things like 'uppy duppy, potty watty,' all the rhyming stuff. He would just do it naturally. Ryan just loved it. He just loved the language.”

The Bergman’s think Ryan’s advanced skills with the English language drove some teachers crazy. One counselor warned Ryan’s teachers not to engage with him verbally, “because he’ll just chew you up.” Some teachers couldn’t accept that this elementary school student might be smarter than they were. 

“There’s always going to be kids who are smarter than you,” Bernadette said. “I don’t care who you are, just suck it up and embrace it, you know, because there’s other things you can teach them. In Ryan’s case, it was organizational skills.”

The lack of organizational skills is what led to Ryan’s second turning point, downhill, when he was 13, in sixth grade. Ryan was accepted into an advanced mathematics program at the University at Buffalo.

It was an odd fit. Ryan, the word guy in an advanced math class at a university. He really wasn’t good with numbers, but his innate ability to reason through puzzles made higher level mathematics, where it becomes more about theory and logic than formulas, easy.

Except for one problem: Ryan didn’t grasp how he arrived at his answers. In mathematics, where part of the problem-solving regime is showing your work, Ryan couldn’t explain how he arrived at his solutions.  He got the answers right, he just didn’t know how he got there.

Also, he often didn’t turn in his homework.

"In his mind, 'OK, here's the homework,' ” Richard said. “ 'I did the homework. It's done.' But you have to turn it in. You have to hold onto that piece of paper, you've got to take it with you, you got to turn it in, but in his mind, 'I did it.’ ”

Pok-e-Mon was big at the time and Ryan had a collection of cards. When Bernadette met with the UB teacher about her son’s difficulties in the class, the teacher had a hard time buying that Ryan innately lacked organizational skills.

The teacher noted Ryan’s well organized box of Pok-e-Mon cards. Surely, that was proof, she said, that he was capable of being organized when he was motivated.

“I told her, ‘One, I organized them for him so he would fit in, so that he could use them,' ” Bernadette said, adding, “ ‘but, two, he lost them here. He has no clue where they are.’ ”

Ryan was devastated when he was sent back to a regular math class at Pembroke.

“He just shut down the math side,” Bernadette said. “He was embarrassed. Here was something he could have flourished at, but now he’s back at Pembroke.”

And none of the professionals picked up on Ryan’s growing mental issues.

“The tip off (to the professionals) should have been, verbally, he was very strong, in the 99.8 percentile, but the math part, he lagged behind,” Richard said. “That’s usually a tipoff that something is going on. When you get into the gifted math program, you go, ‘How can that be?’ ” But on standardized testing, he was superior in language and was behind in math.”

Even in areas where he should have excelled socially, he became a pariah.

In the pre-Internet days, computer geeks formed social clubs, called LAN groups (LAN: local area network). They would bring their bulky desktop computers to a group member’s house, string them together with Ethernet cable and a network hub and play computer games.

“He was very good with computers,” Richard recalled. “He would, you know, actually read the manuals. He was able to do things other kids couldn’t.”

For some kids, superior knowledge is a pathway to friendship. I help you and you help me. For Ryan, he could use his advanced computer skills to bully the other kids.

“It got to the point where he (the kid who hosted the group) didn’t want Ryan coming over any more,” Bernadette said. “He didn’t want Ryan over because his other friends didn’t want him over. He would screw up their computers and sitting next to them, he would aggravate them either physically or verbally.”

Like many children with attention difficulties and a tendency toward hyperactivity, Ryan was prescribed drugs, such as Ritalin. Sometimes, Ryan would take his medication as prescribed. Sometimes, he wouldn’t. He would hide his pills around the house and then take several pills at once just to see what it was like.

A psychologist — the same one who warned teachers Ryan could out talk them — told the Bergmans that children like Ryan, superior verbal skills, struggling to fit in socially and academically, who were once at the top of their class, but lost their way as organizational skills become a part of the educational process, typically become depressed and take their own lives.

At age 16, Ryan tried to do just that, using the prescription medication he had available to him.

“He was still under care of this doctor and still going to Pembroke,” Richard said. “The doctor was like, ‘I didn’t see this coming.’ And we thought, ‘You’re the one who warned us and now you say you didn’t see it coming?’  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I thought his ego strength was so large that he would never do it.’ And we were like, ‘His ego strength is there because he’s covering up for the fact that he doesn’t fit in.’ ”

Richard and Bernadette Bergman have all the attributes of ideal parents — steady jobs, a stable home life, community involvement, an active church and social life, and an abiding desire to be parents.

Ryan isn’t the first child Richard and Bernadette tried to adopt. First, there was Jeffrey, a special needs child who has never lived with them, but still has a room in their house and often spends the holidays, some weekends and other special days with the Bergmans.

Jeffrey is now 46 years old and lives in a group home in East Aurora.

“We call him our voluntary son,” Richard said.

Then Richard and Bernadette learned of a single mother who was going to give birth to a baby girl, so they arranged through an attorney to adopt that child upon her birth.

Preparations were made, documents signed and on the day the child was born, Richard and Bernadette were waiting for the child to be brought to them from the hospital when they learned the mother had changed her mind.

The Bergmans were disappointed. The attorney felt horrible about the turn of events. He promised, “when the next child becomes available, you’re at the top of the list.”

It was 1987. A 15-year-old girl in Erie County gave birth to a little boy. He became Ryan Bergman. He came to live with them in their turn-of-the-century home in a little hamlet in the Town of Darien that once was known as Fargo Village, with a train station on the Delaware, Lackawana & Western Railroad line and a little schoolhouse at Fargo and Sumner roads.

At some point in Ryan’s young life, the Bergmans learned through a sister of the birth mother that the young lady had her own struggles with alcohol, as did her father.

Scientists are still learning about the role of dopamine (a biological chemical critical to brain and body functions) in people’s lives, but it is an apparent factor in drug and alcohol abuse and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These traits could be hereditary.

The Bergmans knew this.

“We warned him, 'Smoking, alcohol, anything you can be come addicted to, you can become addicted to, because there seems to be a correlation,' ” said Bernadette, who has long been involved the Genesee County Mental Health Association.

From a young age, Ryan had a preoccupation with alcohol, not that he was drinking at a young age, but he talked about it, asked questions about it, was curious about it.

There wasn’t much alcohol around the house, though Bernadette liked to have an occasional drink, but Ryan was fixated on the idea of alcohol.

“He was obsessed with talking about it,” Bernadette recalls. “In our mind as lay people, that just seemed, you know, an obsession.”

The response of GCASA (Genesee Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse)?

"We don't see any problem here. Kids always talk about alcohol."

Ryan decided he was Irish. And the Irish, of course, have a reputation for boozing it up.

“He was starting to embrace the idea by the time he was a teenager,” Bernadette said. “We have no idea if he has any Irish blood in him or not, but he decided he was going to be Irish.”

Ryan started going to parties with friends. Richard and Bernadette weren’t sure if there was alcohol involved or not, but they suspect there was, then one night he came home plastered.

They think Ryan might have been the one supplying the drinks. He had a job. He had money of his own to make the purchase. He was savvy. He could have been buying beverages and supplying them to his peers.

“It was a way for him to be accepted,” Richard said. “If you’re an outsider, this is an in. ‘I can get you alcohol.’ ”

Despite his struggles, Ryan did graduate from Pembroke High School, earning his diploma in 2005.

In August, he entered the Army, but washed out of basic training and was home by October.

It was tough for him to keep jobs. The Genesee ACE Employment program helped and Ryan landed one of his longer term jobs at the Kutter Cheese Factory, working there from July 2009 to February 2010.

He floated in and out of jobs and friendships, apparently using drugs and grappling with his mental health issues. He wound up in a program at GCASA and was working at Pioneer Credit when he met a woman who was 10 years older, married, with four children and a husband and a house in Oakfield. Ryan moved in with the woman and her children, along with the teenage friend of one of the woman’s daughters.

To support their drug habits, they got into property crime, along with a man who was recently released from prison and was on parole.

They broke into a fire hall in Orleans County and were caught because Ryan, disorganized, forgetful Ryan Bergman, left his mother’s mobile phone in the building. The night before the Orleans deputies showed up at the Bergman’s house, the group had broken into a gun club in Cowlesville and stole a computer.

Ryan insisted the woman wasn’t involved in his crimes.

“He was very loyal,” Richard said. “He wouldn’t turn her in because she had kids. He went to jail so she wouldn’t have to.”

He was sentenced to several months in the Genesee County Jail for breaking into cars, followed by weekends in the Orleans County Jail.

“Most parents worry about where their kids will be when they turn 21,” Richard said. “Ours was already in jail.”

He also spent nearly a year in the Erie County Jail when he was caught driving the wrong way on a street near the Buffalo Airport while high.

It was during this time, Ryan became friends with a person who already had some experience with bath salts. 

When a friend of the family lost a daughter to heroin, Ryan’s response was, “I don’t do heroin,” Richard recalled, “like it was a lesser drug.”

Bath salts, though, were the product of chemistry, and presumably safe because, at least at the time, they were legal.

They could be bought on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, and soon thereafter at locations in the City of Batavia. But when law enforcement swooped in and cut off the local supply, Ryan turned to mail order.

Bath salts are easy to find and buy online and can even be purchased as “samples,” which makes hits more affordable.

“It was the best of both worlds,” Richard said. “It was an amphetamine and he could get high or whatever he was taking them for, and it was legal. At least that was the selling point in the beginning.”

The Bergmans were trying to get their son help in those late fall and early winter months of 2013. It was a struggle.

Certain synthetic drugs are known to induce paranoia, and Ryan may have tended toward suspicion already. When he was in the grips of synthetic drugs, he could distrust anybody and everybody.

A family friend, an attorney, named David, found him out and about and tried to help him. Ryan asked him, “How many pieces of silver was Jesus sold for?”

David said, “I don’t exactly remember.”

“See, David would know the answer to the question, so you’re not David.”

Eventually, David got Ryan home and told the Bergmans, “This kid needs to go to the hospital.”

They tried.

One time, Ryan was taken to a mental health institution and the social worker called the Bergmans at home.

“She said we can give him a ticket at the bus station, or he can stay in a homeless shelter or we can sign him into the facility for care.”

To Ryan, in-patient treatment was tantamount to jail.

“I was on my way there to read him the riot act and by the time I got there, he had sweet talked her -- he was very charming -- and he had her talked into letting him go to out-patient treatment,” Richard said. “He just had her wrapped around his finger and now I was the bad guy.”

Ryan didn’t think it did him any good to be taken to facilities in Buffalo, but he thought he might get help at the hospital in Warsaw, so when he would agree to be checked in someplace, he would agree to Warsaw.

But agreeing and actually getting there were two different matters.

Bernadette learned once the decision was made, she had to get the car started, the windows up and ensure the child safety locks were on. Otherwise, once he got into the car, if he did, he might try to escape at some point.

“We’d maybe go around and around for an hour before he would get in the car,” Bernadette said. “Twice, once we got to Warsaw, after we got there, he just ran off. Once a deputy found him at Tim Horton’s (Cafe).”

In December 2013, Richard Bergman realized there hadn’t been mail delivered to his house in a few days.

“I’d come home and Ryan wouldn’t be there, and I’d ask him where he was when I came home, and he said he went out for a walk to blow off steam,” Richard said. “Well, Thursday, there was no mail. Friday, no mail. Saturday, no mail. Then a notice comes and said, ‘OK, we’re restarting the mail you had suspended for three days.’ I asked him, ‘Did you suspend the mail?’ He said he didn’t know what happened, ‘but your name is on it.' ”

Richard confronted Ryan about getting drugs through the mail, but Ryan denied it.

The Bergmans now know that Ryan was getting samples of Alpha PVP from China delivered to their mail address. The evidence: an envelop with the synthetic drug and a packing slip arrived in the mail a couple of days after he died.

In December 2013, Alpha PVP was little known in the drug or law enforcement community, but over the past year news about its deadly effects have burst into the news under its most common street name, "Flakka," and those reports are what prompted the Bergmans to contact a local reporter more than a year after his initial interview request.

They’re very concerned about how easy it is for young people to buy these dangerous drugs. They don’t know the answer, but they think people should be more aware of what’s going on.

“If you can’t control in anyway how this stuff is getting into the country, you’re never going to be able to address it,” Richard said. “If it’s that easy to obtain, it’s like, how can you blunt that?”

Bernadette remembers sitting in court one time waiting for Ryan’s case to be called and another drug addict accused of a crime stood with his lawyer before the judge.

“The judge says to the lawyer, ‘How many times does he need to go to rehab?’ and I want to say, ‘As many times as it takes,’ and that’s basically what the lawyer said. We need lawyers to understand. We need judges who understand. That would all work easier if the insurance and medical professions had a greater interest in getting a handle on this. My fear is that maybe (bath salts) isn’t as big as heroin, but it’s just so easy to get. You can order it from the comfort of your own home and it comes in the mail and maybe kids see that as no big deal.”

The Sunday before Christmas 2013, Ryan didn’t want to be checked into Warsaw, so he was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital instead. His father brought him home Monday. He swore he didn’t have any drugs in his room.

“His room was a pig sty,” Bernadette said. “If he had any drugs in there, you could look for them and it would take you a week, so he swore, ‘Mom, there are no drugs here,’ well, obviously, that was a lie. He must have taken all he had.”

On Christmas Eve day, Bernadette knew something was wrong with her son.

“Clearly, he was not well,” she said. “I told him, you have two choices. I can take you to the hospital or I can call an ambulance. We got his bags packed and we’re ready to go and he says, ‘Mom, there’s a third choice. I can do outpatient.’  ‘Yes, but we need to get you stable first.’ Just like that, he takes off. He’s in this room. He’s in that room. He gets the poker (from the fire place) and runs into the bathroom and locks the door. I feel the gush of cold air and I know he’s opened the window.”

Bernadette doesn’t remember if she saw him running into the woods or if she just saw his footprints.

“In my head, I keep thinking I saw him running, but I don’t think so,” she said.

It was 10 degrees that day and Ryan was wearing nothing more than jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers.

She called emergency dispatch. She called her husband. He started home. At this point, she wasn’t scared.

“We’ve been through this before,” she said. “We’ve been through the paranoia before. We’ve called the cops before, and usually he heads down the old railroad bed in that same direction and he comes back, so it’s not like you’re thinking, ‘This is the end.’ You’re thinking, ‘We’re going through this again,’ but this time, he just kept right on going and went through the creek and got a way down the other side.”

The State Police arrived. Sheriff’s deputies arrived. Volunteers from the Darien and Alexander fire departments were deployed in a search of the area. After dark, the search was called off for the night.

It resumed the next morning, Christmas Day.

A volunteer from Alden -- a friend of the family, in fact -- found Ryan’s body.

Another friend, a fellow church member, Chief Deputy Gordon Dibble, Sheriff’s Office, delivered the news to Richard and Bernadette.

But they already knew.

“We don’t believe it was a suicide,” Richard said. “He did all of these risky behaviors that were kind of like, ‘If I die, I die. If I live, I live.’ He cracked up his car twice. It was almost like a sense of pride. After (the neighbor friend) died of an overdose, he told a social worker, ‘How come (the friend) can do it and I can’t?’ He would take these risky behaviors, knowing full well he could die, but probably not intentionally.”​

Previously on The Batavian:

Former local businessman given prison term for thefts prompted by heroin addiction

By Howard B. Owens

A former local small business owner appeared in county court to answer for a series of thefts in Genesee County that he said was spurred by his addiction to heroin.

Jason D. Lang, 33, of Liberty Street, entered guilty pleas in June to two counts of grand larceny, 4th, related to thefts from Walmart and Target. The guilty plea satisfied a whole raft of similar charges. 

Already in state custody on convictions in neighboring counties, Lang was told today his sentence on the local charges would be one-and-a-half to four years.

The sentences are concurrent to his previous sentence. Lang's attorney told Noonan that a parole board had already told Lang he would be released Sept. 5.

The new sentence throws that release date into doubt. The board will need to take into consideration Noonan's new sentence. At this point, it's unclear when Lang might be released.

"Mr. Lang is eager to return to his community and be productive again," said attorney Jon Wilson.

Lang has been in drug and alcohol treatment and Wilson said he's doing very well. 

"He's committed himself to turning around his world," Wilson said.

Once the successful owner of Batavia Cab, Lang opened a smoke shop and tattoo parlor known as The Laughing Buddha. It may have been the first local shop, just prior to the 420 Emporium opening, to sell bath salts and synthetic marijuana.  

In the Summer of 2012, when local law enforcement and emergency personnel were dealing with a series of peculiar incidents that seemed to stem from bath salt use, Lang was often in the news. He was arrested after imagining and reporting gunfire at a local hotel. He was also accused of impersonating a police officer.

In the midst of his legal troubles, and after his store was shut down and the cab company sold, his family organized a protest outside the 420 Emporium over that store's continued sale of bath salts. (Owner Charles Fitzgerald who owned other locations as well, is currently serving a federal prison term related to his trade in synthetic drugs.)

Lang reportedly kicked the bath salt habit, but then turned to heroin. He was accused of shoplifting from Hamburg to Victor, including in Batavia, during this period.

Wilson said his client has been in treatment at Lakeview since March and has completed both the drug and alcohol portions of the program.

When asked to speak, Lang was contrite.

"I'm sorry for the crimes I committed," Lang said. "I never would have did them if not for my heroin addiction. The past three years have been hard. I put the community through hell, my parents through hell, my children through hell. I'm really regretful for what I did."

Noonan reminded Lang that he wasn't the victim in this case and was in no mood to fashion a sentence that would guarantee Lang could keep his Sept. 5 parole date.

"Let that be the last time you blame heroin for your crimes," Noonan said. "Heroin didn't commit your crimes. You committed your crimes."

Federal agents disclose ongoing investigations into the sale of synthetic drug 'Flakka'

By Howard B. Owens


While incidents involving apparent synthetic-drug use in Genesee County have dropped dramatically since the closure of the 420 Emporium, on Ellicott Street, in July 2012, the use of drugs created in clandestine overseas labs to mimic more common street narcotics is still an issue locally, according to officials.

A federal agent revealed in a press briefing in Buffalo today that there are "a couple" of ongoing investigations in Genesee County into the sale and distribution of Flakka (aka Alpha-PVP).

"The investigations involve Genesee County people," said Special Agent Brad Brechler, with Homland Security, but he offered no further details.

Brechler and Special Agent Frank Zabawa conducted a briefing for a few members of WNY media in Buffalo today to discuss what they're seeing in the region regarding synthetic drugs and how federal authorities are responding.

The issue is much bigger in Buffalo and Niagara County than it is in Batavia, a point seemingly underscored by Brechler when pointing out that the first arrest in WNY for the sale and transportation of Alpha-PVP was in Genesee County in January 2013, but in that case the two suspects were from the Steuben and Niagara counties, not Batavia, and there was no suspicion in that case of the drugs being sold locally. Batavia was just a convenient meeting place for dealer and distributor, Brechler said.

Greg Walker, head of the Local Drug Task Force, said in a separate interview today that the task force has not been involved in the current federal investigation into the local sale of Alpha PVP, but he said there have been recent indications of synthetic drugs in and around Batavia, such as deputies coming across subjects with medical conditions that suggested chemical injection of some type or subjects behaving strangely.

It's not been common or widespread by any means, Walker said.

Flakka is described in media reports as a potent hallucinogen that officials consider addictive and dangerous.

The primary country of origin appears to be China, the agents said, and that's a trade the Chinese government is doing little to stem.

"The Chinese say one of their main industries is researching chemicals for the world," Brechler said. "Until a drug is illegal in their country, they're not interested in doing anything about it."

The drug is easily obtainable over the Internet. Often, the Chinese drug manufacturers will provide U.S. dealers with Web sites, and when federal authorities seize a drug-trade Web site, the Chinese companies will have a new Web site with a new domain name set up for the same dealer in a matter of days.

Online ordering, however, does not necessarily translate into widespread sales to users.

Most online sales go to distributors.  

Users tend to be cautious about getting purchases traced back to them and most distributors require a minimum order of 25 grams, Brechler said. 

That would cost from $300 to $350, a steep price for an addict.

Those 25 grams have tremendous street value, however. A gram typically sells for $80 to $120, making 25 grams worth at least $2,000.

"The drug is so addictive, you will see people hosting house parties and just giving it away," Brechler said.

Dealers also convince their buyers that it takes a special connection in China to get the drugs.

"Some users don't realize how easy it is to get," Brechler said.

Flakka is now a controlled substance, but that doesn't make it any easier to detect when it's coming into the country. The favored port of entry is the JFK Airport because JFK deals with the highest volume of overseas mail. It's easier to slip a package through just because of the massive amount of mail officials must sort through.

Drug-sniffing dogs won't detect it and the package sizes tend to be small.

As part of an investigation, agents purchased a supply of synthetic drugs from a Chinese company and it arrived with four large pills inside. Three pills were benign chemicals and one contained the drugs, but agents e-mailed the distributor to ask which pill was their order.

"Your drugs are in the blue pill," was the reply.

"The Chinese are open about it in their e-mails," Brechler said. "Some of the more sophisticated dealers in the U.S. use coded communications, but they don't always use code and talk about it openly because of the gray area legally of drug analogs."

Synthetic drugs are illegal either because they've been identified as controlled substances, or their chemical make up is clearly intended to mimic a controlled substance. Those are known as analogs and are governed by another set of laws.

Because synthetic drugs are changing constantly and are easy to distribute and hard to detect, one of the most important responses to the drug isn't enforcement, the agents said, it's education.

Homeland Security provides bar owners, schools and concert venues information on how to recognize a possible overdose on a synthetic drug and how to provide immediate treatment until medical professionals arrive.

There was no indication from the agents when and if arrests will be made in connection with the local investigations.

Top Photo: the agents hold recently seized drugs. Bottom photo, an agent demonstrates a device that can detect synthetic drugs. It uses a laser that can detect the chemical makeup of a substance inside a bag so the agents do not need to open the bag and risk their health and safety. The device can only identify a substance already in the federal database of chemical compounds that are controlled substances or analogs, otherwise, the device reports an "inconclusive" test.


Owner of former 420 Emporium given 30 months in prison, forfeits $771K

By Howard B. Owens

The man federal authorities identified as the owner of the former 420 Emporium that was a source of synthetic drugs in Batavia will serve 30 months in prison and forfeit $771,109 dollars in seized money.

Charles Fitzgerald was sentenced in U.S. District Court on Friday.

He had previously entered a guilty plea to possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.

The 420 Emporium, which was located at 400 Ellicott St., was the locus of synthetic drug dealing in Batavia for a period in the summer of 2012. Bath salts and synthetic marijuana appeared to be at the root of bizarre behavior by some users and the cause of seizures and other medical conditions that landed people in the emergency room at UMMC.

In July, 2012, local and federal authorities raided the 420 Emporium as part of a nationwide operation to crack down on synthetic drug trafficking.

The home of Fitzgerald in Greece, which he shared with co-defendant Amber Snover, was also raided, where authorities seized boxes of drugs as well as a bag full of cash.

Snover has also entered a guilty plea and will be sentenced June 23 in U.S. District Court.

Schumer stops by Batavia HS to issue challenge to DEA to step anti-synthetic drug enforcement

By Howard B. Owens

Synthetic drug use hasn't hit the epidemic proportions of 2012, but with reports of related hospitalizations and law enforcement issues on the uptick, Sen. Charles Schumer is calling on the DEA to step up its enforcement efforts.

To draw attention to the issue, Schummer held a press conference this morning in the library at Batavia High School, joined by Superintendent Chris Daily, Principal Scott Wilson, GCASA Communications Director Pamela LaGrou, and Sgt. Greg Walker, head of the Local Drug Task Force.

"We gave the DEA the authority (with legislation in 2012) to ban a long list of chemical look-alikes," Schumer said. "If it's almost marijuana, or almost methamphetamine, or almost Ecstasy, or almost cocaine, and they can switch a few molecules, we told the DEA you don't need legislation to make it a Schedule 1 drug. You can ban it. The problem is, the DEA is moving much too slowly."

The DEA is battling against a worldwide network of independent chemists, small labs and distributors who are constantly reformulating their drugs. Schumer thinks the DEA can keep pace.

"The DEA has a panel of scientists, experts, keeping tabs on new drugs," Schumer said. "We would hope they can ban these before they are actually sold on the market."

Schumer came to Batavia High because of reports of four students who were hospitalized as a result of using synthetic drugs.

It's important to education young people about the dangers of these often unknown substances, school officials said.

Walker said that while opiate-based drugs remain the number one drug enforcement issue in the county, there has been a slight increase in synthetic drug usage locally.

"Like the senator said, in 2012, we did have a big influx of the synthetics and since then, it has dropped off," Walker said. "Now that Cloud 9 has come up, it's starting to come back, but we're not seeing that huge surge we saw in 2012."

Schumer said he fears a repeat of 2012 in 2015 if the DEA isn't more aggressive in its enforcement efforts.

"They've banned 20 (substances)," Schumer said. "But there are another 300 on the list. We're asking the DEA to move much more quickly. The drugs are powerful. They have severe side effects and some kids develop permanent mental problems as a result of using them."

Alleged owners of 420 Emporium face federal charges two years after raids

By Howard B. Owens

It's been nearly two years since multiple law enforcement agencies raided The 420 Emporium, the erstwhile head shop once located at 400 Ellicott St., Batavia, but today authorities announced federal indictments against two alleged owners of the business.

Charles Darwin Fitzgerald, 39, and Amber Lynn Snover, 23, both of Rochester, have been charged with conspiracy to distribute, and distribution of, Schedule I controlled-substance analogues and maintaining drug-related premises. 

They face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a possible $1 million fine.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, Western New York, the defendants are accused of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute alpha-PVP, pentedrone and AM2201, which are all Schedule I controlled-substance analogues. The indictment also charges the defendants with maintaining four drug-related premises in New York for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing and using alpha-PVP, pentedrone and AM2201:

  • 21 West Hills Estate, Rochester;
  • 420 Emporium Store, 14 Market St., Brockport;
  • 420 Emporium Store, 400 Ellicott St., Batavia;
  • 420 Emporium Store, 1475 E. Henrietta Road, Rochester. 

Federal authorities are also seeking forfeiture of more than $770,000 in cash seized July 25 from the Fiztgerald-Snover residence in Greece as well as the property.

The 420 Emporium in Batavia was an infamous business for the 10 or so months it was open. The operators were suspected of selling various kinds of synthetic drugs, known generically as bath salts, and synthetic marijuana. 

Usage of the drugs was suspected in several bizarre and odd incidents locally.


The sudden prevalence of bath salts in the community led to citizen protests.

After the 420 shut down, bath salt-related incidents became much less common (though did not completely go away) in Genesee County.

At the time the 420 was open, its ownership seemed murky.

Fitzgerald is listed in Monroe County documents as the owner of 420 Emporium, Inc. Snover once claimed on Facebook to own the 420 Emporium locations in Brockport, Fulton, Henrietta and Syracuse, but not Batavia. When contacted in 2012 by The Batavian, she denied ownership and then filed a harassment complaint with Greece PD against the reporter working on the story. State and local records showed Joshua Denise owned the 420 Store, LLC, at 400 Ellicott St., Batavia.

The 39-year-old Denise was arrested, along with Michelle Condidorio, during the July 25, 2012, raid. Both entered guilty pleas to possession of a controlled-substance analogue. Denise will be sentenced Aug. 21 and Condidorio on Sept. 18.

The 420 Emporium also operated a store in Fulton. That store is not listed in the indictment, but it is outside the jurisdiction of the WNY U.S. Attorney's Office. We don't know at this time if there is a separate indictment in the Central New York jurisdiction.

The July 2012 raid in Batavia was part of a one-day, nationwide effort to crack down on alleged bath salt distributors.

See also: From China White to bath salts, designer drugs ongoing public safety challenge

All photos are file photos from previous coverage.

Photo: Workers clear out former 420 Emporium location

By Howard B. Owens

A group of at least five men showed up at 400 Ellicott St., Batavia, Wednesday evening to box up the inventory and remove the fixtures of the former location of The 420 Emporium.

The 420 was suspected of selling synthetic marijuana and synthetic amphetamines from the time it opened in Batavia in May.

The store was raided by the DEA on July 25 and its apparent local owner, Joshua Denise, was arrested. The store never reopened after the raid, though its shelves remained stocked -- until Wednesday night -- with glass pipes, bongs, rolling papers and other retail items.

For our prior coverage of The 420 Emporium, click here.

Family members say Jason Lang is doing much better with bath salts harder to get in Batavia

By Howard B. Owens

Jason Lang, the local businessman who caught got up in using bath salts and still faces some criminal charges that appear to stem from his use of the chemical substances, is doing much better, according to family members.

Lang appeared in Town of Batavia Court on Tuesday, which is a big step forward from July 17, when he didn't make it for a scheduled appearance, but did meet with reporters in the court parking lot minutes after his attorney left the facility.

Observers at the courthouse said Lang looks much healthier and his mother and sister say his mental outlook and demeanor have improved.

Today's court appearance was to answer to charges stemming from an alleged phone call he made to the owner of 400 Ellicott Street attempting to convince the landlord not to rent to The 420 Emporium. Lang allegedly posed as a State Police investigator and said the 420 sold synthetic marijuana.

The case was continued until 3 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 18.

In the weeks following his alleged impersonation, Lang's name or his home address came up several times in calls on the police scanner for incidents that give the appearance of being related to bath salt use, including a report of Lang saying he heard gun shots at a local hotel. For that call, Lang was eventually charged with filing a false report and harassment, 2nd.

Since the last week of July, there have been no reported bath salt related calls connected with Lang's name.

Lang's mother, Nicole, said today that since the 420 closed, her son has not been using bath salts.

"He’s doing pretty good," Nicole Lang said. "He’s doing a lot better than he was doing. Now that the emporium is shut, I think it’s made a big difference."

Brandi Smith, Lang's sister, agreed.

She said in recent weeks, she's been able to talk with her brother on a daily basis, something they used to do but stopped doing for the time Lang appeared to be using bath salts.

Jason Lang has been going to daily sessions at GCASA, she said.

"The other day I drove past GCASA and I saw his car parked out front and it just brought a huge smile to my face to know that he’s going every day and he’s getting help," Smith said.

"Bath salts" is a generic media term for a class of substances that are sold under a broad range of product names and claims but when consumed cause stimulation, euphoria, hallucinations along with paranoia, agitation and fear.

The substances, meant to mimic drugs that were already outlawed, can also be highly addictive.

At one time, Jason Lang owned the Batavia Cab Company and the Laughing Buddha.

Lang has previously admitted to selling both bath salts and synthetic marijuana at the buddha.

Both companies went out of business about the time it became public knowledge that Lang was getting into trouble with the law.

During the seeming height of Jason Lang's contact with local law enforcement, Nicole Lang went to The 420 Emporium at 400 Ellicott St., Batavia, and demanded employees stop selling bath salts to her son.

She was convinced if it continued, her son wouldn't survive.

On Tuesday, prosecutors dropped the trespass charge against Nichole Lang stemming from that confrontation at the 420.

A couple of weeks after the confrontation, the 420 was raided by the DEA and its doors have been closed since.

The raid and the increased awareness about the dangers of bath salts, Smith said, have been a good thing for the Batavia community.

"It has really helped our community," Smith said. "Like I said, it’s harder for these people to find it and it pushes them to get clean quicker. Overall, I think our community is doing much better."

In general, Smith said, her brother's outlook has improved, he's much less paranoid -- though some paranoia lingers -- and he has a better grasp on reality.

She said it's good to have her bother back.

With the Lang family getting so much media attention in July, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office invited Smith to be part of his press conference in Buffalo earlier this month to announce new penalties in New York for the possession and sale of "bath salts."

Smith said it was a real honor to be included and get a chance to share with people about what the now-banned substances have done to her family.

"Unfortunately, we’ve had to live through it, but it has been a learning experience," Smith said. "I’m thankful for each person that I can maybe give some advice to and help them because we have been through this. Unfortunately, we had to live through it but I think by going through it, it makes us stronger and we’re able to help more people."

Trespass charge dropped against mother who protested bath salt sales

By Howard B. Owens

Accused of a trespass violation, Nicole Lang entered Batavia City Court today with hands trembling, nervous about her pending case but adamant she did nothing wrong July 11 when she was accused of trespassing at The 420 Emporium.

Lang went into the store and accused an employee of selling bath salts to her son, Jason Lang.

Because police believed Lang had been ordered from the store and chose to reenter, she was given a citation for alleged trespassing.

Today, Judge Michael Del Plato, on the recommendation of the District Attorney's Office, dismissed the charge with the stipulation that Lang not be re-arrested within the next six months.

Lang has no prior criminal history.

Outside court, Lang said she was very happy about the turn of events.

Del Plato also issued an order of protection, requiring Lang not to have contact with the employee who filed the trespass complaint, Joseph Wesley.

The 420 Emporium was raided by the DEA on July 25 and has not opened its doors since. The location at 400 Ellicott St., Batavia, is apparently owned or co-owned by Joshua Denise. Denise was arrested during the DEA raid.

Jason Lang, the onetime owner of the Laughing Buddha on Ellicott Street, is scheduled to appear in Town of Batavia Court today on charges related to his alleged attempt to call the 420's landlord and suggest he was with the State Police and warn the property owner that the 420 allegedly sold synthetic marijuana.

We'll have an update on Jason Lang later today.

Batavia council will appeal to Albany for more effective laws to crack down on designer drug trade

By Howard B. Owens

It's time for the State Legislature to pass legislation dealing more forcefully with the rise of synthetic drugs in New York, Batavia City Council members said on Monday.

City staff will draft a resolution for the council to vote on at its next meeting, encouraging Albany to expand the penal code to make the manufacture, sale and possession of designer drugs a crime with the same penalties as any other controlled substance.

Some on council wanted to know why the city couldn't enact is own tough, local law, but City Attorney George Van Nest explained that's easier said than done.

"The state has determined that this should be addressed under state law," Van Nest said. "There's that issue, that if the city chose to go above and beyond that, it would be preempted by state action.

"There's also a matter of complexity," Van Nest added. "As the materials indicate, this is a very complicated matter. For city staff to sit down and to try and draft and articulate a statute that's going to stand up in court, withstand challenge, is not going to be an easy undertaking."

Last week, the governor's office announced an emergency order banning the sale and possession of a wide range of synthetic drug compounds, including substances that act like controlled substances.

But breaking this law is only a violation. The maximum criminal penalty under the law is a $500 fine and 15 days in jail.

Councilwoman Rose Mary Christian noted that DEA agents seized about $750,000 from the reported owners of The 420 Emporium chain in raids on July 25, which is quite a bit of money compared to a $500 fine.

Incorporating sale and possession into penal law would mean defendants could face a year in jail for a misdemeanor or several years in prison for a felony conviction (depending on the how much of the substance a defendant possessed).

City Manager Jason Molino shared a report with council members that said from around May 1 (the approximate date The 420 Emporium opened in Batavia) until July 25 (when the DEA raided the store (and it's been closed since)), Batavia PD handled 35 to 40 calls for "bath salts" related incidents.

Since July 25, Batavia PD has handled no such calls.

During the course of those three months, seven individuals were identified as alleged bath salt users.

"That doesn't mean there couldn't have been more, but we didn't have contact with them," Molino said.

"Bath salts" has become a generic name for a range of products that, despite their "not for human consumption" labels, are often snorted, injected or inhaled in order to provide the user with a stimulant-type of high or hallucinations. The chemicals used have nothing in common with substances commonly added to hot water to provide a relaxing bath.

Because the manufacturers of these chemicals change the compounds as quickly as state and federal officials can ban them, it will take a more comprehensive piece of legislation from Albany to effectively deal with the synthetic drug trade in New York.

Law enforcement and medical calls for 'bath salts' seems to have decreased in Genesee County

By Howard B. Owens

The bath salt epidemic in Batavia seems to have subsided over the past couple of weeks.

Law enforcement and health officials across the board report fewer emergency responses that appear related to the use of bath salts by local residents.

Whether the decline in known usage is related to the closure of the 420 store at 400 Ellicott St., Batavia or some other factor is unclear.

In a report prepared yesterday by the Genesee County Health Department, a UMMC nurse manager is quoted as saying there were six bath salt patients admitted to ER in the middle of July. In the two weeks prior to Tuesday, there was one bath salt case in ER.

Michael Merrill, chief medical officer for UMMC, who told The Batavian on July 16 that emergency room cases related to bath salts had become routine, confirmed today that the hospital has seen no new bath salt cases for close to two weeks.

"The easy supplier in town is gone and now the supply is gone," Merrill said.

The drop in synthetic drug-related calls could also be a result of increased awareness by potential users of how dangerous the drugs are, officials said, and the fact that some of the people who seemed to have been involved in bath salts during the height of the seeming barrage of bath salt-related emergencies are now in jail.

"I think the people who wanted to experiment have seen all the negative things that this does and might not want to experiment (now)," Det. Rich Schauf said. "Maybe they had the thought that this might be something to do because it’s legal and then they saw that it's something that’s very harmful, and it got a lot of publicity, it might cause somebody to say, 'I’m not going to harm myself with it.' "

Synthetic drugs have been a growing problem across the nation over the past couple of years and on July 9, the federal government enacted more stringent legal controls on the sale of the substances.

Following the new legislation, the federal Drug Enforcment Administration was lead agency in raids in about 100 cities across the U.S., including Batavia, on establishments suspected of selling synthetic drugs.

Just prior to the raids, The Batavian reported that regionally, communities with emergency responses for suspected synthetic drug incidents were those communities that seemed to have an alleged local supplier of the drugs. Law enforcement officials in areas without an alleged local supplier reported seeing far fewer synthetic drug-related problems.

Users of synthetic drugs tend to display paranoid and agitated behavior, sometimes hallucinating, or they suffer sever medical problems such as high body temperature and seizures, creating both public safety and public health concerns.

Steve Sharpe, director of emergency communications for the Sheriff's Office, said without more data -- and two weeks is too little data -- he thinks it's too soon to say for sure whether usage is down.

He did report, however, that no new calls have been documented in the county outside of the City of Batavia since Aug. 1.

Officer Eric Hill is quoted in the health department report as saying Batavia PD was receiving two or three synthetic drug-related calls per shift, which would mean six to nine calls per day. 

The call volume, Schauf said yesterday, has dropped significantly in recent weeks.

The county health department has received one complaint about the possible sale of bath salts since July 25, when The 420 Emporium was raided. A citizen turned in an empty "Eight Ballz" packet that was allegedly purchased locally on July 26 or 27.

The 420 store remains closed, though its shelves are still stocked with glassware inventory and on the chain's Facebook page for the Brockport location an Oakfield resident asked about the Batavia store and an admin for The 420 Emporium page replied, "No the Batavia store is not open yet."

Joshua Denise, who appears to be the owner (or at least co-owner) of the Batavia store, was arrested during the DEA raid. He is out of federal custody pending further legal proceedings.

Schauf said the Batavia PD continues to remain alert for possible reports of synthetic drug sales in the city and there's no assumption the problems associated with synthetic drugs have passed.

"Somebody who wants to find it will find it," Schauf said. "If there’s a demand, somebody will say, 'there’s a demand' and they’ll try to sell it."

Cuomo's new criminal penalties for synthetic drug sales seen locally as a 'Band-Aid'

By Howard B. Owens

Local officials welcome new NYS Health Department regulations cracking down on the sale and possession of synthetic drugs, but also say the new rules are no substitute for aggressive legislation from Albany.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made three stops across the state today to announce new rules against drugs he deemed more dangerous than crack cocaine or methamphetamines or heroin.

“It is a new face on a very old enemy. It’s an enemy that we fought decade after decade. The enemy is drugs, and it’s an ongoing battle. When you beat one manifestation of the drugs, it comes back in another form, sometimes more virulent.

But whether it’s crack cocaine or methamphetamines or heroin back in the old days, this is just the newest explosion of that old enemy. And in some ways it’s more dangerous and it’s more insidious, because this wasn’t sold in a back alley. This wasn’t sold on a street corner. This isn’t sold in the shadows. This is sold in broad daylight, over the counter in stores all across this state and across this nation.”

Unlike a previous health department ban on synthetic cannabinoids, which allowed only for civil penalties, the new emergency regulations give local police officers the power to arrest people found in possession of banned substances.

If convicted, a person caught selling or possessing one of the banned substances could be fined $500 or serve 15 days in jail, and while the new regulation (PDF) allows for multiple penalties for a shop owner caught with several packages of drugs, District Attorney Lawrence Friedman said he's concerned the new rules won't have the desired effect.

"When you consider the harm that we know is caused by these substances, I would like to see more teeth in the law," Friedman said.

When The 420 Emporium stores, along with the residence of the owner(s), were raided by the DEA on July 25, agents recovered more than $700,000 in cash.

Friedman said thinks the penalties need to be harsher than just a $500 fine, even if the fine and jail time can be strung together.

Sheriff Gary Maha expressed some of the same reservations.

Maha urged the Legislature to pass a bill that would make the sale or possession of synthetic compounds a violation of the law under the state's penal code, rather than just a violation of the public health law.

"This appears to be a 'Band-Aid' approach until the legislature enacts such legislation," Maha said. "It helps, but is not enough."

The new regulation bans a dozen specific compounds associated with the type of synthetic drug commonly known as "bath salts." 

While the state has already listed some "bath salt" compounds as controlled substances, the state doesn't have a comprehensive "analog" law (a law that bans substances that are the same or similar to already illegal controlled substances).

The new regulation does specifically cover analogs of banned substances. It also covers a wider variety of the more than 450 known synthetic cannabinoids.

While the regulation specifically states employees of stores selling such products can be prosecuted, the store owners (anybody with an ownership interest in the store) are also held to criminal liability even if not present at the time of sale.

Besides the fine and jail time, a store owner could lose his business.

Batavia PD Chief Shawn Heubusch wasn't available for comment today, but City Manager Jason Molino said the health department's new regulations were a topic on conversation today in a meeting between city staff and the county health department.

Molino said that while the new law seems to lack teeth, it is a step in the right direction.

He also pointed out that tonight is National Night Out and several neighborhoods in the city are actively participating, including the neighborhood around Pringle Park, which organized its own event this year.

"When neighborhoods get together, that is your more powerful enforcement tool," Molino said.

Inset photo: File photo.

Man ID'd as store clerk after DEA raid appears as owner of 420 store in documents

By Howard B. Owens

Joshua Denise, the 37-year-old Batavia resident who was identified in a U.S. Attorney press release and in a federal search warrant affidavit as an employee of The 420 Emporium appears to be at least co-owner the the store at 400 Ellicott St., according to documents obtained by The Batavian.

While working on a story Monday about how other locations of The 420 Emporium have apparently reopened while the Batavia store remains closed, The Batavian stopped by the location to take pictures of the store and check for signs of activity.

The mail had apparently not been picked up in a couple of days and clearly visible in the mailbox was an envelope with a return address for New York Taxation and Finance addressed Joshua Denise c/o The 420 Store, LLC.

The 420 Store, LLC was filed with the Secretary of State on Feb. 16, 2012.

This is a separate incorporation from The 420 Emporium, Inc., filed Aug. 29, 2011.

The Batavian then issued a FOIL request with the Batavia Fire Department for any fire inspection documents.

Denise signed the inspection notice as "owner/occupant" of the business location.

A FOIL request was also sent to the Genesee County Department of Health for any inspection records. 

Denise is listed on those documents as "co-owner" of "420 Emporium," 400 Ellicott St.

Federal authorities, assisted by local law enforcement, raided the store July 26 as part of a larger operation hitting all five 420 Emporium locations and arrested Denise along with Michelle Condidorio, 30, of Le Roy.

Both Denise and Condidorio were arraigned in federal court that day and charged with possession with intent to distribute, and distribution of, a controlled substance analog.

They are suspected of selling packages of a product that contained alpha-PVP, a chemical that is an analog to MDPV. MDPV became a controlled substance on July 9. The substances are believed to provide an euphoric type high and be addictive. Side effects seem to include paranoia, hallucinations and agitation.

While Denise and Condidorio were not held by authorities following arraignment, the store has not reopened.

Meanwhile, the 420 stores in Brockport, Fulton and Henrietta have, according to sources, reopened.

The Brockport store has advertised job openings at its location on its Facebook page.

Charles Darwin Fitzgerald is listed in DEA documents as well as the incorporation papers as the owner of The 420 Emporium.  His live-in girlfriend, Amber Snover, has proclaimed herself on Facebook as the owner of the stores in Brockport, Rochester, Henrietta and Fulton.

The feds also searched the Fitzgerald/Snover home in Greece, and reportedly recovered a large bag of cash, but neither subject has been charged with a crime so far.

In an inspection of the 420 store in Batavia on May 31, Denise allegedly told a county health worker that his store didn't sell synthetic cannabinoids.

The health technician reported the following items were on sale: herbal incense brands of "Kryptonite" as well as items labeled "Rain of Fire," "Fuzzy Wuzzy," and "Kush 10x."

Kryptonite herbal incense can be found for sale on what appear to be online head shops and there is at least one YouTube video of a person allegedly smoking a substance of the same name.

"Rain of Fire," "Fuzzy Wuzzy," and "Kush 10x" are all reported on at least one Web site as a form of alleged synthetic cannabinoid.

The health technician issued to Denise a notice that day that the state had banned synthetic cannabinoids of all types.

On July 2, the County Health Department also cited the 420 Store for selling tobacco products that were not either behind the counter with only employee access or in a locked case.

Denise didn't contest the citation and paid a $350 fine on July 16.

The business was also found allegedly to be in violation of city fire codes on July 16, such as accumulation of trash in the back room, a hole above the back door that needed to be properly repaired, lack of properly located fire extinguishers, lack of outlet covers and no exit sign above the rear exit.

There's no indication whether these alleged violations were resolved or are still pending.

Gov. Cuomo offers rhetoric, no specifics on how state will deal with synthetic drugs

By Howard B. Owens

Following the dedication ceremony at the new Muller Quaker Dairy plant at the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park, Batavia, Gov. Andrew Cuomo met with local and regional reporters to answer a variety of questions.

WHAM13's Sean Carroll and I both wanted to ask about synthetic drugs.

Carroll asked what action citizens can expect Albany to take on the issue and Cuomo replied, "We’ve taken action. I think we have to take more action. It is a problem that is literally exploding. I have been talking with the legislature and we’re going to be taking further aggressive action in the near future."

Next question, why has New York been unable to pass a bill banning analogs to controlled substances such as Kansas, Colorado and New Jersey, among other states, have done?

Cuomo's first response was, "talk to the Legislature."

He then added, "The Department of Health already issued a ban and I'm working with legislature to get even stricter legislation."

I pointed out that after the health department ban, the bath salt problem in Batavia only got worse. The ban seemed pretty ineffective.

"A ban against sale is a sweeping measure and that’s what this ban is," Cuomo said. "We banned the sale of bath salts. The problem is continuing to grow and I’m working with the legislature on having an even more aggressive piece of legislation, which I hope to have next session."

Would that mean an analog bill?

"I'm working with legislature to get the most aggressive, strictest bill that we can get," Cuomo said.

I then asked him, going after the sale of controlled substances is one approach, but some drug treatment experts suggest more needs to be done on the user abuse side, getting people more aggressively into treatment.

Here's Cuomo's answer: "This nation has fought the sale and use of drugs for generations now, right? You have to attack both sides. You have to try and limit the supply and then you have to limit the user. You have to enforce the laws. It’s public safety. And try to stop the source and supply and we’re trying to both."

Photos: Bashing bath salts in Batavia

By Howard B. Owens

With rain threatening most of the afternoon, the turn out for the anti-bath salt rally at L&L Transmissions was less than organizers hoped, but still, more than 30 people joined in the event. People had a lot of fun taking whacks at the "your brain on bath salts" van.

The event was hosted by Affliction Ink, CPR (Computer and Phone Repair) and L&L Transmissions.

Anti-bath salt rally set for Saturday at L&L Transmissions, Batavia

By Howard B. Owens

Reminder, the "Let's Beat Bath Salts" rally is tomorrow (Saturday) from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at L&L Transmissions, 8781 Alexander Road, Batavia.

Sponsors for the event are:

Hawley Insurance
Molasses Hill Bulk Foods
The Olive Branch
Southside Deli
Neptune's Gardens
Angotti's Beverage
East Town Beverage
Gold Rush
T-Shirts, ETC.
Bourbon & Burger Co.
Valle Jewelers 
Pink Gorilla Tees
Foxprowl Collectibles
Henry Moscicki, NP-C
Rochester Metal Booking
Weis Truck and Trailer Repair
Frankly Design
The Batavian
Falleti Motors
Clor's Meat Market
Low Xpectations Car and Truck Club
B-Town Yellow Taxi
Affordable Cab
Batavia Restaurant Supply

First synthetic drug charge from raid at Tonawanda Indian Reservation filed by feds

By Howard B. Owens

An employee of a smoke shop on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation was charged in federal court today for allegedly selling synthetic marijuana and bath salts.

Tiffany E. Greiner, 22, of Akron, was arraigned in federal court in Buffalo on a single count of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance analog intended for human consumption.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison or a $1 million fine or both.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Greiner was employed as a sales clert at the Sacajawea Smoke Shop in Basom.

The charge stems from a lengthy investigation by the DEA involving sales of synthetic marijuana and bath salts that resulted in numerous search warrants being served at various shops on the reservation in February.

The criminal complaint alleges that Greiner sold quantities of "Sexy Monkey" and "Alien Incense."

The substances are allegedly analogs to controlled substances and the government is accusing Greiner of knowingly selling the products for human consumption to undercover agents.

The Genesee County Sheriff's Office assisted in the investigation.

Summary of WNY district affidavit in 420 Emporium case

By Howard B. Owens

Yesterday our story on the raid at The 420 Emporium contained information from an affidavit we obtained that had been filed in support of a search warrant request.

It turns out, that affidavit came out of the Northern District of the U.S. Attorney's Office. Today, we obtained a copy of the affidavit from the Western District, which includes Batavia, Brockport and Rochester.

Below is some of the information that is specific to the WNY affidavit, presented in the order it appears in the affidavit, omitting information covered in the previous affidavit and concentrating on items relevant to Batavia:

  • Product obtained at the stores allegedly contained controlled substance analogs known as alpha-PVP, Pentedrone, MPPP, UR-144, and AM2201.
  • The first undercover purchase was May 10 at the Brockport store. The agent inquired about "Snowblind" and "Rave." The agent paid $60 for the products and left. Tests showed the products allegedly contained Pentedrone.
  • On July 19, an undercover agent again entered the Brockport store and noticed packages of synthetic marijuana were no longer available. The agent inquired about a product called "Da Bomb." A clerk reportedly said the store did not carry the product anymore because it had been outlawed. A second clerk said the problem was the packages didn't contain a surgeon general warning and the first clerk allegedly said that somebody would "repackage that shit in like a month or two and send it back out, you know that," and the second clerk added, "You know it's going to be the same companies, different name."
  • The first alleged controlled purchase by agents in Batavia was July 2. Two undercover agents entered. The first agent inquired about Amped, Pump-It and Spice. A store clerk allegedly said the Batavia location was out of Pump-It but the Rochester store might have it. UC-1 asked if a different synethetic cannabinoid had the same watermelon flavor as "Mr. Happy." The clerk allegedly said that was like "comparing apples to oranges." The UC asked for a recommendation and the clerk said she could not recommend anything, saying "people like what they like." The agent reportedly recognized face-down packages of Amped on the counter, so asked if there was any Amped available. The agent purchased one package of Amped for $65.
  • The second agent requested a synthetic cannabinoid known as "Purple Haze." The agent said one of the product made his girlfriend's stomach sick and asked what product might make someone's stomach sick. The clerk said she didn't know and added that the product was not supposed to be used for human consumption. The clerk then sold the agent a package of "Purple Haze" for $21.60. The affidavit notes that agents made it abundantly clear they intended to use products for human consumption and the female clerk was reluctant to talk about it.
  • On July 16, two undercover agents entered the Batavia store. The first agent asked for a packet of Snowman and the clerk said the store was out of it. "The clerk further stated the brands Rave and Snowman tested positive in 'field test,' " the affidavit says. "When asked if they had anything like it the clerk said he could not lead the agent in any one direction, but then, in a not-so-subtle fashion, displayed an empty packet of Amped." The agent said he had taken "Amped" before and tried to purchase one package for $54. When the agent couldn't produce ID, the other agent allegedly made the purchase.
  • The second agent then inquired about G-13. The clerk said the product was illegal. The agent asked if any was still in stock and the clerk allegedly responded that they had "Da Bomb" and "WOW" in stock. The first agent then said, "we need papers." The clerk said he could not sell the product and papers in the same purchase "because I have to assume it is going to be consumed," allegedly adding, but "you can go outside and come back." Agent one allegedly made the synthetic cannabinoid purchase, left the store while the second agent waited, returned 10 seconds later and bought papers. 
  • During the July 16 undercover buy, the clerk advised the agents 420 Emporium had been in the news recently about bath salts. The clerk allegedly explained that he would only get into trouble if he sold bath salts for human consumption.
  • The Amped was not being kept in plain view, the agent notes in the affidavit. A sign read, "All products are intended for their legal purposes only. Any mention of illegal activity will not be tolerated. Thank you."
  • During an alleged buy in Rochester, a clerk reportedly told an agent that there were 16 remote cameras in the store that were monitored by the owner from his home.
  • The affidavit notes that the Batavia store had been subject of multiple police reports from concerned citizens and community activists. The report makes note of, but not by name, the arrest of Nicole Lang for alleged trespassing. The incident spawned increased media attention on the store and led to a protest at the location, the affidavit notes.
  • Michelle Condidorio, Joshua Denise and Austin Szczur are all named in the affidavit as suspects for arrest.

DEA's Operation Log Jam targeted alleged synthetic drug distributors in 109 cities

By Howard B. Owens

Raids conducted in 109 cities around the United States yesterday were the result of local law enforcement asking for help in dealing with an exploding synthetic drug problem, the head of the Drug Enforcement Adminsitration said today during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

"There was an outpouring of requests to the DEA from chiefs and sheriffs throughout the country asking for our help," said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.

The press conference was carried live on DEA's website.

While there is work to be done to cut off the supplies of synthetic drug chemicals from China and other parts of Asia, it was the pleas for help from people in the United States that prompted the DEA to lead the first-ever nationwide crack down on the synthetic drug trade, called "Operation Log Jam."

"In this first take down, we wanted to go after the locations that are most impacting our communities," Leonhart said.

Operation Log Jam was a combined effort by the DEA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with assistance from the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, as well as countless members of state and local law enforcement.

In total, 91 people were arrested, more than 4.8 million packets of synthetic cannabinoids (ex. K2, Spice) and the products to produce nearly 13.6 million more, were seized. Agents also confiscated 167,000 packets of synthetic cathinones, "bath salts," and the products to produce an additional 392,000 packets.

Of course, part of Operation Log Jam was the raids on The 420 Emporium location in Batavia, as well as the other four stores in the chain and the home in Greece of the stores' owner(s).

The operation was the largest of its kind in the history of the DEA, Leonhart said.

Raids done, Brockport PD chief willing to discuss 420 Emporium in his community

By Howard B. Owens

Previously we published a story looking at the communities that had head shops alleged to be selling synthetic drugs and those villages that had no such establishment.

As part of the process, we requested an interview Brockport Chief of Police Daniel Varrenti -- several times. At one point, we got the message back that he was out of the office until Thursday.

Yesterday morning as I stood outside The 420 Emporium on Ellicott Street, Batavia, and knew the same sort of raid was taking place in Brockport I thought, "ah, this is why the chief didn't want to talk to me until Thursday."

This morning, Varrenti apologized for not getting back to me. He was in fact concerned about discussing The 420 Emporium prior to the raids.

This morning while awaiting my own appearance on "Kimberly and Beck" radio show on "The Buzz," I heard a Brockport resident talk about how many people in the community there were concerned about the 420 allegedly selling bath salts and that just like in Batavia, dozens of people drove down Market Street yesterday cheering on law enforcement during the raid.

Varrenti confirmed this morning that there were people in the community concerned that the 420 might be selling synthetic drugs and were requesting police action. He said, however, as a law enforcement issue, his officers did not handle many calls similar to what we've seen in Batavia involving bizarre and violent behavior.

There were calls, he said, involving bizarre behavior, but it was never established that they were related to bath salts.

His officers, he said, weren't necessarily looking for a connection to bath salts.

"I know I've read reports where people might have denoted some psychological problems, but we do not know if it was the result of synthetic drugs," Varrenti said.

"How do we know we haven’t come across 20 of these things, but because there was no law broken all we’re going to do is bring in the person to be evaluated for (his or her) mental health and we’re never going to know what the problem was," Varrenti added.

Varrenti said as a 33-year veteran in law enforcement including more than a dozen years as a narcotics detective, many people in the community know him as an expert in narcotics.

"If I'm a quasi-expert in anything," Varrenti said. "It's narcotics."

With that background, people were looking to his department especially to do something about the perceived problem at the 420.

"Why can't you take care of this problem we have here?" Varrenti said people would ask him.

"It's very difficult because these investigations take a long time," Varrenti said. "We don't want to lock up the clerk behind the counter. We want to get to the distributor or the importer. I'm not a patient person by nature and I can only imagine what it's like for a member of the community who has a family member (who is using bath salts), and we've gotten those complaints."

In one of the affidavits used to secure search warrants for yesterday's raids,* community complaints in Brockport are used as a justification for the search.  Varrenti provided DEA agents with an email from a community member who said "it is killing our children" and implored Brockport PD to do something about it.

*NOTE: There were two affidavits used for search warrants yesterday, one for the Northern District of the U.S. Attorney's Office and one for the Western District.  Yesterday, we only had the Northern District affidavit. Today we obtained the Western District affidavit, which is full of information specific to Batavia that was not in the Northern District affidavit. In a separate post later today we'll share information from that affidavit.

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