Sale of synthetic drugs results in confiscation of $9.2 million and imprisonment for seven people

HOUSTON — The seventh and final member implicated in a synthetic narcotics distribution ring has been sentenced to federal prison, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in Charge of the Houston Division Daniel C. Comeaux announced. and US attorney Jennifer B. Lowery.

Frank Gonzalez, 61, Mesa, Arizona, pleaded guilty Aug. 19, 2020.

Today, U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr. ordered Gonzalez to serve a total of 32 months in federal prison and lose $117,984. During the hearing, testimony detailed the significant dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, including the risk of death, major health issues, and the negative impact they have on the community and first responders. The court also heard that there is no standard manufacturing process, so users don’t know what chemical is actually there or how it will affect them.

In imposing the sentence, Judge Hanks noted that the overall operation was fueled by greed and without regard to potential dangers to the community. He recognized the court’s role in deterring others from engaging in similar conduct and the need to protect the public.

In 2015, authorities began investigating a smokehouse in Laredo. During this time, they uncovered a nationwide mail-order business that Bowles owned and operated that was supplying the store with illegal synthetic cannabinoid products. Operators in several states received requests to order products with names such as Brain Freeze and Death Grip, which were delivered to store owners in California. Payments were often sent to accounts controlled by Bowles in Arizona. Moreover, he used various business entities to conceal the amount of income made.

During the investigation, authorities tracked payments from several tobacco retail stores across the United States and identified several bank accounts involved in the scheme. Financial records show that from February 2012 to 2019, the network received over $15.4 million in illicit proceeds.

Bowles, 47, of Phoenix, Arizona, has previously been sentenced to 192 months in prison, while five others have received prison terms ranging from 63 to 98 months. Forfeitures for the seven convictions totaled $9.8 million.

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds that mimic the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, but often have serious, life-threatening side effects. They can be infused into plant material and ingested with rolling papers, pipes, vaporizers, or taken orally. They are usually sold in small foil or plastic bags containing dried leaves and are marketed as incense that can be smoked. They are usually sold on the street as synthetic, fake weed, legal marijuana and known under popular brand names such as Spice, K2, Kush and Klimaxx.

The Drug Enforcement Administration; The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI conducted the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OECDTF) investigation dubbed Operation Brain Freeze with the assistance of from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Zapata and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Offices in Arizona. The OECDTF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs, and transnational criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, multi-agency approach focused on intelligence, which leverages the strengths of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies against criminal networks. Additional information about the OECDTF program is available on the Department of Justice’s OECDTF webpage.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Graciela Lindberg and Lance Watt prosecuted the case

Alvin J. Chase