Last Defendant Convicted in Nationwide Synthetic Narcotics Distribution
HOUSTON – A 47-year-old man will forfeit three real properties and pay a $5 million money judgement for running a multi-million dollar synthetic narcotics distribution network, announced Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Daniel C. Comeaux and Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery.
Daniel Bowles, Phoenix, Arizona, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and analogues. He admitted to overseeing call-takers and the operation’s business finances as well as using multiple business entities to conceal the significant amount of its illegal proceeds.
In 2015, authorities began investigating a smoke shop in Laredo. During that time, they discovered a nationwide mail order business that supplied the shop with illegal synthetic cannabinoid products. Call-takers in several states took orders for the products with names such as “Brain Freeze” and “Death Grip” which was delivered to shop owners from California. Payment was set to Arizona, often into accounts Bowles controlled.
During the investigation, authorities tracked payments from multiple retail smoke shops throughout the United States and identified several bank accounts involved in the scheme. Financial records show that from February 2012 through 2019, the network received over $15.4 million in illicit proceeds.
As part of his plea agreement, Bowles also agreed to a money judgment in the amount of $5 million and the forfeiture of three real properties.
U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr. accepted the plea and set sentencing for Nov. 16. At that time, Bowles faces up to 20 years in prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine. He was permitted to remain on bond pending that hearing.
Six others have also pleaded guilty to their involvement in the organization. Ratchanee McAuley, 50, also of Phoenix; Thirawat Athikulrat, 42, and Chuanphit Srithongrung, 44, both of Downey, California; Frank Gonzalez, 60, and Ernesto Salazar, 34, both of Mesa, Arizona; and Don Jessop, 52, Salt lake City, Utah.
McAuley, Athikulrat and Srithongrung each admitted to maintaining warehouses to manufacture the synthetic cannabinoid products. As part of their pleas, Gonzalez and Jessop acknowledged being call-takers, while Salazar admitted to assisting with manufacturing the products and travelling across the county to pick up the proceeds.
Synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds that mimic the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. These chemical compounds can be applied to carrier mediums such as plant material and ingested using rolling papers, pipes, vaporizers or otherwise taken orally. Synthetic cannabinoids are usually sold in small, foil or plastic bags containing dried leaves (resembling potpourri) and are marketed as incense that can be smoked. It is commonly sold and known on the street as synthetic marijuana, fake weed, legal and by its popular brand names such as Spice, K2, Kush, Klimaxx and many others.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigation dubbed Operation Brain Freeze with the assistance of Texas Department of Public Safety, FBI and sheriff’s offices in Zapata County and Maricopa County, Arizona. OCDETF identifies, disrupts and dismantles the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs and transnational criminal organizations that threaten the United States by using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach that leverages the strengths of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies against criminal networks. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found on the Department of Justice’s OCDETF webpage.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Graciela Lindberg and Lance Watt are prosecuting the case.