Anatomy of a BUST: Authorities seize bath salts

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Hiding behind the streaked windows of a convenience store’s beer cooler showcase, uniformed deputies literally “chilled” for hours before their target arrived.

A clerk at the store in Gray – already under arrest but willing to cooperate – rings up beer and gas sales beside his new “partner,” an undercover cop.

Once they learned that a weekly drop was imminent, officers decided to take a gamble.

Mostly, the clerk told disappointed would-be buyers of synthetic marijuana, an estimated 100 or so over the course of the morning, that the “stuff” they furtively requested was out of stock.

At around 11 a.m., the man cops called “the source” arrived, spoke briefly to the clerk, confirming his reason for being there, and saw the camo-clad officers emerge from the cooler.

Albert Vo of Dulac, alleged supplier of synthetic marijuana to a string of Terrebonne Parish stores, placed his hands behind his back, resigned to the cuffs that came next.

A search warrant obtained for the truck Vo drove resulted in 900 bags of the substance being seized, under the brand-name “Kush,” worth about $25 each at the counter.

But Vo and the clerk were not the only people arrested Wednesday morning in connection with designer drug distribution.

Multi-national operation

A series of lightning raids throughout Terrebonne Parish, as part of a nationwide federal Drug Enforcement Administration operation called “Project Synergy” resulted in 11 arrests, two warrants for fugitive suspects, the seizure of $500,000 in cash and crates of product. An additional $500,000 was recovered from a safe-deposit box after execution of a warrant.

Nationwide as part of the same operation in 35 states, 49 U.S. cities and five countries, 227 arrests were made in total, and 416 search warrants executed, making it the largest designer drug sweep in the nation’s history.

“Shutting down businesses that traffic in these drugs and attacking their operations worldwide is a priority for DEA and our law enforcement partners,” said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. “These designer drugs are destructive, dangerous, and are destroying lives. DEA has been at the forefront of the battle against this trend and is targeting these new and emerging drugs with every scientific, legislative, and investigative tool at our disposal.”

The governments of Australia, Barbados, Panama, and Canada were also involved but not with the Terrebonne cases.

Authorities – primarily local police departments coordinating with the DEA as in Terrebonne – also seized:

• Cash and assets: $51 million

• Packaged synthetic drugs: 21,999 pounds

• Illegal bath salts: 700 pounds

• Fake marijuana: 2,760 pounds

• Treated plant material: 1,726 pounds


In Terrebonne, as some other locations, authorities said they suspected dealers and distributors of laundering drug cash in Yemen and other Middle Eastern nations, suggesting, though not confirming a potential connection to terrorist ,activities.

What Terrebonne authorities are certain of, however, is that the synthetic drugs being sold from legitimate businesses locals patronized every day for routine needs have caused injury and heartbreak.

“We received numerous calls from parents, grandparents and concerned citizens telling us that these locations were selling synthetic marijuana and that their children were affected,” said Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter, at a news conference held after the raids.

Terrebonne District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. said he too has had parents, other relatives and drug users themselves come to his office with tales of woe related to the synthetic marijuana.

“It has burnt their minds and their bodies,” Waitz said of the drug, often labeled as an air freshener, under trade names that in some places include labels like “Spice,” “K-2” and “Genie.”

Both Waitz and Larpenter were present at the suspect locations during and after execution of warrants.

Tracking use or abuse of synthetic marijuana and its designer drug cousins is difficult, local medical experts said.

At Terrebonne General Medical Center, the only hospital in the parish with some form of information readily available, Emergency Department Nurse Director Nancy Yzaguirre said about five to six patients per year admit to using the drugs.

“However, this drug does not show up on drug screenings, so it is difficult to gauge the full extent of its usage among patients,” Yzaguirre said.

In addition to the Fast Stop-n-Go in Gray, at 4174 W. Main St., where Vo was busted, arrests and seizures were made at Alma Street Discount, 6931 Alma St. and Kee Foods, an Exxon station at the corner of West Park and North Hollywood. Warrants were also executed at two apartments on Monarch Drive, one occupied by an employee of one of the stores and the other by a man listed in business records as an owner of Kee Foods.

There, as at the other locations, cops barged in to announce warrant executions and make arrests, the culmination of six months of buys, collection of witness information and surveillance.


On Monarch Drive, retail big-box worker Sharon Foreman said she awoke to the ruckus.

Her neighbor is Pepper Manuel, a clerk who was moved in to the apartment last year by a woman she believes is his girlfriend. They lived there with a 2-year-old child, Foreman said.

“He was quiet and I would speak to him when I saw him,” Foreman said.

“I wasn’t really susprised. I had seen men come by, visitors, although not like it was heavy traffic.”

Foreman, who often picked up sundries from the nearby Exxon station, said that during her time living on Monarch she had witnessed buys of the designer drugs at the store.

She also frequented the Alma Street store, where beer prices were especially appealing Coors for $2 – and often chatted with clerks there.

“They were always courteous, and I was always courteous to them,” she said of the store employees.

At the Exxon store, after she had been out of town, an employee said he noticed her absence.

The sales of what she referred to as “mojo” sometimes changed the climate, she said.

“When I would go in there and someone was buying they got quiet, they would quickly hand off things,” she said. Buyers would be apprehensive around Foreman, who described them primarily as “young, white and belligerent.”

“I’m freaked out but I am glad they were successful,” she said of the raids, then spoke of her neighbor.

“I don’t think he would have shot nobody. He had a small child up in there. But you never know who you are living by and you never know who it is people take into her lives. The girl living there, she took him in.”


Shortly after 8 a.m., at the Exxon station, deputies warned away puzzled gasoline and grocery buyers outside, as agents and deputies inside tallied the contents of boxes containing drug packets and counted cash stuffed into valises, leather satchels and shopping bags.

Officers also seized cell phones and a Tech-9 firearm.

A warrant was issued for store owner Fuad Hamed, of Gretna, believed still somewhere in Louisiana. The warrant accuses him of controlled substance distribution, racketeering, money laundering, transactions involving drug proceeds, failure to possess a tax stamp and violating a drug-free zone.

Mohamed Nagi, another suspect, is believed to be in Yemen and warrants were issued for him as well.

Employees and managers arrested on similar charges were Fuad Towfik, Karen Yost and son David Yost of Thibodaux, Khalad Hamad, Tawfiq Almansoob, Pepper Manuel Jr., Stacey Ann Verdin, Abdulqawi Nagi and Kassim Nagi, sons of Mohamed Nagi, all of Houma and Lawanda Deville of Gray.

Although the operation was ongoing for a half year, detectives and drug agents in Terrebonne had been following up on local leads regarding synthetic marijuana since 2008, when it first appeared locally. They had been in communication with one user, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity – because he is not authorized to speak with reporters – for five years.

Putting the cases together, the source said, took time because of their complexity and other issues involving priorities.

The raids, that source and other officers said, have already had a major impact on designer drug sales in Houma and surrounding communities, where the cost to a buyer of the packets has jumped from $25 to $50 and in some cases $75.


The overall DEA project, authorities said, helped boost the potential for success, as well as benefits from a multi-agency approach, particularly due to the multi-national aspects.

In addition to the DEA, assistance was also provided through the Department of Homeland Security Investigations division, the Louisiana State Police, the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and the IRS also played roles in the national operation, said officials at the DEA.

The Terrebonne cases will be prosecuted under state laws outlawing designer drugs, likely by Waitz.

The potential of a terror link, although mentioned by authorities, was not spoken of in detail.

“Some of these organizations are tied with terrorist organizations, and that’s where we partner with our federal and other overseas components to go ahead and tackle these particular problems,” said DEA Supervisory Special Agent Roberto Bryan Jr., who worked the raids at the Terrebonne sites. Bryan said he was referring to like operations that exist and did not know whether such ties are implicated in the Terrebonne cases. “The particular way of handling it is through our Special Operations Division, and that particular entity coordinates with the federal agencies in the U.S. and abroad. That’s how we’re able to go ahead and trace the money to these source countries or where this money is going to in order to eradicate and also follow up and prosecute those individuals that are over there.”

Ibriham Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on Islamic Relations, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization, said residents in Terrebonne and other communities should not jump to conclusions because of the nationality or names of defendants in the designer drug cases.

“I would urge everyone to look at the facts in the indictments if they come,” Hooper said, when asked about questions concerning the terror link potential. “If there is no evidence of that, the only thing it would be based on stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs.

“Sometimes in these types of cases we hear in initially about links to national security issues or terrorism, and by the time it is all said and done it never proves out. Overseas money transfers have been a big issue resulting in the targeting of Muslims, and that has been used in a number of cases. The best policy is to let the legal process take its course.”

Terrebonne sheriff’s deputies handcuff Kahlad Hamad at an Exxon station in Houma. Dubbed “Project Synergy,” last week’s sting resulted in 11 arrests, two warrants for fugitive suspects, the seizure of $500,000 in cash and crates of illegal bath salts. An additional $500,000 was recovered from a safe-deposit box after execution of a warrant.