Police looking for Spice, bath salts make 'substantial find'

Published: Thursday, May 26 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Unified Police Sgt. Scott Van Wagoner, right, talks with detective Mike Ashley, back center, and Sgt. Kari Huth, left, during an investigation. Officers served a warrant Tuesday, May 24, 2011 on two South Salt Lake businesses, Smith's Copy and Print and Tobacco Outlet.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

MILLCREEK — An undercover police investigation into a local tobacco shop suspected of selling illegal Spice and bath salts resulted in more than detectives were expecting this week.

"We knew he was selling it. We had no idea he was such a prolific seller," said Unified Police Sgt. Scott VanWagoner. "It's a substantial find."

Members of the Unified police narcotics squad served search warrants at two adjacent businesses owned by the same person on Tuesday, The Tobacco Outlet and Smith's Copy and Print shop, both on the corner of 900 East and 4500 South.

Over the past two months, undercover detectives were able to buy Spice and bath salts, also commonly referred to as synthetic pot and synthetic meth, from the tobacco store. Some of the items were in display cases, but placed on a bottom shelf as if an effort was being made to conceal them, and others were kept in a back room. Sometimes the employee from the smoke shop would walk into the print shop before returning with the customer's order, VanWagoner said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill outlawing Spice and bath salts in Utah.

But when officers searched the businesses Tuesday, they said they found 14 pounds of Spice and 14 ounces of bath salts with a combined street value of about $74,000.

Investigators believe not only was the owner receiving shipments of Spice in the mail to sell to patrons, but he was mixing his own brands in a back room and packaging his own material using the printing shop to make labels, VanWagoner said.

No arrests were made Tuesday. But the sergeant said the evidence would now be turned over to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to be considered for possible criminal charges.

Before the warrant was served, the narcotics team met at Unified police headquarters to brief everyone on the case. According to the intelligence that was collected, officers said the owner of the shops, a 20-year businessman in the area, was not taking the new anti-Spice law seriously.

VanWagoner said this week's bust should send a clear message to all local smoke shops that police are taking the new law very seriously.

"We have intelligence on other shops. We know who you are and we know what you're doing," he warned. "We're not asking, we're telling: 'Stop selling this stuff.'"

Several different types of Spice were seized by officers in addition to vials of Ecstasy, a large undisclosed amount of cash and drug paraphernalia such as scales and a glass pipe.

Detectives also found several credit cards typically handed out locally to welfare recipients. VanWagoner said police would be conducting follow-up investigations on the cards to determine if people were trading welfare cards for drugs.

An employee of a fast-food restaurant next door said he had observed a high volume of short-term traffic in front of the stores at all hours of the night. He recalled specifically a regular customer who would enter the printing store about 10 p.m. on several occasions, but would never leave with any copies. The store hours printed on the door indicates the store closes at 5 p.m. each night.

Tuesday, while officers were serving their warrants, a steady stream of customers showed up at the front door trying to get inside. The majority of those people claimed they were only there to buy cigarettes or cigars.

Dave Clayton was one customer turned away Tuesday. He said he was only after cigarettes and wasn't interested in buying Spice.

"It sounds scary to me. You're smoking something that's not meant to be smoked," he said of his reasons for staying away from Spice and bath salts.

The narcotics squad began investigating the shops after receiving dozens of complaints, many from concerned friends and family members of people who were buying the illegal substances.

VanWagoner said the public needs to be aware that even if smoke shops claim the substances they're selling are legal, that doesn't mean they necessarily are.

Lab results for bath salts purchased by undercover officers at the store tested positive for the presence of MDVP, sometimes referred to as "synthetic speed," the sergeant said.

He also noted that a bag of "drone" seized by investigators and used to make bath salts initially tested positive for methamphetamine. Further test results were pending from the Utah State Crime Lab.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

Video Courtesy of KSL.com

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