SALT LAKE CITY — A suspected Spice dealer in Pioneer Park who allegedly bought a stolen handgun after being robbed and shot a year earlier now faces federal drug trafficking and firearms charges.
Police arrested James Musa Gama, 39, of Salt Lake City, not once but twice in two months for selling jars of the synthetic cannabinoid and carrying a gun.
"There isn't anything more volatile in our society than a drug trafficker packing a firearm," said Utah U.S Attorney John Huber.
Drug dealers, he said, don't take disagreements over price or quality to small claims court, but turn to violence.
"It gets very serious, very dangerous, very quickly," Huber said. "We know we are a trigger pull away from a very, very unfortunate tragedy."
Federal authorities are taking an active role in the crackdown on drug trafficking and gun violence in Pioneer Park as part of Operation Rio Grande. The U.S. Attorney's Office has at least four cases pending against drug dealers with guns, including the one against Gama.
"It's the gun that gets our attention," Huber said, explaining why the allegations against Gama and others rise to a federal offense.
Spice and heroin are the most common drugs sold in Pioneer Park, said Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires. Drug selling has dropped off in the park since Operation Rio Grande started last August, but dealers are now finding ways around police, he said.
Dealers use "countersurveillance," employ people who police wouldn't suspect and exploit homeless people looking to make a few bucks or feed a habit to sell drugs, said Department of Public Safety Capt. Jared Garcia.
The majority of Spice sold in Utah is made locally with ingredients bought on the darknet, he said.
Gama was arrested in Pioneer Park last December after another man led an undercover agent to him. The agent paid $40 for a jar of Spice, according to court documents. Prosecutors say Gama had a loaded .40-caliber handgun in his waistband that had previously been stolen.
According to the criminal complaint, Gama told agents he had been selling three to four jars of Spice a day. He told them he carried the gun for protection after being robbed and shot the year before.
On Jan. 31, an undercover agent encountered a man in the park smoking what he believed was Spice. The man told the agent he could lead him to a man who sold the best quality Spice in the area.
The agent bought four jars of Spice from Gama for $100, court documents say. Agents arrested Gama and found a .38-caliber handgun in his waistband. Gama told agents he bought it the week before for $200.4 comments on this story
Authorities couldn't explain exactly why Gama was released from custody the first time. Squires said jail capacity might have been factor or Gama might have bailed out of jail.
Gama is held in the Weber County Jail on two counts of possession of Spice and two counts of possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted.
Huber said federal authorities would drop a "hammer" on suspected drug dealers who carry guns and there would not be a "revolving door" for those convicted of federal crimes.