Feds convict 2 men of producing, selling ‘spice’ taken by local woman’s son before 2012 death
LAS VEGAS — The two men who produced the drug taken by Victor Orlando Woolson before his death have been found guilty of operating a criminal enterprise out of their Nevada warehouse and Woolson’s mother will travel to Las Vegas next month to attend the sentencing.
A federal grand jury on July 3 returned a guilty verdict for Charles Burton Ritchie, 48, of Park City, Utah, and business partner Benjamin Galecki, 44, of Pensacola, Florida, on 24 counts including operating a continuing criminal enterprise — referred to by prosecutors as the “kingpin” charge — in the manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids, sometimes called “spice.”
The kingpin charge carries a minimum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and maximum penalty of life behind bars.
Charges against Ritchie and Galecki include manufacturing and possessing with intent to distribute a controlled substance and controlled substance analogues, money laundering, mail and wire fraud, among other charges, each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
“With the minimum of 20 years for the kingpin charge, I’m hoping for maximum consecutive years in prison and continued education for everyone,” said local substance abuse prevention advocate Teresa Woolson, who founded the VOW Foundation after her son, Victor Orlando Woolson died in August 2012 after taking synthetic marijuana manufactured by Ritchie and Galecki’s enterprise.
After seven years awaiting trial and conviction, Woolson will give a victim impact statement at the Sept. 20 sentencing hearing at the Las Vegas federal courthouse.
Victor Woolson was the “centerpiece” of the family, his mother said, and facing the men who manufactured the drug taken by her son just months after his graduation from Mexico High School, is “hard to explain.”
“It’s almost like a piece of history that I have to go there and make this statement,” Woolson said in a Tuesday interview with The Palladium-Times. “I have to make this judge understand that this is a huge epidemic and still causing all kinds of havoc.”
Victor’s sister, Sarah Gauger of Oswego, and his aunt, Bonnie Caza of New Haven, will join Woolson.
“We’ve never done something like this,” Woolson said. “The trip is going to cost us a lot of money, but that doesn’t matter because we are going with a purpose. We’re hoping this impacts the whole United States of America.”
Woolson’s impact statement “implores” the court to “give the maximum penalties to run consecutively,” which would amount to multiple life sentences for the defendants.
“The shock and horror of losing Victor is very, very deep,” says Woolson’s impact statement, shared with The Palladium-Times. “Out of my deep sorrow came a passion to learn how this could happen and help prevent other families from this devastation. I met with community leaders, helped start a coalition, attended many trainings, been on panels with the DEA and FBI, District Attorney, Drug Task Force, state and federal representatives. I’ve advocated in my state capitol and in Congress.”
According to a U.S. Department of Justice press release from July, business partners Ritchie and Galecki manufactured and distributed approximately 4,000 pounds of spice across the country and grossed more than $1.6 million in sales from June 1 to July 25 in 2012.
Their drug enterprise was successfully thwarted by “Operation Log Jam,” which resulted in 91 arrests, seizure of 4.8 million packets of synthetic cannabinoids and seizure of $42 million in assets throughout the country, according to Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA) chief Michele M. Leonhart, speaking at a press conference in July 2012.
Leonhart said in just one year, calls to Poison Control Centers about synthetic cannabinoids such as “spice” and “K2” had more than doubled in 2012, and the calls regarding synthetic cathinones, marketed as bath salts, had increased more than 20 fold.
“Together we are sending a clear message to those who profit from the sale of these dangerous substances: you are nothing more than a drug trafficker and we will bring you to justice,” Leonhart said at a 2012 press conference about Operation Log Jam. “The web of connections between suppliers, distributors and retailers is enormous and complex, but at DEA, we are experts in connecting the dots, identifying patterns, finding relationships and gathering evidence that lead to the ultimate destruction of drug trafficking networks that impact the supply of these drugs to communities across the country.”
For decades, synthetic drugs remained an elusive and highly unpredictable culprit to the U.S. justice system because pushers continuously find ways to circumvent drug laws by marketing the substances as herbal incense or potpourri.
Ritchie and Galecki would buy shipments of chemicals like the synthetic cannabinoid XLR-11 from China and Hong Kong and applied the chemical compound to plant leaves and distributed to head shops around the country, according to court filings. Users would buy color packets of the substance, sold under suggestive brand names like Bizarro, Avalanche and Headhunter.
A July 11, 2019 study published by the Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that teens treated after ingesting designer drugs, like spice, K2 or other synthetic cannabinoids, were more likely to experience seizures and comas, compared with those who used natural cannabis.
“Synthetic cannabinoids, whether taken alone or with other substances, are associated with severe neuropsychiatric effects on adolescents and require higher acuity care than adults,” said Sarah Ann Anderson-Burnett, MD, an adolescent medicine fellow in pediatrics at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, who led the research.