ST. GEORGE — Fourteen people in the St. George and Salt Lake City areas face federal charges for allegedly manufacturing and mailing Spice to smoke shops across the nation in a multimillion-dollar operation.
The charges were announced Wednesday by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as part a nationwide crackdown called "Project Synergy," an operation that targeted designer drugs such as Spice and bath salts. More than 90 people in 30-plus states have been arrested as part of the operation, and more than $36 million in cash has been seized since December.
More than 150 arrest warrants and about 375 search warrants were served starting Wednesday morning in more than 45 cities across the U.S., according to the DEA, resulting in more than 550 kilograms of synthetic drugs being seized. Since February, the DEA said an estimated 1,000 kilograms of synthetic drugs had been seized.
In Utah, 14 people were accused of making millions of dollars from the illegal production and shipping of Spice. They were each charged with conspiracy to distribute Spice.
During a news conference Wednesday afternoon in St. George, the U.S. attorney for Utah announced the charges stemmed from an investigation that began when Illinois authorities discovered 9,644 packets of Spice being shipped from St. George to smoke shops in their state.
Spice is also known as synthetic marijuana. It is sold under several other brand names, including Black Mamba, Black Magic, Warlock, Pep, Spice Bliss and Bombay Blue.
The packets seized in Illinois had names such as "Gods of Spice" and "Blue Heaven," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The "Gods" line of products included Spice, with names such as "Zeus," "Ares," "Medusa" and "Hermes," according to the charges.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill outlawing bath salts and Spice in Utah in 2011.
Twenty-one search warrants and 43 seizure warrants were served in Utah this week. Investigators believe the group had been manufacturing large amounts of Spice at a warehouse in Hurricane since 2011 and distributing it primarily to smoke shops across the United States, using companies such as FedEx and UPS, according to charging documents.
The group is believed to have shipped an estimated 2,650 pounds of Spice out of Utah since 2011, according to federal charges.
The suspects are accused of depositing about $11.5 million in drug proceeds in various bank accounts from April 2011 through March 2013.
In addition, the federal government filed to seize millions of dollars in assets in cash and property believed to have been purchased with drug proceeds, including cars, boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles and trailers, according to court documents.
Prosecutors say the defendants registered at least eight corporation names in Utah and Nevada to make their shipping, wire transfers and cash deposits seem legitimate.
Brian Merrill, 27, Joshua Davis, 37, Buck Andersen, 33, Joseph Givogre, 42, Gary Jolley, 58, all from the St. George area; and David Flores, 32, and James Hardwick, 27, from the Salt Lake City area, were the alleged leaders of the organization, according to federal prosecutors.
Also charged Wednesday were Alicia Brandom, 31, Curtis McOsker, 40, Malin Pavelka, 34, Jennifer Barlow, 22, Richard Lewis, 61, from the St. George area; and David Flores, 32, James Hardwick, 27, David Carter and Becky Young, 36, from the Salt Lake area.
Investigators used GPS tracking devices on at least five of the defendants' vehicles to collect evidence, according to court records.
If convicted, each defendant faces 20 years in prison. Initial appearances are scheduled for Thursday afternoon in St. George.
Contributing: Sandra Yi