Scoring synthetic drugs online through the China pipeline wasn’t quite as easy as ordering vitamins on Amazon.
But for a bright, ambitious Florida International University student looking to move up from small-time dealing, it wasn’t very hard either. An Internet search turned up plenty of chemical labs. Emails brought samples from overseas and led to a producer willing to concoct a Molly blend that dance-club kids prized — methylone in a perfect brownish hue and crystalline texture.
Draining his savings, he wired $10,000 to China. The product, mailed to post-office boxes around South Florida, was snapped up by buyers from as far away as the University of Central Florida.
“I sold four kilos in about 10 minutes. I made $30,000 in a matter of minutes,” he said.
Soon, dozens of kilos of methylone — one of an array of dangerous chemicals packed into capsules and sold as Molly — flooded South Florida. And almost overnight, a college kid studying construction management became a club-drug kingpin burning through cash. Rolex watches, benders at strip clubs, luxury cars, including an orange Lamborghini Gallardo that proved a not-so-subtle tipoff that he was not a typical struggling undergrad.
“I spent it like you wouldn’t believe,” said the 26-year-old former FIU student during an in-depth interview from federal prison. The Miami Herald agreed not to name him because his eventual cooperation with authorities led to death threats and a Miami federal judge ordered his criminal court file sealed.
“He was known as a significant supplier in the area,” said Alysa Erichs, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations South Florida field office. “And he made a significant amount of money at a young age.”
Breaking up his fleeting empire gave federal law enforcement authorities in South Florida one of their first windows into the next generation of tech-savvy drug dealers exploiting the loosely regulated China pipeline, the prime international smuggling route for synthetic drugs. Many of the so-called “designer” drugs, often mixed in fly-by-night labs from untested and unknown chemicals of widely varying potency, can be toxic. The most notorious, flakka, has been identified in the bodies of more than 40 death cases in Broward County alone over the past year.
The dealer — Tony for this article — was debriefed by federal agents holed up in a Miami hotel room over several days in May 2013. His information helped nail two other Molly dealers, who in turn cooperated against another former FIU student, David McConnell, a major importer who will be sentenced Sept. 28.
Aspirations of becoming a contractor
Tony did not come to Miami with plans to become a drug dealer. “I never even smoked weed before I left New York.”
He grew up in a middle-class Brooklyn family that moved to the Long Island suburbs, son of a school principal and a successful contractor. His upbringing was cliché suburbia: baseball, karate, summer sleep-away camps. In high school, the honors student traveled to Europe as a “student ambassador,” joined the chess club and wrestled competitively.
Tony graduated early at age 17, visiting schools across the country with aspirations of a degree in construction management. FIU offered him a partial scholarship, and the lure of the tropics proved inescapable.
There was something about Miami, the beaches, the weather, the women. I loved the whole scene, probably for all the wrong reasons.
‘Tony,’ club-drug kingpin
“There was something about Miami, the beaches, the weather, the women,” he said. “I loved the whole scene, probably for all the wrong reasons.”
Tony moved into an FIU dorm and, like lots of students, immersed himself in the club scene — Mansion in South Beach, Space in downtown Miami, college nightspots in Coconut Grove. At the clubs, he saw a lot of gorgeous women popping pills. So he did, too. At the time, it was almost all sold as ecstasy.
“I was scared at first, but it didn’t have a negative connotation like heroin. It was a cool thing to do,” he said.
Each quarter-gram dose of ecstasy lasted up to six hours. “You get an instant rush of euphoria. It’s just the ultimate confidence booster. You feel free.”
Frustrated with scraping by on a couple hundred dollars a week from a part-time retail job, Tony began dabbling in pill peddling in 2011 while still plodding through classes at FIU. At a Coconut Grove nightclub, he bought an ounce of Molly, just emerging as the new party drug of choice. He cut it with Vitamin C crystals to stretch it, selling to friends at $10 a pop. Initially, he considered himself more of a party host than a drug dealer.
“For me growing up, seeing drug dealers, they had a certain aura about them I didn’t like. It was very street. I was just dealing with Mollies,” Tony said. “I was dealing to other college students. It didn’t feel wrong.”
His class attendance dropped as his attention shifted to expanding his drug business. Hunting for a bulk supplier of empty pill capsules led him to a popular flea market in the gritty West Little River neighborhood of Miami, where vendors hawk everything from perfumes and tattoos to gold chains and gold teeth.
Inside the market, off Northwest 79th Street, Tony found a small store specializing in drug paraphernalia — money counters, scales, and an array of pipes. He found the empty capsules he needed but also stumbled on a source of synthetic drugs. At the time, they were being sold as legal substances in brightly colored packages, usually in gas stations and inner-city markets. He dabbed some on his tongue. It had the same effect as Molly.
Tony became a regular, filling his capsules from the packages. He barely went to class or showed up for his job but, at 21, was suddenly pulling in $1,000 a week and living in a rented house in Doral with some buddies. He bought an old Mercedes and paid for a cheap paint job and fancy rims.
“I felt like I was on top of the world,’’ he said. “I was with a different girl every night. That’s what goes with that lifestyle.”
Flea market reveals the China pipeline
After a year, though, he yearned for more and pondered how to cut out the middleman, the shopkeeper. “He was making a killing off me,” he said.
On one visit, the product was sold out but the shopkeeper assured him a few kilos would be delivered soon. A few days later, the supply was there. Inside the cramped store, the shopkeeper showed him the brown chemical rocks — sealed in a bag inside a box. When the shopkeeper left to tend to another customer, Tony sneaked a peak at the return address on the parcel: China.
Tony wrote the company name on the palm of his hand. Back home, he searched the Net and scoured Alibaba, the Chinese version of Amazon. He never found the shopkeeper’s exact connection, but he came across a slew of online sources for “research chemicals.”
Tony fired off dozens of emails and got many responses. He bought small quantities, delivered through the mail — much of it “garbage” he wouldn’t sell. Then one supplier he knew only as “Billy” sent him methylone that provided the right buzz. But buyers complained it appeared too “sandy.” He and Billy went back and forth through emails and phone calls, haggling over samples, tweaking the chemistry.
Finally, the right stuff arrived in December 2012 — just in time for the holiday rush.
He began arranging buys on a throw-away laptop from Walmart or on computers at a Kinko’s. He or one of his friends drove around town picking up packages as he turned from street dealer to supplier, selling kilos of raw synthetics to others who paid top dollar and did the packaging themselves.
Money rolled in. Usually, about $30,000 a week.
He plowed some into a few legit ventures: a Miami barbershop and car rental business. And he made some practical purchases: a $335,000 two-story, four-bedroom house in West Kendall that he promptly renovated.
But he also embraced the high life. Tony and his boys made it rain hard at strip clubs — Tootsies, King of Diamonds, Club Dream. “I spent $9,000 on my birthday.” Then there was the $64,000 diamond chain, the four or five Rolex watches, the luxury cars: a Bentley, Maserati, Porsche.
From a seller on eBay, Tony bought a bright orange Lamborghini Gallardo — the same model that pop star Justin Bieber was later popped in for drag racing on Miami Beach — and outfitted it with custom-forged aluminum alloy wheels. In a home video clip, he smiles broadly and says “Lambo life,” before zooming down the street propelled by a snarling V-10 engine.
The car soon led to his downfall.
A bright orange V-10 clue
Agents with the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, had begun looking for the source of the methylone pouring into South Florida. They got an initial clue when agents in New York City discovered one of Tony’s packages from China and busted one of his cousins who picked it up there.
But the real break came in March 2013, as South Florida agents geared up for the upcoming Ultra electronic music festival, an event that draws thousands of fans, some looking to score Mollies. One club promoter facing drug charges told agents that Miami’s major supplier of Mollies drove a distinctive orange Lamborghini.
It didn’t take long for agents to trace the vehicle to Tony, who had it registered in his name.
The noose tightened quickly. Agents busted two of his buyers, Ian Rae Johnson and Shawn Hawes, who were selling marijuana and Molly to a parade of well-heeled customers from a Kendall home. Agents found a big bag of methylone and tens of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed inside clothes in a bedroom closet.
Johnson told HSI agents that Tony — whose true identity he did not know — had recently sold him a bag of methylone for $7,000. The key tip: Tony often drove a nondescript Honda CRV during his deals.
The club promoter also told agents that someone named “Juan Carlos Garcia,” one of Tony’s associates, had been picking up suspicious packages at post offices and UPS stores across Broward County. Records showed 24 packages in that name shipped from China, Hong Kong and New York between January and July 2013.
On the afternoon of July 11, 2013, agents got a tip that a package had arrived at a UPS store in Sunrise. Investigators watched as a man believed to be “Garcia” parked, retrieved the package and walked back to his car, according to a criminal complaint by HSI Agent Kevin Selent.
He sped off down Interstate 75 and — in a made-for-the-movies scene — he tossed several cellphones out of the car window with agents in hot pursuit.
Nearby, Tony was also watching from his Honda CRV. Agents spotted him. He sped off down Interstate 75 and — in a made-for-the-movies scene — he tossed several cellphones out of the car window with agents in hot pursuit.
They soon broke it off. No chase was necessary. Arrested at the scene, “Garcia” turned out to be Rafael Marte, one of Tony’s underlings. Inside his package, according to the criminal complaint, were 10 kilos of methylone. Marte quickly flipped on his boss. Agents put Tony’s West Kendall home under surveillance, along with his girlfriend’s place, where Tony soon showed up. After talking with his attorney, Tony agreed to cooperate with investigators.
He had little choice. The evidence against him was overwhelming
Inside his white Porsche Panamera, agents found a black bag stuffed with $149,700 in cash. Marte’s phone revealed a string of text messages about “work” that he and Tony had to do the day of the pickup, according to the complaint. Text messages also placed him at the scene.
And there was a clincher. A couple of times, Tony had contacted his China supplier using his FIU email account — from a campus computer lab.
“That was the nail in the coffin,” he said. “I made a mistake. I was rushing.”
His brief, but lucrative reign as South Florida’s club-drug kingpin lasted less than seven months. After he was arrested, federal agents say, the price of Molly skyrocketed.
“Miami was dry,” said Erichs, special agent in charge of HSI. “The kilo prices went through the roof.”
Tony faced up to 20 years in prison on each count, but his extensive cooperation with agents and lack of criminal history softened the blow. He pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Still-shocked supporters from New York wrote letters to U.S. District Judge James Cohn urging leniency. Among them: a retired New York judge, an uncle who is a retired New York City cop, a Brooklyn-district city council member and his mother, a longtime educator.
“I write this letter to you now, wondering where it went wrong and how do we pick up the pieces so that [Tony] can get back to who I believe he has the potential to be,” his mother wrote.
Cohn gave him two years in prison. He will be a free man early next year.
A three-part investigation
Part Three: The deadly toll on South Florida streets
Interactive map: Follow the Molly from China to Miami