Lessons of The Gas Pipe Bust: Traffic Stop Leads to Major Synthetic Marijuana Bust and Big Federal Forfeiture Grab
It all began with a simple traffic stop back on December 4, 2013. That’s when a Denton County Deputy Sheriff pulled over a Ford pickup truck and asked the driver if he could search the vehicle. The driver said okay, and the Deputy Sheriff discovered stuff used to grow marijuana, as well as marijuana residue and around 3 grams of hash oil.
That Ford F-150 was registered to Lawrence Shahwan.
Next thing you know, the authorities had tracked the pot from the pickup truck to a hydroponic marijuana barn in Whitesboro. The growers were arrested, and they pointed the finger at Lawrence Shahwan as their partner.
So the DEA now had Mr. Lawrence Shahwan in its sights.
Synthetic Marijuana Operation Discovered by DEA
The DEA discovered that Mr. Shahwan not only grew the real thing, but that he had a lucrative synthetic drugs business, too. Reports are that Mr. Shahwan thought himself very savvy about state drug laws: he often swapped out the product names on the packaging of his “potpourri” and “incense” product lines as well as changing his “recipe” for the fake pot. Shahwan apparently sold his popular synthetic marijuana product under over 20 different names, names that some readers may recognize: Afghan Ice, Alien Loose Leaf, Assassin Revenge, D’evil, Venom, Yolo, WTF, and Wolf Pack Rage are just a few.
Note: We’ve been monitoring the synthetic marijuana and designer drug situation here in Texas for awhile now. For more information, check out:
- SYNTHETIC DRUG BUSTS: FEDERAL ARRESTS FOR FAKE POT AND DESIGNER DRUGS THAT ARE LEGAL UNDER STATE LAW (article)
- Federal Synthetic Drug Raids Today: a Lesson in What’s Legal in Texas May Be Illegal to the Feds (blog post).
From there, the story moves to the federal authorities learning that Mr. Shahwan was providing lots of synthetic marijuana to The Gas Pipe stores that most of us who live in this neck of the woods recognize as head shops located all around the Dallas – Fort Worth area. (The Gas Pipe chain has been operating in North Texas for over 40 years, they also have stores down in Austin.)
Shahwan’s stuff was popular and profitable: lots of people were purchasing his fake pot. And all of his inventory was going directly to The Gas Pipe as his only retailer.
Following the Money – DEA Files Forfeiture Action
Next thing you know, the federal focus shifts from the source of the fake pot to the stores who are selling the synthetic marijuana to the public. The federal wheels start turning, and for several months the DEA monitored activities at The Gas Pipe.
At some point, the DEA discovers that after the Shahwan outfit couldn’t keep up with demand, The Gas Pipe took over manufacturing operations in order to keep the product available on its shelves. Now, the fake pot was being produced and packaged at The Gas Pipe store on Maple Avenue.
Arrest of Shahwan
Now, Lawrence Shahwan has been arrested and charged with drug crimes. The owner of the head shop chain, Gerald “Jerry” Shults, has not been arrested. Nor has Shults’ daughter and business partner, Amy Herrig, been charged but both father and daughter are named in the federal forfeiture complaint and both have had property seized by the DEA.
In fact, the big news here is not only that the synthetic marijuana operation has been shut down by the federal government; it is the scoop that the DEA has seized so much stuff from Mr. Shahwan, Mr. Shults, and his daughter, Ms. Herrig.
Grab the Property
We’ve written about forfeiture before. Here is an excellent example of forfeiture in action. This month, the federal authorities filed a formal forfeiture complaint .
The DEA went into federal court and filed a civil lawsuit. This is not a criminal case. They entered with a request on file and came out with legal rights to seize lots and lots of property that had been owned by Shahwan and The Gas Pipe.
The forfeiture included $3,000,000 in over 20 bank accounts; all of The Gas Pipe stores; six luxury vehicles; and one very nice home in Highland Park.
The Ridglea Theatre in Fort Worth has also been seized by the DEA. It is the government’s position that the historic theater was bought by Jerry Shults with illegal funds and was therefore subject to forfeiture.
The Gas Pipe Story Continues — This Is Just a Chapter, Not the Whole Book
The forfeiture action and the arrest of Lawrence Shahwan isn’t the end of this story. Expect more DEA activity down the road in this case. It’s an “ongoing investigation,” according to the federal agents.
The lessons here from a criminal defense standpoint are numerous. Among them:
1. Look how important a single traffic stop can be.
What if that Ford pickup truck driver had not given permission for the officer to search his vehicle?
2. Synthetic Drugs are illegal and most people don’t realize it.
When The Gas Pipe was selling this stuff, did they believe that they were immune from arrest because the “recipe” was being changed regularly? Obviously, they were making the effort to change their manufacturing methods in an attempt to avoid violating state law. (It’s been reported that Jerry Shults thought he was operating within the law by selling fake pot, not the real thing.)
3. The government can take your property even if you have not been arrested, much less convicted, of a crime.
Notice how the complaint names the property itself as “defendants” in the complaint. That is how the seizure works in a civil forfeiture: the government grabs (”seizes”) your property regardless of whether or not you have been charged with a crime (notice how Shults and Herrig have not been arrested but their stuff is listed in the forfeiture complaint). Moreover, all this property has been taken before ANYONE has been found guilty of any crime whatsoever.
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