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Press Release

Selling synthetic drugs results in $9.2M forfeiture and prison for seven

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Texas

HOUSTON – The seventh and final member involved in a synthetic narcotics distribution network has been ordered to federal prison, announced U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery.

Frank Gonzalez, 61, Mesa, Arizona, pleaded guilty Aug. 19, 2020.

Today, U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr. ordered Gonzalez to serve a total of 28 months in federal prison and to forfeit $117,984. During the hearing, testimony detailed the significant dangers of synthetic cannabinoids including the risk of death, major health problems and the negative impact it has on the community and first responders. The court also heard how there is no standard manufacturing process so users do not know what chemical substance is actually present or how it will affect them.

In imposing the sentence, Judge Hanks noted that the overall operation was fueled by greed and without regard for potential dangers to the community. He recognized the court’s role in deterring others who would engage in similar conduct and the need to protect the public.   

In 2015, authorities began investigating a smoke shop in Laredo. During that time, they discovered a nationwide mail order business that Bowles owned and operated which supplied the shop with illegal synthetic cannabinoid products. Call-takers in several states received order requests for the products with names such as Brain Freeze and Death Grip which were delivered to shop owners from California. Payments were often sent to accounts Bowles controlled in Arizona. In addition, he used various business entities to conceal the amount of the income made.

During the investigation, authorities tracked payments from multiple retail smoke shops throughout the United States and identified several bank accounts involved in the scheme. Financial records show that from February 2012 through 2019, the network received over $15.4 million in illicit proceeds.

Bowles, 47, Phoenix, Arizona, was previously sentenced to 192 months in prison, while five others received terms of imprisonment ranging from 63 to 98 months. Forfeitures for all seven convictions totaled $9.8 million.   

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds that mimic the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana but often with sever life-threatening side effects. They can be infused in plant material and ingested with rolling papers, pipes, vaporizers or taken orally. They are usually sold in small foil or plastic bags containing dried leaves and are marketed as incense that can be smoked. They are commonly sold on the street as synthetic marijuana, fake weed, legal and known by popular brand names such as Spice, K2, Kush and Klimaxx.

The Drug Enforcement Administration; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and FBI conducted the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigation dubbed Operation Brain Freeze with the assistance of Texas Department of Public Safety and sheriff’s offices in Zapata County and Maricopa County, Arizona. OCDETF identifies, disrupts and dismantles the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs and transnational criminal organizations that threaten the United States by using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach that leverages the strengths of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies against criminal networks. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found on the Department of Justice’s OCDETF webpage.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Graciela Lindberg and Lance Watt prosecuted the case.

Updated September 7, 2022

Drug Trafficking