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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Western District of Virginia

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wise County Men Convicted Of Multiple Counts Related To Distribution Of Synthetic Drugs

Local Businesses Were Part Of Illegal Operation Stretching From Gainesville, Florida To Pound, Virginia

BIG STONE GAP, VIRGINIA – United States Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy announced today that a Big Stone Gap jury returned a verdict of guilty on multiple counts related to controlled substance analogues in a trial that concluded on October 22, 2014.

Following a six-day jury trial, Cecil A. McConnell, Jr., 68, of Pound, Va., was convicted of one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substance analogues, one count of distribution of controlled substance analogues, one count of maintaining a place for the purpose of distributing controlled substance analogues, misbranding of a drug with the intent defraud, and one count of possession with the intent to distribute a controlled substance analogue.

“These defendants operated a lucrative illegal business selling dangerous synthetic drugs,” United States Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy said today. “These substances are extremely dangerous and can lead to harmful consequences for users. Those of us who work in law enforcement will continue to remove this harmful material from our communities. We must also ensure that the people of Southwest Virginia understand that these synthetic drugs are unsafe and illegal.”

Douglas Eugene Stephens, 63, of Pound, Va., was convicted of one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substance analogues, one count of maintaining a place for the purpose of distributing controlled substance analogues, misbranding of a drug with the intent defraud, and one count of offering for sale drug paraphernalia.

Six other defendants had previously pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme to distribute synthetic cannabinoids in Florida and Southwest Virginia. Those defendants are:

Emmanual Vestal, 43, of Interlachen, Fla., previously pleaded guilty to one count of misbranding a drug with the intent to defraud and one count of conspiracy to misbrand a drug with the intent to defraud.

Victoria Hoyt, 41, of Interlachen, Fla., previously pleaded guilty to one count of misbranding a drug with the intent to defraud and one count of conspiracy to misbrand a drug with the intent to defraud.

Vicki Curry, 33, Gainesville, Fla., previously pleaded guilty to one count of misbranding a drug with the intent to defraud.

Cynthia Johns, 53, Hollister, Fla., previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substance analogues.

James Pirtle, 72, Coeburn, Va., previously pleaded guilty to one count of misbranding a drug with the intent to defraud and one count of conspiracy to misbrand a drug with the intent to defraud.

Linda Pirtle, 66, Coeburn, Va., previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance analogue.

According to evidence presented at the jury trial by Assistant United States Attorney, Zachary Lee, Cecil A. McConnell, Jr., assisted in the operation of Cecil’s Variety, a store located in Pound, Virginia. Douglas Eugene Stephens operated Get It Here, also a store in Pound, Virginia. Both distributed illegal synthetic cannabinoid products, namely, XLR-11, UR144, PB-22, and 5F-PB-22, marketing their products as legal “potpourri” or “incense” in order to attempt to evade federal and state law. The products sold by Stephens and McConnell were obtained from Emmanuel Vestal and Victoria Hoyt who operated stores named Smokeez in both Gainesville, Florida and Coeburn, Virginia.

The jury heard evidence that employees of Smokeez would mix chemicals received from China containing synthetic cannabinoids with acetone and plant materials before packaging the products and shipping them to Virginia. These products were then distributed in large quantities to stores in Southwest Virginia, including Get It Here, Cecil’s Variety, Get It Gone in Pound, Virginia, which was operated by James Pirtle, and Linda’s Place in Coeburn, Virginia, which was operated by Linda Pirtle. These businesses then sold the products to their customers in packaging claiming the products were “potpourri” and “incense.” The operators of these businesses also attempted to conceal their illegal activity by claiming that the products were “not for human consumption” even though the testimony of many witnesses at trial was that operators of the stores knew their products were being smoked by the purchasers in order to achieve effects similar to smoking marijuana.

The evidence at trial demonstrated that the Southwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force in Big Stone Gap and the Wise County Sheriff’s Office began investigating the operations of McConnell, Stephens, Vestal, Jim Pirtle, Linda Pirtle, and others, in 2012. This investigation included numerous controlled purchases of synthetic cannabinoids, surveillance, package interceptions, financial investigation, and interviews. Law enforcement in Wise County coordinated their investigation with ongoing investigations being conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Drug Enforcement Administration, Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Sheriff’s Department, and Palatka Police Department.

On September 27, 2013, nine state and federal search warrants were executed by local, state and federal law enforcement in Wise County, Virginia, Gainesville, Florida, and Palm Coast, Florida at businesses and residences of those involved in the illegal distribution ring. As a result of the search warrants, law enforcement seized more than forty kilograms of synthetic cannabinoid products and more than $50,000 in United States currency. Evidence heard by the jury from employees of the businesses involved included that the cannabinoid products were sold at a price of $10 a gram and that daily sales for each store ranged from $800 - $2,000 a day. During the trial, experts in pharmacology testified that the products sold by McConnell, Stephens, and others, were extremely harmful when ingested by humans causing seizures, organ damage, hallucinations, and agitation.

At sentencing, Cecil A. McConnell, Jr., faces a potential maximum sentence of eighty-three years imprisonment and fines of up to $3,750,000. His sentencing is scheduled for January 22, 2015.

At sentencing, Doulas Eugene Stephens faces a potential maximum sentence of forty-four years imprisonment and fines of up to $1,750,000. His sentencing is scheduled for January 22, 2015.

At sentencing, Emmanuel Vestal faces a potential maximum sentence of eight years imprisonment and a fine of up to $500,000. His sentencing is scheduled for January 8, 2015.

At sentencing, Victoria Hoyt faces a potential maximum sentence of eight years imprisonment and a fine of up to $500,000. Her sentencing is scheduled for January 8, 2015.

At sentencing, James Pirtle faces a potential maximum sentence of eight years imprisonment and a fine of up to $500,000. His sentencing is scheduled for January 6, 2015.

At sentencing, Linda Pirtle faces a potential maximum sentence of twenty years imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000,000. Her sentencing is scheduled for January 8, 2015.

At sentencing, Vicki Curry faces a potential maximum sentence of three years imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. Her sentencing is scheduled for January 6, 2015.

At sentencing, Cynthia Johns faces a potential maximum sentence of twenty years imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000,000. Her sentencing is scheduled for January 8, 2015.

The investigation of the case was conducted by the Southwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, Wise County Sheriff’s Office, St. Paul Police Department, St. Paul, Virginia, Coeburn Police Department, Coeburn, Virginia, Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control, Virginia State Police, Gainesville Police Department, Gainesville, Florida, Alachua County Sheriff’s Department, Gainesville, Florida, Palatka Police Department, Palatka, Florida, Drug Enforcement Administration, United States Marshals Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and the United States Attorney’s Offices for the Northern and Middle Districts of Florida assisted in the investigation and prosecution of this case. Assistant United States Attorney Zachary Lee prosecuted the case for the United States.

Updated April 15, 2015