In scores of telephone conversations, the Harveys discussed trust accounts, safe-deposit boxes, safes and storage units as places to stash hundreds of thousands of dollars. They considered renting an apartment or an office. Perhaps a woman -- someone they barely knew -- would let them install a safe at the photocopying center where she worked. Grandma liked secrets -- maybe they could put the money in her house. Cassandra's bookkeeper suggested burying the loot.
Then Cassandra got a better idea: They could invest in a new business.
"We're not the only ones," she told her son. There are lots of people who need to hide assets and don't trust the banking system, Cassandra figured. She and her son could use their money to build a Swiss bank of sorts that would be fireproof and explosion-proof -- a vacant skating rink near their homes would be nearly perfect, although humidity might be a problem. They'd subdivide it into brick cubicles and rent space, self-storage-style, to customers who would register under any names they wished, no identification required. They could post an advertisement on their Web site: "Do you have goods, cash, coins that are valuable to you that you don't feel safe with?"
Like most of their other plans, they discarded this one after a few minutes. The government, they decided, would eventually close down such an operation.
"Man, what are we going to do, Josh?" Cassandra asked. He didn't have an answer.
A week earlier, the Harveys had bordered on cocky after learning that Drug Enforcement Administration agents were seizing shipments from customers who had grown accustomed to overnight delivery of jugs filled with a potion that mimics GHB, a drug that's addictive, deadly and used by rapists to knock women out. The chemical the Harveys sold over the Internet had the same effects and risks, but Joshua and Cassandra didn't think that was their problem. They were mad at the DEA. Word was spreading about the seizures, and the Harveys blamed the cops for cutting business from $30,000 a month to $16,000.
Once they figured out how to hide their money, Joshua told his mother he wanted to put a message on the Miracle Cleaning Products Web site inviting the DEA to call them. "Evidently, all they're able to do is harass our fricking clients," Joshua said. "'When you order Miracle Cleaning Products, the fucking DEA knocks on your door.' We're going to lose all of our damn sales. That's what they're trying to do, I guarantee it. They can't get us, so they're fucking with our clients."
Joshua couldn't have been more wrong. And he didn't have to invite the DEA to get in touch. Agents equipped with wiretaps were already listening in.
Arrested on September 18, the Harveys are each facing more than twenty years in prison for selling 1,4-butandiol, commonly called BD. When the cops came, they found 2,200 gallons of BD -- enough for ten million doses -- stashed in Cassandra's basement and two St. Louis storerooms. It was the largest single cache seized in a nationwide investigation called Operation Webslinger, which aimed to shut down distributors of BD and similar drugs. Police made 170 arrests in 100 cities. In a Washington, D.C., press conference called to announce the arrests, top law-enforcement officers cited Miracle Cleaning Products as an example of a dangerous drug that had been sold with impunity.
"They used the World Wide Web as a worldwide drug market," Asa Hutchinson, DEA administrator, declared.
John Ashcroft practically gloated. "Asa, your work here represents outstanding leadership," the attorney general said. "Today's announcement is a dose of harsh reality for drug traffickers who seek to exploit the vast markets and anonymity of cyberspace."
But the Harveys were hardly anonymous.
They left their tracks all over the Internet as they sold BD and GBL, another chemical cousin to GHB, for more than three years. Customers in Internet chat rooms devoted to drug discussions openly praised Miracle Cleaning Products, and Joshua posted links to the Miracle Cleaning Products Web site on drug-related message boards beginning in 1999, when he and his mother went into business. In January 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine tagged Miracle Cleaning Products as a drug that was killing people. The publicity didn't hurt sales, nor did it bring any immediate heat from the cops, who got their first direct tips about Miracle Cleaning Products in 2000.
In short, the Harveys as drug traffickers moved from dumb to dumber, first leaving clues in cyberspace, then sticking around even after finding out that the cops were moving in.
So why did it take so long for the feds to catch up with them?
Cassandra Harvey isn't a typical drug dealer.
She watched Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinn and other Christian televangelists on the Reverend Larry Rice's TV station. Her landlord says she helped neighbors in times of trouble. Left food out for stray pets. Kept a neat yard. Worked out. Loved gardening and her cat, named Baby.
For a dozen years, she lived in a small rental house in Festus, where she home-schooled Joshua. She separated from her husband a decade ago, making ends meet with several jobs, including housecleaning gigs and stints as a caregiver to the disabled, according to her landlord, who asked that her name not be published.
Cassandra was a model tenant. On Mother's Day and other special occasions, she would send her landlord a card.
"She never caused any problems -- ever -- in twelve years," the landlord says. "The neighbors liked her -- a very kind, caring person. She had lots and lots of religious tapes in the house, lots of religious literature. She said the first thing she did when she got up in the morning was pray." Cassandra's love for the Lord carried over to the Miracle Cleaning Products Web site, where she posted links to several spiritual sites.
Joshua, 23, and Cassandra, 53, were close. She once told Joshua that if he died, she'd move into his house, sleep in his bed and conjure him in her dreams. But they didn't seem like happy people, judging by what they shared with strangers in Internet chat rooms.
In a response to a person who wrote that life wasn't worth living, Cassandra said she knew the feeling. She wrote that she'd been suicidal since she was five years old and that she'd been a victim of domestic violence. After 40 years of hating herself and making suicide plans as routinely as most people make plans for dinner, she said she conquered her self-hatred by realizing that everyone else was the problem, not her.
I let them kill me, she wrote. I gave in. I turned my back on me. I ripped out my own heart. I gave me up to them. I let them convince me that I was not capable of being the me I came here to be. You are the only YOU there is. Open back up. Be vulnerable. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee you. Open your arms to you.
That posting drew praise. Others left readers scratching their heads.
In an opus she posted in the same suicide-prevention chat room, Cassandra wrote: Each new big pain is just that old stuff you shoved down inside again and again and again over and over, incident by incident, it will come to a head like a huge puss filled zit, more times then you will like, but just know it is cleaning your unit, so to speak.
"How much did you pay for that lobotomy?" responded one of several readers who couldn't grasp what she was talking about.
In a 1998 posting in a parenting chat room, Cassandra identified herself as a "personal transformation coach" and offered to share booklets on keeping kids drug-free. If Cassandra was against teen drug use and had learned to love herself, her son had a long way to go. In chat rooms, he confessed that he was suicidal.
I am very depressed, Joshua wrote in a 1999 posting to other psoriasis sufferers. I have not had a girl frind in 4 years and am very lonely. Maby I will get us to it, but right now I want to die! I am so lonely. How do you tell a "normal" person that you are interested in that you have scails on your body? Is there hope? Or am i doomed to a life of solitude?
Joshua, who described himself as a bodybuilder and personal trainer, also complained about stretch marks near his armpits, which he thought might have come from weightlifting or perhaps his use of GHB, which is supposed to aid muscle growth. In a response to a 1999 posting headlined "I hate who I have become," he said he felt the same way, even though he was on his way to financial success.
I have my own buisness and am making money, he wrote. I thought that would help. I just cant stop woring about everything. I start thinking about all the bad thing and not the good. And I know that but I can't chang it. I sleep all day stay up all night. and talking to people is a real tryle. The only reason I dont kill myself is I don't want to hert the peole that care about me. I think it is depreshin but I have tried all the drugs. Thay work for a wile then it all starts creaping back.
In other postings, Joshua -- who eventually developed an appetite for Vicodin and other prescription painkillers -- talks about his experiences with mind-altering substances, including psychedelic mushrooms, morning-glory seeds and LSD. His mother may have known about her son's penchant for getting high.
Please help me explain why huffing spray paint is dangerous to my teenage male child who naturally thinks "mom is gonna say that stuff -- just cause she is mom," Cassandra wrote in a posting that appeared the year before she and Joshua launched Miracle Cleaning Products.
On April 15, 1999, Joshua posted a question that set him and his mother on the road to riches -- and eventual ruin.
"What is 1,4 butanediol," he asked in a chat room devoted to discussion of drugs.
At the time, BD was legal under federal law, but the clock was ticking as police and physicians learned of its dangers. Medical experts and drug aficionados who worry about liver damage say it poses the same risks as GHB, which was illegal in more than twenty states when Joshua asked his question. Once ingested, the body metabolizes BD into GHB, delivering an identical high.
Joshua received several responses to his query. One correspondent told him that BD could be purchased for $37 per liter over the Internet but that the only source was a Canadian company.
That wasn't right. In fact, BD was -- and still is -- available from chemical companies throughout the U.S. Among other things, BD is an ingredient in printing ink and floor-stripping products. During the late 1990s, illicit users turned to BD as GHB and GBL -- another industrial solvent that the body metabolizes into GHB -- drew attention from law enforcement. Users were willing to pay big bucks for BD as sources for GBL and GHB dried up.
The Harveys were familiar with GBL, which was the first chemical they sold over their Web site. They also sold potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, which yield GHB when mixed with GBL. They pitched their products as all-purpose organic cleaners that would cleanse everything from swimming pools to floors. However, Joshua wooed drug users by posting links to the Miracle Cleaning Products Web site in drug chat rooms, typically when someone asked where to obtain GBL, potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide.
The Harveys weren't satisfied selling just GBL, but they weren't sure what else to offer customers. The same month Joshua posted his question about BD, Cassandra updated the Web site: "I am thinking about expanding my inventory but am not sure what chemicals are in high demand. Any suggestions please email me."
As GBL sellers, the Harveys were running out of time. In early 2000, the federal government outlawed GHB and copycat chemicals for human consumption. GBL made a precursor-chemical list, meaning chemical companies had to fill out forms so the government could track sales. BD wasn't as closely regulated. Essentially it was the honor system: Although BD was illegal if sold as a drug, no federal forms had to be filled out by chemical companies or their customers.
On February 24, 2000, six days after President Bill Clinton signed the law, a message appeared on the Harveys' Web site stating that BD would soon be available if enough people were interested. On March 13, 2000, the day the law took effect and federal tracking of GBL began, there was another update. It was a curious change for a Web site aimed at people who wanted to buy a household cleaner:
"COMING SOON FROM MIRACLE CLEANING PRODUCTS. A NEW WAY TO BUY BODY BUILDING SUPPLEMENTS."
The Web site assured customers that there would be plenty of product. Anyone interested in buying BD was asked to e-mail Cassandra.
Lots of people were interested.
In June 2000, Cassandra Harvey called JLM Chemical Inc. on Park Avenue in St. Louis and asked whether she could buy BD.
"I don't know how she got our name," says former general manager Herb Seidel, who retired in October after seventeen years at JLM. "She called out of the blue."
Seidel had never heard of 1,4-butanediol, but he set up an account after finding he could get BD from Vopak USA in St. Louis County. "She said she would pay COD, and she did," Seidel says. But something didn't seem right about Cassandra.
"The material never dries -- if you pour a spot on your desk, it will be there a year from now," Seidel says. "As a cleaning solvent, I couldn't understand it."
Then there was Cassandra's insistence on purity. She complained when the BD wasn't absolutely clear, which is tough when you're dealing with an industrial-grade solvent delivered in 55-gallon drums. "She didn't want any sediment, black specks or anything," Seidel recalls. "It was so weird, you know."
To keep her happy, JLM filtered the BD as it was transferred from drums to five-gallon pails. Still, Cassandra complained that JLM wasn't getting sufficient product promptly enough. Seidel says he doesn't know of anyone else in St. Louis who was buying BD, yet Cassandra expected to buy large amounts on short notice. The product was coming from Texas by way of Nebraska -- it would be cost-prohibitive to make special deliveries instead of including her BD with regularly scheduled rail shipments of other chemicals. But Cassandra wouldn't listen.
"She was very angry about that," Seidel says. "I said, 'Cassandra, you've got to understand you're a businesswoman operating out of her home with no obvious business location. For God's sake, recognize that you're just getting started in business.' Most of the time, she was very difficult, to say the least. She wanted her material, and she wanted it a certain way."
Cassandra's orders for BD quickly escalated. "I think the first time was maybe one drum, and then a couple of drums," Seidel recalls. "And then she went to three drums a month." Doses of BD are measured with eyedroppers.
JLM sold Cassandra at least twenty drums, charging $6.35 for each empty pail, $9.20 in labor for filling each pail, $2.80 per pail for delivery and $84.20 per pail for the BD itself, according to police, who reported that Cassandra paid the company $24,160 before finding another source. Sometimes Cassandra would pick up the pails in her 1990 Mercury Sable. "I personally, on occasion, took pails to her house in Festus in my station wagon because she was always so anxious to get it," Seidel says.
After seven months, Cassandra learned that she could get BD directly from Vopak. According to DEA records, JLM was charging her $926.20 per drum, which didn't include charges for the pails or filling and delivering them. Vopak charged $625 for a 55-gallon drum, so she cut out the middleman. Cassandra charged her customers $240 per gallon or $675 for five gallons -- not including shipping and handling. A pint cost $45.
Cassandra began buying from Vopak in January 2001. Vopak didn't break the chemical down into pails. Neither did the Harveys. That job was left to the developmentally disabled at WAC Industries, a sheltered workshop at 8520 Mackenzie Road in South St. Louis County .
It's unclear how the Harveys forged a deal with WAC. Dee Froneyberger, WAC director, didn't want to talk about Miracle Cleaning Products, but she says the workshop doesn't handle anything that isn't safe and that WAC doesn't knowingly assist drug traffickers. "We don't want any part of it," she says. "We're not chemists."
Shortly before their arrests, Joshua told his mother she should have let WAC take care of shipping the BD so it couldn't be traced to her and none would be in her house. The cops would never raid a sheltered workshop, he reasoned. "We tried to set that up," he reminded her. "They had a UPS shipping station there. You thought they were retarded and would fuck up your orders. You just always wanted to do it yourself. It was your baby."
The folks at WAC were busy enough. Over the course of fourteen months, Vopak -- which has changed its name to Univar USA -- sent 79 barrels to the sheltered workshop. The company cut Cassandra off in March 2002, forcing her to find a new supplier.
Mohamed Rizk, director of regulatory affairs for Univar USA, says company drivers are trained to spot signs of improper use of chemicals, but WAC wasn't set up to accommodate large commercial trucks, so deliveries were made by other companies. Staffing changes also hindered Univar's efforts to ensure proper use, he says. Univar won't ship to residential areas, and as soon as a sales representative spoke with Cassandra and learned that the BD ended up in her basement, the company terminated her account, he says.
At least one chemical company was suspicious when the Harveys went hunting for a new source. A sales representative for Superior Solvents and Chemicals on Chouteau Avenue called police after Cassandra asked about buying BD in May 2002. The salesman who alerted police did not return several calls.
Archway Sales apparently wasn't alarmed. The chemical-distribution company on Manchester Road became Miracle Cleaning Products' new source after Vopak refused to do business with her, according to DEA records. It's not clear just how much Archway supplied, but a DEA agent spotted more than one drum with the Archway label during an undercover visit to WAC in May 2002. Archway did not return two messages.
Chemisphere on Clifton Avenue was also a supplier. "We're very interested in earning or winning your business," Chemisphere salesman Michael Klote told Cassandra in an August telephone call. Cassandra told her son that she'd already purchased twenty barrels of BD from the company. Klote did not return a call.
The Harveys registered Miracle Cleaning Products as a business with the Missouri secretary of state's office in April 1999, listing Cassandra and Joshua as co-owners. Five months later, they filed incorporation papers. They opened a checking account in the name of Miracle Cleaning Products, and they hired a bookkeeper.
UPS records show that Miracle Cleaning Products filled at least 1,750 orders in 2001 alone, generating shipping bills of $62,829. UPS's main competitor took notice: Cassandra told Joshua that Federal Express had asked her to become a client. The Harveys had 441 customers in 41 states and eight foreign countries, some of whom paid with checks or money orders. In 2001, PayPal, an online-money-transfer service, transferred more than $277,000 to Miracle Cleaning Products. Some customers conducted business by telephone.
The Harveys were cavalier in their handling of a substance that was coveted by so many people. They left unattended packages for UPS pickup on Cassandra's front porch, with pickups taking place as often as three times a day, six days a week.
Nobody did anything about it.
Seidel, the retired JLM manager, says he would never have sold to Cassandra if he'd known the BD was being used as a drug.
When he opened the account, Seidel says, he checked with Vopak and was told that BD was an innocuous substance. Seidel says he thinks he called the DEA about Miracle Cleaning Products, but he can't remember for sure.
Had Seidel called the DEA, it likely wouldn't have made a difference. The cops knew about Miracle Cleaning Products before Seidel ever met Cassandra.
Police in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called Festus police in March 2000 when University of Michigan students alerted campus authorities to a package addressed to a man who had moved out of their house. They suspected the package contained drugs. Inside was a Miracle Cleaning Products bottle with Cassandra's return address.
"I thought it was kind of odd, so I went down to the post office," recalls Lieutenant Don Lassing of the Festus Police Department. "I checked City Hall to see if they had a business license. It kind of snowballed from there."
GHB, GBL and BD were new to Lassing.
"Just about the time this broke, we started getting information about GHB, date-rape drugs, ecstasy, but we had never made a case or investigated a case involving it," he says. "We'd always read brochures, went to classes -- we were told what to look for and blah, blah, blah. So when this broke, naturally I'm sitting here with my head in my hands, going, 'Holy shit. What's it look like? What's it smell like?' That's when I called the DEA and said, 'Hey, here's what I think I've got. Can you come down and talk? They said, 'Yeah, we'll help you with it. We'll run with it.'"
They didn't run very fast.
In an affidavit used to get a tap on Cassandra's e-mail account, a DEA agent told a judge that the active investigation into the Harveys didn't begin until February 2002, nearly two years after Michigan police called Festus. The agent also told the judge that the DEA in St. Louis didn't launch an investigation until local agents got a tip from the San Jose, California, DEA office. Regardless of how the investigation began, law enforcement watched for more than two years while the Harveys peddled poison.
In November 2000, sheriff's deputies in Kern County, California, raided the home of a suspected GHB dealer. They didn't find any GHB, but they did find a Dr. Pepper bottle filled with BD. A search of the suspected dealer's computer records revealed that she'd been buying half-gallons from Miracle Cleaning Products. The suspected dealer wasn't charged with a crime.
In February 2001, DEA agents in Chicago found a Miracle Cleaning Products container in the home of a suspected dealer who was prosecuted in state court. The DEA says the dealer admitted buying at least two gallons of Miracle Cleaning Products, which he resold after diluting each gallon with three gallons of distilled water.
An emergency physician in Hastings, Michigan, raised a flag about Miracle Cleaning Products in April 2001, when a man brought his wife to the hospital. She was suffering from an overdose, and the man brought along a Miracle Cleaning Products bottle. After calling Cassandra -- her number was printed on the bottle label -- the doctor contacted a Michigan state trooper who was at the hospital in connection with an unrelated traffic accident.
The doctor told the trooper that the woman who answered Cassandra's phone was uncooperative and sounded as if she was trying to hide something. She wouldn't give him any information unless he told her the name of the patient who had overdosed, which the doctor explained was impossible because of patient-doctor confidentiality. The woman also said she wouldn't sell to anyone who was ingesting Miracle Cleaning Products. Finally the doctor asked whether Miracle Cleaning Products contained BD. When the woman answered yes, the doctor hung up and found the trooper.
The trooper submitted the bottle to a lab for testing and visited the man whose wife had overdosed. The man told the trooper that he had taken his wife to the emergency room four times in less than a year for treatment of BD overdoses. He also told the trooper that his wife had been purchasing BD over the Internet.
Miracle Cleaning Products made the mainstream in January 2001, when the New England Journal of Medicine published an article warning that BD was killing people. Included in the article was a table listing various names, including Miracle Cleaning Products, under which BD was being sold. Deborah L. Zvosec, a medical anthropologist who co-authored the journal article, says she had no trouble figuring out that Miracle Cleaning Products was a drug in disguise.
"We were watching the Internet for these butanediol and [GBL] supplements," Zvosec recalls. "When I went to it [the Miracle Cleaning Products Web site] and accessed it and looked at the legal disclaimer and looked at the fact that first they were selling GBL and when that started catching some heat, butanediol started to appear, that's what tipped us off to it."
The DEA says 72 people have died after taking GHB or copycat drugs, but Zvosec believes the number is higher. Project GHB, a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing awareness about GHB and similar chemicals, says more than 250 people worldwide have died. BD is dangerous even to nonusers because the chemical takes effect so quickly, Zvosec says.
"Someone could literally walk to their car looking completely normal and in the next fifteen minutes be losing consciousness," she says. "We had addicts who told us that they would feel themselves losing consciousness and not even have time to pull over to the side of the road. The public-health risk is profound, especially with the addicts because of the chronic use. Remember, they're using around the clock, so they're driving intoxicated all the time."
Nick Nolte, who admitted taking GHB before getting behind the wheel in September, illustrates Zvosec's point. Nolte, arrested for driving under the influence, was drooling on himself, incoherent and unrecognizable as a movie star when police found him driving the wrong way on a Malibu highway.
Withdrawal from GHB and its substitutes is horrendous, Zvosec and other experts say. Addicts dose themselves as often as every 30 minutes, and if they miss a swig, they suffer tremors, anxiety, sweating and hallucinations. It's tough to get through to them. "I'll say, 'You're drinking an industrial solvent -- you're drinking something that's used to make paint thinner,'" Zvosec says. "And they'll say, 'Yeah, but it's not as bad as alcohol,' or 'Yeah, but ...', 'Yeah, but ...', 'Yeah, but.'"
Mr. Brooks -- not his real name -- is an addict and a former Miracle Cleaning Products customer. He says the Harveys' company was easy to find -- he simply punched "GBL" into a search engine and the Miracle Cleaning Products' Web site popped up. That was in the spring of 1999, when he was looking for a do-it-yourself anti-depressant. Brooks says he has mixed feelings about GHB, BD and GBL, but one thing is certain: He got in way too deep.
"I would use it on the weekdays, only in the evenings," he says. "It's much easier on the body than alcohol. You don't have a hangover. In fact, it's almost the opposite. You feel more refreshed the next day. Actually my life improved, like a lot of other people's lives. For the first time in my life, I could act like normal people. I was not under constant anxiety. My sleep improved -- I slept well. There's no substance that matches up to it as an aphrodisiac. I mean, Viagra couldn't hold a candle to this."
On weekends, he would take repeated doses while clubbing. But the good times didn't last.
"The substance turned on me about eight months after I started using it," Brooks says. "I didn't have the energy without it. It got to the point where I needed to take it earlier and earlier in the day to feel OK, to actually feel normal. I ended up getting to the point where I was taking it early in the morning. At the end of the day, I wasn't doing well. I got into methamphetamine -- honestly, I got so hardcore into meth I stopped using the G. All of a sudden, I was hallucinating. I was having audio hallucinations. I thought it was due to the meth. I had no idea it was due to GHB addiction."
Brooks says he quit meth after about a month and stayed clean for about six months before returning to GBL and BD. After four months, he burned out. He was driving to rehab when he landed in big trouble, thanks to bottles of GBL and BD on the backseat.
"I had my supply with me, the last of it, and decided this is the last time I may ever feel normal again," he recalls. "It was very emotional. I was scared -- I was very scared. So I took a little bit too much."
Brooks was in Wisconsin when he swallowed what he thought would be his last dose. It nearly was. He regained consciousness about 70 miles away. He says he could easily have killed himself or others
"I woke up on the side of the road in Rockford, Illinois, with a cop banging on my window -- I was half-parked on Interstate 90," he says. "He found an anti-seizure medication and thought I was having a seizure. I could have gotten away with the whole thing. Because I didn't have any inhibitions, I was honest with him. I'm in a disassociative state. You can't underestimate just how horrible it is having five people yelling at you, 'What is wrong?' from all directions. I'm, just, 'Shut the fuck up!'"
The bust marked Brooks' second brush with the law resulting from his addiction. A year earlier, he escaped with a reckless-driving conviction after being stopped for driving under the influence -- the Breathalyzer registered zero, and the small-town cops couldn't figure out what he was on. He wasn't so lucky this time, given that he'd confessed to taking an illegal drug. "I was facing a mandatory minimum of six years, and I was facing up to 30 years' imprisonment in Illinois," he says. Eventually he got probation. But his legal fees approached $15,000.
He still couldn't break the habit. While in rehab, he got a pass, went to a public library and ordered two liters of BD from a Web site. He says he's been clean for nearly a year, and his postings on drug chat rooms have largely ceased. But he hasn't been able to say goodbye forever.
"I honestly have tried to take myself out of the loop," he says. "Unfortunately, I have some e-mails I should delete. If I delete them, I'll never know where to find these people again. But I always kind of leave that as an open door."
While Brooks was going through withdrawal, the Harveys were getting rich.
They bought a 2000 Dodge Dakota pickup truck in the name of Miracle Cleaning Products. Joshua moved out of his mothers house, buying a split-level home in nearby Herculaneum for $110,000. He also bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster. He often drove a 1997 Camaro Z28 and a 1999 Cadillac DeVille that were registered to him and his mother.
The Harveys' bank accounts swelled into six figures. According to his federal tax returns, Joshua earned $34,900 in 2000 and $60,400 the next year. His mother made $119,470 in 2000 and $136,200 in 2001, according to her tax returns, and business was getting better. When she was arrested, Cassandra was paying herself $12,116 a month -- more than $145,000 per year.
"They were just making money hand over fist," Lassing says.
The lieutenant says police could have brought down the Harveys much earlier than they did. But allowing them to sell illegal drugs unchecked served a greater purpose, he insists.
"We wanted to identify everybody involved," Lassing says. "Had we swooped down on her in April or May of 2000, when this all broke, had we swooped down on her and locked her up then, we wouldn't have put nearly the dent in it that we did by waiting two years. By waiting two years, there were more people arrested, more targets identified and more quantity taken off the street."
To date, 170 people have been arrested as a result of Operation Webslinger, which brought down three primary BD distributors in addition to the Harveys, according to the DEA. Although the Harveys were sitting on the largest cache when the feds moved in, the biggest dealer may have been Daniel Pelchat of Quebec. He had been selling to customers around the world since at least 1997.
"He's the big cheese," says Trinka Porrata, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer who now heads Project GHB, the anti-drug group. Pelchat openly peddled GBL and BD in chat rooms and on four Web sites, including one with testimonials from BD customers who said the product gave them energy and helped them sleep. He grossed $10,000 per day and raked in $3 million in two years, according to the DEA. Police have seized cash and assets totaling more than $2.6 million from Pelchat and two alleged conspirators, including $1.9 million found in two Texas banks.
Dozens upon dozens of Pelchat's customers, including 35 people in Buffalo, New York, alone, were snagged in Operation Webslinger. St. Louis DEA spokeswoman Shirley Armstead won't say how many of the people arrested did business with Miracle Cleaning Products, but most of the Harveys' 441 customers have escaped punishment. With UPS trucks stopping at Cassandra's house six days a week, hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of BD made their way from Festus to points unknown.
"There's no way that we got everybody involved," says Lassing, who watched some of those trucks.
Porrata says crackdowns such as Operation Webslinger "could have and probably should have" taken place years earlier. "Almost all the GHB stuff could have been done sooner," says Porrata. "I was glad to see it finally happen, but, in reality, there were reasons why it took so long. The problem is, on the federal level, originally GHB was very low-level in terms of sentencing, and so it wasn't taken terribly seriously. Then the penalties were upgraded at the federal level, and so DEA agents could then justify spending more time on GHB issues. And they put together this massive Operation Webslinger."
Although distribution and possession of GHB and its chemical cousins were made illegal by Congress in early 2000, tough penalties didn't take effect until November 2001, when the U.S. Sentencing Commission ratcheted up punishment so that a first-time offender faces twenty years or more in prison. Previously, the penalty for someone with no criminal record was less than four years.
William Glaspy, a DEA spokesman based in Washington, D.C., says increases in penalties played no role in the timing of Operation Webslinger. He won't say why it took so long to bring down people whose sales of GBL and BD were an open secret. "That gets into our investigative activities, and that's something I can't talk about," he says.
Nearly three years ago, authorities in California and Arizona demonstrated how fast police can take down Internet drug traffickers when they set their minds to it.
The case began on February 8, 2000, when a Palo Alto man overdosed on GBL. His mother called police, who checked the Internet and confirmed that Brian Michael Hall of Phoenix was the source. Posing as a friend of the overdose victim, an undercover officer telephoned Hall and told him that GBL was illegal in California. The officer subsequently ordered a 55-gallon drum of GBL for $3,000 and a two-and-a-half-gallon container for about $200. Hall shipped the orders to San Jose and Gilroy, California. On March 15, 2000, exactly five weeks after the case began, police arrested Hall, timing the bust so that he could be charged under the new federal law. He wasn't prosecuted by the feds, but Hall pleaded no contest in state court and received a five-year sentence.
"It was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel," says Rob Baker, a Santa Clara County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Hall in California. Police were shocked when they found more than a dozen empty drums stacked on Hall's patio. "We had no idea he had so much," Hall says.
The case didn't end there. Police searched Hall's computer and arrested several customers, including a sex offender in Florida who had purchased a 55-gallon drum. The Florida man received a 30-month sentence, according to his attorney. "I know that in California, investigators followed up on eight to twelve shipments," Baker says.
Two months after the bust, Ethan M. Posner, then deputy associate attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, cited the case during congressional testimony in response to criticism that the government wasn't doing enough to stop Internet drug trafficking. Posner called it a "very successful crackdown" and said that the case generated eight arrests and resulted in the seizure of 400 gallons of GBL.
Baker says he would have prosecuted Hall no matter the penalty. "When we saw this, there was no question we were going to go after him," he says. "Even if he was looking at local county-jail time, we would have done this. He was distributing so much of this with impunity. Our office felt, and the California Bureau of Narcotics and the DEA felt, that we needed to stop him immediately. We didn't know who he was sending this to."
Robert Mecir, the undercover officer who bought from Hall, says BD has largely replaced GBL and GHB in Santa Clara County. "To be honest with you, that's what we're seeing the most of, is 1,4-butanediol," Mecir says. "A lot of it has to do with GBL being listed. A lot of these traffickers think they're going to do an end-around."
The Harveys and others arrested in Operation Webslinger may find hope in a September decision by a federal court in New York. In that case, the court threw out indictments against two men found with BD, which prosecutors argued was illegal under federal law that criminalizes chemicals that are substantially the same as GHB. The fact that the body metabolizes BD into GHB isn't enough to make it illegal, U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet wrote in his September 9 decision. The judge noted that BD has been used as an industrial solvent for decades and that sales are not tracked the same way as GBL's. "Nothing has prevented Congress from either scheduling or listing 1,4-butanediol as a controlled substance," the judge wrote. "Congress had the opportunity to address the substance when it scheduled GHB and when it listed GBL [as a precursor chemical], but it took no action." The government has appealed Sweet's decision. "Anything can happen," says Andrew A. Rubin, attorney for one of the men.
One Miracle Cleaning Products customer has already pleaded guilty. Michael Caricofe, owner of a Nebraska nutritional store called Hardcore Nutrition, pleaded guilty to two federal drug charges in July. He admitted buying BD from the Harveys approximately 46 times between late 2000 and February of last year, when he was arrested after DEA agents in New York found BD being sold in a Manhattan store and traced the product back to him.
No one is pretending that Operation Webslinger has put Internet traffickers out of business forever. But it's made a dent.
In the weeks after the busts, addicts in chat rooms comforted one another and gave tips on how to handle withdrawal. They talked about the end of an era and scrambled to find online suppliers who weren't scam artists. And they rejoiced when they found that a glue remover contains GBL and is available in grocery stores, although the manufacturer has ceased production. DAMN this is so funny, wrote someone who scored at half-a-dozen stores. We've been bustin our ass trying to get a source and all along its being sold at the grocery stores.
About a week before police arrested Cassandra, the handle on her toilet broke. Monte DeClue, the landlord's son, came to fix it.
Cassandra was behaving oddly, DeClue recalls.
"She really acted nervous," DeClue says. "She said, 'Maybe it's dirty.' She took the handle to the kitchen sink and started scrubbing it -- really scrubbing it hard. It didn't make any sense. I was, like, 'Gosh, take a chill pill, lady.' It was kind of strange. I guess she knew what was going to happen to her."
If she didn't know, she should have guessed. Joshua and Cassandra had known for weeks that the cops were after them. Their first hint came on August 2, when a customer in Utah sent an e-mail to Cassandra informing her that police had confiscated his shipment. Three days later, he ordered another quart.
Judging from wiretaps and e-mails intercepted by the DEA, neither Joshua nor Cassandra seemed particularly concerned about police until August 23, when Cassandra heard from a customer in Chicago who'd been buying twenty or more gallons per month. The DEA had seized his latest five-gallon shipment and searched his house. DEA agents in Alabama and California had also seized two other shipments from customers who notified Cassandra.
Joshua couldn't understand why the cops hadn't moved sooner. "We've been doing the exact same thing for so long," he told his mother. "I'm surprised it's taken them this long to start seizing any of our packages."
Cassandra figured that the DEA was monitoring UPS, but she apparently had no clue that agents were tapping her telephone and her computer. In dozens of phone calls and e-mails, she continued setting up deals while scheming with her son to hide their money.
Noting that police were seizing five-gallon shipments, the Harveys decided to limit purchases to one gallon per customer per month unless the customer could explain why he needed more. They also told customers that their product was not intended for redistribution. When Cassandra suggested warning labels that included the word "poison," Joshua objected. "It's not a poison, Mother," he said. "You want to put 'Warning: Intentional ingestion may be harmful or fatal.'"
With sales slowing as the DEA seized shipments, Cassandra worried about having too many barrels on hand. "What are we going to do with it?" she asked Joshua. "Sell it," her son replied. "To who?" his mother responded. "Just tell our clients, 'Oops -- well, it's over, but we've got this much left and it will be shipped discreetly," he answered.
So far as Joshua was concerned, if he and his mother were drug dealers, so were the chemical companies who sold to them and the developmentally disabled who filled the jugs. "We got the shit all set up," he told Cassandra. "We've got WAC over there doing everything -- they've got all the product over there. If they tried to charge us with drug trafficking, they'd have to charge WAC with drug distribution and packaging and all that crap. They'd have to charge [the chemical companies] for distributing drugs to us."
Cassandra mistakenly believed that the DEA thought she was selling GHB. So far as she was concerned, BD was an entirely different thing, even though she knew that the substance converts to GHB when ingested. "What are they going to do, make the human body illegal?" she asked her son. "I am not the mother of the world. I make sure children are not ordering from me. I cannot be responsible for what people do."
Cassandra had trouble following the new rules against shipping large quantities or filling orders for customers who resold their product. When the feds arrested her, she was working on a deal to sell two drums to a San Francisco man who offered to pay about $10,000 apiece. She also didn't cut off a regular who bought by the five-gallon jug and admitted sharing with others, including a friend who went into a coma after "accidentally ending up with a lot in his body."
"It's his choice, but someone like that, you've got to go, 'Whoa, dude, that's not what you said you were going to do,'" Cassandra said. "You don't want to be responsible for that. I don't, either. If you're going to receive from me, then I want all the labels ripped off and I want you to be responsible for what happens to it. I've had a lot of reports from Florida, people who were buying large quantities from me. I was getting these reports that there's all kinds of craziness going on down there -- women getting raped. I can't put up with that. It's just too scary. It's like somebody huffing paint. They can die from it."
Cassandra's worries about law enforcement increased after she heard from a Sacramento customer who warned that the feds could soon be at her door. "Honestly, I take orders in the same fashion you do," said the customer, who assured Cassandra he had a license to resell BD. "I don't want to worry about being visited by the DEA. And that's a distinct possibility that you may have to face. I'm sure you're probably ordering 55-gallon drums. I could do that, but I just don't want to do that and have a flag raised."
The man told her that it was just a matter of time before BD became impossible to obtain. "What are we going to do then?" Cassandra asked. "Find something else that's similar," he answered. "Good luck -- I don't know if there is anything else," Cassandra replied. "Actually, there's a couple of substances that are similar," the man responded. "OK, you'll let me know about that," she said before telling him his order would be shipped the next day.
A rattled Cassandra told Joshua about the conversation and said she wanted to get out of the BD business.
"It's getting too hairy," she said. "What this guy is saying is, they're trying to make it as difficult to get as GBL. So if they do that and we're sitting here with twenty damn drums or 50 drums...."
"Then we'll have a bunch of drums of product that's harder to get than GBL and we'll be able to sell it for a higher price," he said. "We'll sell it all off and make our damn money." Cassandra wasn't sure it would be so easy. "Well, yeah, but what if they want names and stuff?" she asked. Joshua assured her there would be no trouble. "Well, we were able to get rid of the GBL last time," he pointed out. "It didn't matter. We still sold it."
Hiding assets was uppermost in Joshua's mind. He hit on a plan to trade BD for gold that could be hidden in safe-deposit boxes. They'd still pay taxes, but they'd declare income on the basis of the face value of $50 coins each containing $320 worth of gold.
"Some of our clients are rich people," Joshua told his mother. "We could trade them an ounce of gold for a two-gallon container. Do you know how much money we could make? Shit, if we did 100 two-gallon orders, we'd have $320,000 worth of gold coins, boom, like that. And then that could be liquidated -- there's no way to get in trouble selling gold and silver." Cassandra agreed that was a good idea and posted a message on the Web site saying Miracle Cleaning Products wanted to buy bullion.
Joshua suggested making sales of state quarters the main focus of the Web site and selling BD as a coin cleaner. He also pondered pitching various other products that would clutter up the site, even if they never sold. That would make the BD less conspicuous. "That's always going to be the big seller -- our established clients will know what they're doing," he told his mother. "It should be hard to find the magic product, man. It should be buried behind a million other things. We'll put an American flag up, maybe, with coins that we sell. We could even sell American flags if we wanted to. We'll be covered, man. If they take us to court and look at our site and they see 'Well, they're selling a bunch of patriotic shit and they're talking about America and keeping America clean,' what's the judge going to say?"
Those plans never came to pass. And for all their talk of gold, the Harveys didn't have the Midas touch. Joshua didn't even know what a Krugerrand was. "Isn't that just a coin from another country?" he asked his mother.
In the end, the Harveys couldn't come up with anything better than stashing money in Cassandra's house. When police broke down her door more than a month after the DEA began seizing shipments, she had $146,000 in cash. The government found nearly $180,000 in various bank and online accounts. Besides the money, the feds seized all the vehicles and Joshua's house. The bounty will be divided between the federal government and the Festus Police Department, with Festus getting 40 percent.
No trial date has been set for Joshua and Cassandra.
Both are undergoing mental evaluations.
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