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LA man's death leads to drug arrests
by Penny Brown Roberts, Advocate staff writer
Jul 23, 2004
Originally published in The Advocate
Citation:   Roberts PB. "La. man's death leads to drug arrests". The Advocate. Jul 23, 2004.
When the little blue glass vials were delivered to his St. Francisville home in March, James Edwards Downs dipped just the tip of his tongue into the powdery white substance inside one of them.

It turned out to be a fatal dose.

The bottles contained an Ecstasy-like designer drug the 22-year-old quadriplegic bought over the Internet.

After swallowing it, Downs developed a 108-degree temperature, had a grand-mal seizure and died at Lane Memorial Hospital in Zachary on March 13 four days after lapsing into a coma, according to a federal criminal complaint.

His death helped launch what became a national federal investigation into Internet Web sites that sell designer drugs under the guise of "research chemicals."

Ten people were arrested across the country Thursday -- including Michael Burton and Keith Russart, the 25-year-old Las Vegas men accused of selling the substance known as 2C-T-21 to Downs via an online company called American Chemical Supply.

Burton, Russart and the others were indicted on federal drug distribution charges. The drugs and other chemicals have been linked to at least two deaths and 14 nonfatal overdoses.

If convicted as charged, Burton and Russart -- who could appear before a Baton Rouge magistrate as early as today -- face up to life in prison because of Downs' death.

Downs' parents, Johnny and Charlotte Downs, declined to comment. Their lawyer, David Shelby of Baton Rouge, said the couple were "still not over the death of James. But they're really excited about the fast progress that was made."

The case is unique because it targets so-called analogue drugs, which produce the same stimulant and hallucinatory effects as Ecstasy or LSD, but have a slightly altered chemical makeup so they are not identified by federal authorities as controlled substances.

Authorities say dealers also try to avoid prosecution by selling the substances as "research chemicals" that are not intended for human consumption. But because they come in powder rather than pill form -- and recommended dosages can vary by as little as a milligram -- authorities say users run a higher risk of overdosing.

"These drugs are newly created and not tested," U.S. Attorney David Dugas said Thursday at a news conference. "Users have no accurate way of controlling the dose or even knowing what an appropriate dose is."

He called the growing number of Web sites selling such substances "a troubling trend. Young people attracted to the lure of designer drugs might think this is legal or safe. But it's neither."

Federal investigators say Downs spent $265 for 1,000 milligrams of 2C-T-21 and 1,000 milligrams of another substance identified as IAP on Burton's Web site, The site -- which advertised chemicals from Germany and China -- has been seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Downs initially told his mother the blue vials contained an herbal anti-depressant, but told hospital employees he took the chemical to "get high," according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge.

"This wasn't anything anyone had ever seen before," said Sgt. Ray Day of the Zachary Police Department. "He just touched his tongue to the substance and common sense thought, 'That's not that much.' "

According to a criminal complaint, Burton sold 1,533 products from his Web site between April and June, constituting $300,000 in sales. He wired his money to offshore accounts through banks in the West Indies and Lithuania, according to the criminal complaint.

American Chemical Supply also spent more than $10,000 advertising its wares on Google, an Internet search site, according to the criminal complaint.

Records from a credit-card processing company show the buyers did not appear to be associated with any company or research facilities, but instead had e-mail usernames like "raverchic31283," "pondscum007," "consumerhell" and "joepeepingtom."

According to the criminal complaint, Russart told federal investigators he and Burton "discussed the possibility that chemicals they distributed were being consumed by the customers," but that Burton said "as long as they had the disclaimers on the packages, it would keep them legal."

Russart told federal investigators he regularly handled delivery of the chemicals to customers in exchange for free lodging with Burton.

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Feb 19, 2008 - Erowid.