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Drug shipped from Indy killed 5
2 local men to plead guilty to drug charges linked to Internet sales.
by Richard D. Walton
Jan 11, 2006
Originally published in IndyStar
Citation:   Walton RD. "Drug shipped from Indy killed 5". IndyStar. Jan 11 2006.
An ingredient of cough medicine increasingly being abused by teens across the nation is responsible for the deaths of five youths who received the chemical from two Indianapolis men.

Those men, Jess A. Johnson and Robert R. Denman, have agreed to plead guilty to federal charges in connection with the distribution of dextromethorphan, known as DXM, which is used by youths to get high. The drug causes hallucinations, but it also can cause brain damage and death.

Johnson and Denman, both 30, were charged with selling the drug over the Internet after obtaining it from sources in India.

U.S. Attorney Susan Brooks said that from January to April 2005, five males ages 17 to 19 died from overdoses of DXM that Johnson and Denman shipped to their states. One teen was from Virginia, two were from Florida, and two were from Washington state.

DXM is approved for use in over-the-counter medications.

But the powder form sold by Johnson and Denman is not intended for human ingestion.

Abuse of the substance and cough medicines in general is growing. One in 11 teenagers used cough medicines to get high last year, on par with abuse of illicit drugs such as cocaine and Ecstasy, according to a report by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Brooks called the transactions, uncovered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations, "every parent's nightmare." She appealed to parents to monitor what Web sites their children visit and to check medicine cabinets for such drugs.

Johnson and Denman have agreed to plead guilty to three counts of introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce. In selling the powder, the Indianapolis men noted that the form of DXM they were distributing was not intended for human consumption..

However, Brooks said Johnson and Denman knew full well that their customers had bought the chemical for its mind-altering effects. Investigators estimate they made about $70,000 on sales of the drug before their Web site was shut down.

The two men face a maximum sentence of nine years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Federal laws did not allow Brooks to charge the two men with the teenagers' deaths.

James McKinley, an attorney representing Johnson, and Joseph Cleary, who represents Denman, declined to talk extensively about their clients but said they did not intend to harm anyone and deeply regret the deaths.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, calls possibly involving DXM to Poison Control Centers -- many of them regarding teenagers -- rose from 2,523 in 2000 to 4,382 in 2003.

Last May, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about the abuse of DXM. The drugstore chain Walgreens voluntarily banned sales of products with the chemical to minors last summer.

Abusers know DXM by the nickname "Robo." Web sites promoting the chemical call the process of ingesting DXM "dexing" or "Robotripping." Officials said some Web sites provide explicit instructions on how to get high.

A possible reason young people are drawn to the substance is that it is commonly found in cold preparations, said Dr. Melisa Lai, associate director for medical/surveillance for the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

"It doesn't seem like it's that bad," she said. "You don't have to go out on a street corner in the middle of the night and pay someone."

In its warning about the chemical, the FDA said DXM has replaced codeine as the most widely used cough suppressant in the United States. When taken at recommended dosage levels, it is considered a safe and effective product.

But abuse of the powdered form -- whether sold in plastic bags, as was done by Johnson and Denman, or put into tablets or capsules -- is a new turn in the abuse of DXM. In years past, users looking to get high typically took excessive amounts of cough syrup or a large number of cough drops.

Authorities say Johnson and Denman operated out of Johnson's home on the Southside of Indianapolis. Officials say the two men packaged the DXM in zip-lock bags and mailed it to customers through the pair's business, Chemical API. The letters are an acronym for "active pharmaceutical ingredients."

Authorities say Johnson and Denman sold the drug from October 2004 to May 2005 and continued to do so after learning of the deaths of two Florida men who overdosed on the chemical.

Brooks said the five deaths from DXM should be a warning to parents and youths.

"We need to wake up to the dangers of buying drugs over the Internet," she said. "These drugs can be as lethal as drugs that they buy on the street."

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Jan 11, 2006 - Original published in Indy Star.
  • v1.1 - Jan 30, 2008 - Published on