Undercover detectives who investigated a major drug trafficking organization earned the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office the Outstanding Law Enforcement Agency Award for 2014.
The award was presented by the federal Department of Justice’s Eastern District for detectives’ work on case “Operation Sugar and Spice.” Two of these agency awards are given annually — split between the district’s Fresno and Sacramento divisions — for agencies that work across jurisdictional lines to tackle serious criminal threats.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner presented Sheriff Margaret Mims with the department’s award Wednesday afternoon during a news conference at the sheriff’s office headquarters in downtown Fresno.
For a year and a half, sheriff detectives investigated Victor Anthony Nottoli and his company, Zenbio — which runs the Stuffed Pipe smoke shops in Fresno. Officials said Zenbio is a major synthetic drug trafficking organization responsible for producing and distributing at least 24 tons of harmful controlled substances worth more than $25 million — marketed as smokable synthetic cannabinoids — to 47 states.
“Synthetic drugs are chemically produced in laboratories and are intended to mimic the effect of other illegal drugs,” Wagner said. “Synthetic cannabinoids are often much more dangerous and powerful than the cannabinoids that they supposedly mimic.”
Wagner said the use of these dangerous drugs — often falsely labeled as potpourri or incense — is spreading and there have been numerous reports the drugs have caused serious injury and death.
Mims echoed the warning, saying the synthetic drugs — marijuana or herbs soaked or sprayed with untested, unknown chemicals produced by “underground chemists” — are becoming increasingly popular among young people.
“They think it’s safer than smoking pot, and even legal, because you can buy it at gas stations, convenience stores, head shops and online,” Mims said. “Parents need to be alert to the potential tragic results of ‘spice.’ ”
After sheriff detectives made undercover purchases from Nottoli’s Fresno smoke shops, 41 federal search warrants were ordered. Officers said they seized more than 50 kilograms of pure controlled substances and more than $6 million from drug trafficking.
The search also led to the prosecution of five people — including a guilty plea from Nottoli, who agreed to forfeit more than $6 million. The other four arrested are awaiting trial in Fresno’s U.S. District Court. Additionally, six co-conspirators were found guilty in Alabama and New York, and one in Arizona is expected to plead guilty next week.
Now-retired detective John Avila with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office brought the case to the attention of federal authorities in November 2012 after he intercepted a package containing 12 kilograms of pure XLR11, a synthetic drug considered 167 times more powerful than marijuana.
Officials said the package was addressed to a manager of the Stuffed Pipe, Natalie Middleton — a Clovis woman now awaiting trial — and was sent from the target of a Zenbio investigation in Alabama. What ensued was the intense joint investigation by the sheriff’s office, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security Investigations.