Pubdate: Sun, 01 Apr 2001
Source: Herald, The (WA)
Copyright: 2001 The Daily Herald Co.
Author: Scripps-McClatchy Western Sevice


Expecting Marijuana Plants, Agents Also Discover Largest Illegal Cache
Of Synthetic Heroin Ever Found.

BIG BEAR, Calif.  When detectives broke through the cabin door in Big Bear 
City, they expected to find marijuana plants.  They did not expect Jason 

Combining knowledge from a couple of college chemistry courses with 
information from the Internet, Williamson apparently figured out how to 
manufacture a synthetic heroin so powerful that just touching a pure form 
of the drug can kill, police say

The lab and the allegations against Williamson are anomalies in a world 
where cartels and kingpins dominate narcotics trafficking.

Williamson, 32, does not appear to be involved with any organized 
distribution ring and has only one misdemeanor conviction, police say And 
it is possible he managed to produce a fortune in drugs the first time he 
set up a lab, San Bernardino County sheriff's detective Mike Wirz said.

Detectives who raided the cabin Dec. 4 seized fentanyl with a wholesale 
value of $4 million to $5 million, enough of the drug to get 3 million 
addicts high. It was the largest seizure of illicit fentanyl ever in the 
United States, police said.

"It's such a fluke. There are seizures of an ounce here and an ounce there, 
which were thought to be huge," Wirz said.

Williamson pleaded innocent to federal charges of manufacturing fentanyl 
and possession with intent to distribute the drug. He is scheduled for 
trial next month in U.S. District Court in Riverside. If convicted, he 
could face more than 20 years in prison.

The lab was so unusual, in part, because illicit fentanyl is so rare. U.S. 
Drug Enforcement Administration officials say they have documented only 
three fentanyl labs in the United States in the past 25 years.

The drug is incredibly potent. Where a methamphetamine user might get five 
or 10 hits from a gram of high-quality speed, 1 gram of pure fentanyl can 
be enough for 5,000 doses of the drug, experts say

"If you just have an extra microgram or two, that could be above the lethal 
range," said Tom Abercrombie, assistant laboratory director at the 
California Department of Justice's DNA lab in Berkeley

Manufacturing fentanyl is more complicated than synthesizing some other 
drugs. The chemicals include solvents such as acetone and more exotic 
substances that initiate or halt reactions used in making plastics, 
Abercrombie said. Some can cause cancer or damage the nervous system.

Created as a synthetic narcotic for surgical procedures, fentanyl can be 
used as a painkiller or an anesthetic. Like heroin, it produces euphoria. 
Potency among the dozen or so forms of fentanyl can range from 50 to 
several thousand times greater than heroin. Most often, abusers are medical 
professionals with access to pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl.

Federal drug agents are trying to link a number of nonfatal overdoses in 
Arkansas to the drug that Williamson is accused of manufacturing, Wirz said.

"How many other states got deliveries, I don't know," he said.

Detectives went to Big Bear City after a source had tipped them that 
someone was growing marijuana in the cabin. Police with a search warrant 
knocked on the door, and when no one answered, they broke in, Wirz said.

Inside, police recovered 86 marijuana plants, most less than a foot tall. 
Detectives also found what they thought was a methamphetamine lab.

But as Wirz and another agent popped open a small document safe, an officer 
approached with a piece of paper found in another room. Information taken 
from the Internet described the chemicals and procedures used to make 
fentanyl. The safe contained 8.8 pounds of diluted fentanyl powder in 
plastic bags.

Wirz recalled his training classes. Instructors said agents probably would 
never see a fentanyl lab. But if they did, Wirz said, "they told us that it 
was the most deadly thing we'll ever come across."

Wirz looked at the fentanyl dust that coated the safe he had just handled. 
He ordered everyone outside and sealed the house until officials with 
proper protective gear arrived.

In addition to the fentanyl powder, authorities found 16 ounces of liquid 
fentanyl in the refrigerator, Wirz said. Illicit fentanyl abuse was more 
common in the 1980s, when heroin was in short supply said Dr. Gregory 
Thompson, director of the Los Angeles Regional Drug Information Center at 
the University of Southern California.

In 1999, there were 337 emergency-room visits related to fentanyl abuse 
throughout the United States, according to estimates from the Drug 
Awareness Warning Network The network collects data from 500 hospitals 
across the country and extrapolates the data nationwide.

In the same year, coroners in about 40 U.S. metropolitan areas attributed 
53 deaths to fentanyl abuse. Deaths from heroin and morphine abuse numbered 

Investigators suspect Williamson used Internet chat rooms to contact people 
looking to buy the drug. Along with the drug were instructions on how to 
dilute, or cut, the fentanyl to reduce its purity Wirz said. Analysis 
showed the powdered fentanyl from the cabin was 7.8 percent pure and the 
liquid, which had not been cut, was 87 percent pure, Wirz said.

Without sophisticated measuring devices, diluting fentanyl can be a lethal 
gamble, DEA spokesman Jose Martinez said.

"You're going to be shooting up fluff that's still too powerful, and it's 
going to kill you," he said.

Police checked chemical-supply houses, which report sales of certain 
chemicals to the state, and found the record of a one-time purchase by 
Williamson. It is possible, Wirz said, that Williamson manufactured drugs 
worth millions of dollars on his first try.
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