Federal prosecutors in North Texas filed court papers on Thursday to seize more than a dozen Gas Pipe smoke shops, a historic Fort Worth theater and at least two upscale homes as part of an investigation into the synthetic marijuana business.
The move by the Drug Enforcement Administration represents one of the largest federal forfeiture proceedings in North Texas in recent memory and comes weeks after a series of overdoses linked to the drug, which was marketed under a number of names, including Spice and K2.
As part of the investigation, the DEA said undercover agents bought synthetic marijuana at Gas Pipe locations and agents tracked bank accounts where the profits were deposited.
Lawrence Shahwan of Lewisville, the alleged mastermind of the operation, was arrested in February on a charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
According to court documents, Shahwan started manufacturing synthetic marijuana himself around 2010 and in September 2013 entered into an exclusive sales agreement with Gas Pipe.
A few months later, the smoke shop remodeled its location on Maple Avenue in Dallas, added a room to manufacture the drug itself and paid an associate of Shahwan $50,000 for lessons, agents said.
Shahwan, the owners of the Gas Pipe and their attorneys could not be reached for comment.
The government also wants to seize Shahwan’s home in Lewisville and a Gas Pipe manager’s home in Highland Park.
The forfeiture proceedings are a lawsuit, not criminal, and the smoke shops can remain open until the court case is resolved.
Among the property the government wants to seize is the Ridglea Theater, an icon on Fort Worth’s Camp Bowie Boulevard for decades.
"It's been a major part of the neighborhood for many years,” said neighbor Elaine Klos. “We've lived in the neighborhood for 40 years. We remember seeing the original Star Wars at the Ridglea Theater."
Klos, a former Fort Worth school board member, said she was surprised to learn about the accusations linking it to drug money.
"That's a shame, it really is,” she said. “That's not who we are."
EXPERTS QUESTION GOVERNMENT CASE
The former top federal prosecutor in North Texas said the forfeiture proceeding is remarkable in its scope.
"I think it's a substantial effort by the government to seize property,” said former U.S. Attorney Richard Roper. “It's one of the largest I've seen."
Now a private attorney, he said the government must prove the money was made after K-2 was outlawed several years ago.
"You would have to have a chemist actually testify that it meets the definition that's within the statute,” he said. “If it doesn't, then the government could have problems."
In other words, if the formula was changed even a little, it might be legal, he said.
Roper also said the court proceedings could take months and that the smoke shops can remain open until the legal case is concluded.
It was unclear whether the government’s move was directly related to the recent series of overdoses in Dallas and Austin.
The court documents do not specifically mention any overdoses.
Dozens of people became violent earlier this year and had to be hospitalized.
In Fort Worth, police said a wrong-way driver who struck and killed another driver had K2 in his pocket. Police say the investigation is continuing. He has not been arrested.