13 Charged in Drug Sales Over Apps Near University of Texas

Buildings stand in the downtown skyline at night past the Colorado River in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, April 4, 2015.
Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A drug ring largely operated by current and former University of Texas students used apps and social media to sell counterfeit Adderall and Xanax often laced with fentanyl, the Department of Justice announced Friday.

Justice officials said 13 people, including eight current and former students, have been charged with trafficking LSD, fentanyl and methamphetamine pills.

"What is particularly disturbing about this case is that what appeared to be extremely well-educated and talented people who had many opportunities in life to choose from, instead focused their business acumen and education in dealing illegal, dangerous and counterfeit drugs," U.S. Attorney Gregg Sofer said during a press conference.

Investigators said the defendants were taken into custody Thursday when searches resulted in the seizure of large quantities of fentanyl, LSD, marijuana, Adderall, Xanax and psilocybin, the hallucinogenic substance in magic mushrooms just blocks from the campus in Austin. Agents also confiscated guns, bullet-proof vests and about $100,000 in cash.

A psilocybin grow was used to supply sales was found in Dripping Springs, outside Austin, and a marijuana field linked to the ring was found in Portland, Oregon, investigators said.

The ring was led by Varun Prasad, 23, of Austin, investigators said. Prasad accepted payments for the drugs via apps including Venmo and Paypal, plus in cash.

Prasad did not have a listed phone number. It was unclear whether he had a lawyer to speak on his behalf.

Austin real estate developer Benny Daneshjou, 68, also was arrested after officials say he worked with Prasad to launder money, purchasing properties that were used as stash houses, safe houses, grow fields and an hallucinogenic mushroom growth operation, officials said. A message left with an employee at a phone number for a business listed in Daneshjou's name was not immediately returned.

Former University of Texas at San Antonio professor Rose Rodriguez-Rabin is accused of providing Prasad with methamphetamine-laced counterfeit drugs "on numerous occasions," Sofer said.

Rodriguez-Rabin and a co-defendant, Brandon Sims, are awaiting trial after being indicted in December 2019 for distributing counterfeit Adderall pills to UTSA students and others using "a consumer app similar to DoorDash" to market and sell the drugs as part of the same operation Prasad ran, Sofer said.

An attorney for Rodriguez-Rabin did not immediately return calls for comment. An attorney for Sims declined to comment.

Two other suspects overdosed and died during the investigation, which began in 2019, Sofer said.

Authorities believe more than $1 million worth of drugs were sold and distributed.

If convicted, the defendants could could face 10 years to life in prison for drug trafficking and up to 20 years in prison for money laundering.

The Austin Police Department began and led the investigation, called Operation Spider Web, in a joint effort with the DEA, FBI, IRS-Criminal Investigations, Travis County Sheriff's Office, Lakeway Police Department, Cedar Park Police Department and the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force.

Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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