ST. LOUIS • It started with scattered reports to poison control centers about a synthetic marijuana called K2.
Then Dr. Anthony Scalzo, the director of toxicology for St. Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, began getting calls about symptoms. The rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, anxiety, agitation and hallucinations were linked to synthetic marijuana, speed and other drugs.
By February 2010, Scalzo notified the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a suggestion that it notify the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The process he set in motion culminated locally in the announcement Wednesday of the arrest of 28 residents of Missouri, Illinois and two other states indicted on a series of charges involving the illegal importation, manufacture and distribution of synthetic marijuana, so-called “bath salts” and other synthetics.
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan, in a press conference Wednesday, warned parents of the dangers of the drugs, and to be on the lookout for children’s “sudden interest in potpourri, incense or bath salts.”
The drugs are often marketed as benign products and marked “not for human consumption” in an attempt to disguise their purpose, officials said.
Callahan said parents should not think the products are harmless simply because they can be purchased at gas stations and convenience stores.
The owners or operators of several local stores accused of selling the drugs were among those indicted in recent weeks, as well as others accused of selling them nationwide.
Callahan described a “cat and mouse” game in which makers try to stay ahead of drug laws by tweaking the chemistry. But he said prosecutors can go after substances that are “substantially similar” to restricted drugs.
James Shroba, head of the DEA’s St. Louis office, said the case was a warning to those who “experiment on the health and welfare of our children.”
The indictments were handed down beginning May 21, but sealed until the first arrests Tuesday.
The charges include conspiracy to distribute and possession with the intent to distribute controlled substances and their analogues, conspiracy to introduce and receive misbranded drugs, conspiracy to import controlled substances and controlled substance analogues, a smuggling conspiracy charge and money laundering.
Illinois residents charged in the indictments include Anwer Rao, 35, Michael Lentsch, 34, Charles Kinney, 55, and Brandien Robinson, 28, of O’Fallon; Matthew Fiedler, 23, of Belleville; Larry Farmer Jr., 40, of Keyesport; Mark Palmer, 44, of Granite City; and Anthony Palmer, 25, of Mount Vernon.
Missourians include St. Louis residents Igor Holdaiy, 52, and John Galvin, 52; St. Peters residents Charles Wolfe, 53, Marcia Gronek, 52, and Pamela Tabatt, 56; and O’Fallon residents Brett Beeman, 42, Sherri Beeman, 37, Joseph Gabrick, 52. Also indicted in Missouri were Elizabeth Pogue, 41, of Bridgeton; Greg Sloan, 58, of St. Charles; Roger Galvin, 36, of Charlack; Samuel Leinicke, 24, of Arnold; Robert Wolfe, 52, of Hazelwood; Richard Gross, 34, of Winfield; and Paul Berra Jr., 30, Warrenton.
Mansi Patel, 28, of Phoenix, David Neal, 45, of Carmel, Ind., and Indianapolis residents Doug Sloan, 53, Robert Jaynes Jr., 43, and Kirk Parsons, 45, were also charged here.
Attorneys for several of the defendants declined to comment when reached by the Post-Dispatch Tuesday and Wednesday.
Scalzo said he had heard horror stories about the drugs’ effects, including a 14-year-old who tried to jump out of a fifth-floor window and a young man who injected bath salts, ate dirt and died of cardiac arrest.
Education and enforcement seem to help, he said. There were roughly 6,900 calls to poison control centers about the drugs in 2011, but only a little over 1,000 in the first five months this year.