Syracuse, N.Y. -- Dan Avery cheered the news Wednesday about the owner of a chain of head shops that sold bath salts to Central New Yorkers -- including Avery's son. John E. Tebbetts, owner of Tebb's Headshops, pleaded guilty to drug charges and faces up to 16 years in prison.
“The simple fact is, he knew what he was doing and he continued to do it,” Avery said. “A lot of people lost their lives or got injured or permanently affected by it.”
Across the country, people reacted violently this summer after they’d ingested synthetic drugs labeled “bath salts,” “glass cleaner” and other innocuous-sounding names. In Central New York, seven serious incidents were attributed to synthetic drugs, according to federal prosecutors.
Avery’s 24-year-old son was hospitalized in July after overdosing on “glass cleaner” that he’d bought at Tebb’s Headshop in Watertown.
Avery responded that day by smashing up the shop with a miniature baseball bat and threatening to kill the clerk. He’s facing criminal charges.
Tebbetts, 33, of Rome, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Syracuse to six felony charges.
The charges included three counts of possessing a controlled substance analog — a drug that is chemically similar to a controlled substance — with the intent to sell the drugs at his head shops.
Tebbetts admitted that products labeled “Legal Phunk” and “Amped” that he sold at his stores were illegal narcotics.
The synthetic drugs were the equivalent of nearly 5,000 pounds of marijuana, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carla Freedman said in court. Tebbetts’ lawyer, George Hildebrandt, contends the marijuana equivalent weight was much lower — about 24 pounds.
Tebbetts also pleaded guilty to using $157,000 in cash from the sale of illegal drugs to buy a new mobile home in February.
Under the plea agreement, Tebbetts agreed to forfeit $314,000 in cash and six vehicles.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Grant Jaquith called it “exceptionally important” to stop the sales of synthetic drugs in stores such as Tebbetts’.
“The illusion that’s created of being able to walk into a store with regular hours and advertising just like you were at a convenience store is that it must be OK,” Jaquith said.
People selling and making synthetic drugs try out new molecular structures that change quickly to try to keep ahead of the law, said James Burns, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant special agent in charge of the agency’s Albany office.
“They’re poison,” Burns said. “These people who are selling this stuff or manufacturing this stuff are using our children as guinea pigs,” he said. “They create substances that have never been tested on either animals or people.”
Since police raided Tebbetts’ stores and others in July, police have seen a huge reduction in the number of 911 calls about people overdosing on synthetic drugs, according to prosecutors.
“Before this, we were averaging several calls each week, each day,” Oneida Police Chief David Meeker said. “After this, it’s basically down to zero.”
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Tebbetts faces between 13 and 16 years in prison, Freedman said. Hildebrandt contends the range should be six to eight years. U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue scheduled sentencing for April 29.
Over the past five years, Tebbetts opened 12 Tebb’s Headshops across New York and Maine, including three in Syracuse and one in Cicero.
One of the laws that Tebbetts admitted he violated had only been enacted two weeks before DEA agents and local police raided his stores July 25, Hildebrandt said.
Tebbetts was running his business out in the open, Hildebrandt said.
“He wasn’t doing things in the dark of the night,” Hildebrandt said outside the courtroom.
Tebbetts had received the drugs from manufacturers that sent lab reports and assurances that the materials did not include controlled substances, Hildebrandt said.
Tebbetts admitted that he knew people would consume the products, even though the packages had labels warning that they were not for human consumption.
Federal agents raided Tebbetts’ shops and his warehouse in July. They found more than $1 million worth of synthetic drugs. Agents seized $400,000 in cash; a 2012 $300,000 RV; seven other vehicles, including a custom-painted Tebb’s Headshop vehicle and a Cadillac; 33 pounds of unpackaged synthetic marijuana; 70,000 foil packets of synthetic marijuana; and 50,000 packets of bath salts, some labeled as glass cleaner.
Tebbetts, a bankrupt ex-con, built a legitimate business that had skirted the edge of the law for five years. When the laws changed, outlawing certain chemical compounds, he changed what he was selling.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Tebbetts and several other head shop owners for violating consumer protection laws with mislabeled products.
Tebbetts must have known the drugs’ effects on his customers, Avery said.
“It was common sense, just from repetitiously seeing people coming in and out of there, the looks of those people, just all freaked out,” Avery said.
Teresa Woolson also applauded the prosecution of Tebbetts. Her 19-year-old son, Victor, drowned in August in Lake Ontario after becoming addicted to synthetic drugs.
“These poisons are not drugs nor fake anything but poisons,” said Woolson, of Oswego County. “And the insane ability to purchase these in a store is hopefully over in our area.”
She’s lobbying for stricter state and federal laws as a member of a grassroots group called Standing Against Synthetics Drugs.
The Tebb’s Headshop on North Salina Street in Syracuse was still open Wednesday afternoon. A sign in front of the store advertised incense, pipes and detox kits, but no synthetic drugs.
By John O'Brien and Marnie Eisenstadt