Her hands and feet shackled to chains tied around her waist, Jaime Nicole Lewis showed no emotion when US Magistrate Magistrate Dave Lee Brannon denied her bond on April 27, five days after her arrest on felony charges for importing and possessing with the intent to distribute alpha-PVP, a.k.a. "flakka," the illegal synthetic drug that has quickly gained notoriety for providing a ridiculously cheap, yet immensely volatile high.
A criminal complaint filed in Palm Beach County, Florida, federal court accuses the 22-year-old Deerfield Beach native, along with an ex-boyfriend named Kevin Bully, of bringing several kilos of flakka into south Florida from Hong Kong between March and April. Bully, 26, faces the same charges as Lewis.
In recent weeks, national media outlets have churned out a bevy of flakka stories invoking "Florida Man," the meme that typically consists of linking to news articles about all the weird, fucked-up shit happening in the Sunshine State. The Florida Man flakka episodes have featured local law enforcement officials and addiction experts asserting the drug causes bizarre, irrational behavior in users, such as seeking refuge at police stations from imaginary mobs.
Despite promises from her criminal defense attorney Paul Lazarus that Lewis would wear an ankle monitor and seek substance abuse treatment, Brannon, the magistrate, deemed her a threat to the community during a detention hearing. The judge cited Lewis's previous run-ins with local law enforcement, which escalated from minor marijuana possession to allegedly dealing pot to a juvenile shortly before she was busted for importing flakka.
"Her repeated encounters with the criminal justice system have not taught her anything," Brannon told a packed courtroom that included Lewis' family members. "She's just going to do what she wants to do."
As marshals led Lewis away, her sobbing relatives, including her mother, declined to comment to VICE. But her case serves as a revealing window into the murky, synthetic drug trade washing over Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. According to the DEA, there were 1,706 crime lab cases in 2014 involving synthetic cathinones (a.k.a. bath salts)—a stimulant similar to amphetamine normally found in khat plant leaves in the Middle East—in the three counties combined, accounting for more than half of all such cases in Florida.
According to the complaint, the DEA's Miami office is conducting an ongoing investigation into the importation of synthetics such as alpha-PVP and methylone, which south Florida drug experts claim is falsely marketed as pure MDMA.
"I call it pure malarkey," Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University, told VICE. "Flakka is a second generation of synthetics similar to bath salts." Hall, who works for Nova's Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities, broke down the flakka economy in his April monthly newsletter. Part of his job is to closely monitor street drug trends in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.
One kilogram of alpha-PVP provides up to 10,000 doses, Hall explained. Each dose is one tenth of a gram—enough to produce the desired effects and mild hallucinations—and sells for five dollars or less on the street. "Flakka can be purchased online from the dark web at a relatively low price," Hall told VICE. "It can go for $1,500 a kilo so a dealer is looking at a potential $48,500 profit."
In south Florida, a network of loosely affiliated local crime rings are flakka's biggest pushers, according to Hall. "The homeless population is also involved in its sale and distribution," he said.
Bully and Lewis are the first people in Florida busted by the DEA for flakka trafficking, although local law enforcement agencies have made dealer arrests of their own.
Federal drug agents first encountered Bully on March 26 after receiving a tip from their colleagues in London that British authorities had intercepted multiple packages containing suspected narcotics—which later tested positive for alpha-PVP—destined for Palm Beach County by way of a Hong Kong chemical company.
The packages, including one addressed to "Jaime Lewis," were sent to Miami DEA special agents, who coordinated a sting operation with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, Homeland Security, and the US Postal Inspector Service. They replaced the flakka with fake crystals resembling alpha-PVP and then sent an agent to deliver the package to a residence at 10309 Allegro Drive in Boca Raton, the address listed on the label.
Bully, who has been arrested for various unrelated felonies ten separate times since 2008, according to Broward County criminal court records, answered the door and signed for the package under a fake name, the complaint states. Approximately 15 minutes later, special agents followed Bully when he got into a black Audi and drove off.
When Palm Beach deputies pulled Bully over, they found the box containing the fake flakka and roughly $8,000 in cash wrapped in rubber bands in plain view of the Audi's console. According to the complaint, Bully gave the agents consent to search his house, where they turned up $60,000 in cash (also wrapped in rubber bands), weed, a laptop, a .40-caliber Glock with a loaded magazine next to it, and the empty DHL bag that contained the package.
At the time, Bully was free on bond on unrelated criminal drug case in Broward County. According to an August 2014 Broward Sheriff's Office arrest report, Bully and another man, Tommy Leather, allegedly delivered $3,750 worth of MDMA pills to a confidential informant cooperating with local narcotics detectives. They were charged with possession and trafficking of MDMA.
Bully also gave DEA agents consent to inspect his iPhone and told them that Lewis was an ex-girlfriend who served as his personal accountant and handled his money, according to the federal complaint. Special Agent Regina Claxton, who wrote the document, claimed Bully was using Lewis and other people close to him to help him obtain the flakka from abroad.
In addition to text messages showing Bully instructing Lewis to pick up a package, DEA agents also found messages between him and his cousin, a Pompano Beach woman named Marsha Destin. The message directed her write "return to sender" on another package that had been intercepted by authorities, replaced with fake flakka, and that was supposed to be delivered the same day. In another instant message thread, Bully and his brother Calvin discussed prices for MDMA.
"How much for a gram of Molly?" Calvin inquired.
"$60 to $100," Kevin replied. "The oz. is $300."
At Lewis's detention hearing, Assistant US Attorney Lothrop Morris revealed that Bully was using Bitcoins to make it harder for his online drug purchases to be traced back to him.
With Bully in custody, the DEA agents set their sights on Lewis, whose only trouble with the law prior to April 3, 2014 were 12 traffic tickets and two misdemeanor arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. A month later, on May 11, she was stopped for driving with dark tints and a broken license plate light.
A Broward Sheriff's deputy found ten small baggies, each containing approximately two grams of marijuana, inside Lewis's car. According to the arrest report, Lewis admitted she planned to sell the weed to a juvenile who was in the vehicle with her.
On April 9, the Miami drug agents received packages that had been intercepted by DEA agents in Hong Kong. One was for "Nicole Lewis" at 4444 Maurice Drive in Delray Beach, which is the residence of her mother and stepfather. The package contained three kilos of a crystalline substance that tested positive for alpha-PVP.
However, the DEA did not attempt to deliver that package, Claxton said during Lewis' detention hearing. The special agent added that the DEA intercepted seven other packages containing synthetic drugs addressed to three different people not associated with Bully or Lewis.
Before Magistrate Brannon, Morris brought up Lewis' pending marijuana felony charge in Broward as one reason to keep her in jail.
"She was committing more crimes while she was out on bond," Morris said. "We consider her a risk to the community because of the dangers of this drug [flakka]."
According to Hall, more than one dose of flakka can cause heart problems, psychosis, violent behavior, hypothermia, and excited delirium. "If users don't receive emergency medical care right away, they can die," he told VICE. "It is a pretty gruesome drug."
Despite defense lawyer Lazarus's attempt to downplay his client's past marijuana charges as "traffic citations," Brannon sided with Morris.
"She's obviously been given opportunities that she has not taken advantage of," Brannon said. "Her continual run-ins with the criminal justice system gives me the impression she has zero concern."
Following the hearing, Lazarus told VICE what Lewis needs is substance abuse therapy, not jail time. "She's a young, vulnerable girl," he said.
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance investigative journalist based in south Florida. Follow him on Twitter.