Richard McNeal Hillman had grand aspirations for a drug dealer. According to his plea agreement in federal court, the 54-year-old from Tennessee trafficked 30,000 grams of alpha-PVP in Virginia between 2012 and 2014. Court documents suggest Hillman was part of a network that spread alpha-PVP, a Chinese-made synthetic stimulant banned in the United States and usually known as flakka, throughout North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky.
Hillman, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute alpha-PVP and was sentenced to 188 months in federal prison on August 13, allegedly told investigators from a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task force that his goal was to control the "gravel" trade in Virginia and become the state's biggest gravel dealer.
Alpha-PVP, flakka, gravel—whatever you call it, the drug has generated a whirlwind of media attention and public awareness campaigns in recent months thanks in part to the allegedly volatile effects it has on users, who can get high for hours on just a tenth of gram, which costs between $2 to $5 on the street. (That's still less than the dollar or so a healthy dose of K2—a.k.a. spice—will cost you in Brooklyn.)
But whereas K2 use has largely been covered as a problem plaguing America's homeless, flakka's proliferation (and concern about it) has been a bit more mainstream. MTV went so far as to do a True Life episode on flakka addicts.
In Florida, which remains the nexus of the flakka craze, users have impaled themselves on the security gates of a police station, darted into traffic wearing only their birthday suits, and made sweet love to trees. On a more serious note, officials in Florida's Broward County claim alpha-PVP contributed to the deaths of at least 16 people between September of last year and this April. Similar stories have been reported in Illinois, Houston, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, where Hillman wanted to reign supreme.
The two-year-long investigation into Hillman and his cohorts provides a window into how and why the flakka black market has emerged so quickly. At the same time, as the DEA works with local and state law enforcement agencies to crack down on alpha-PVP dealers, its popularity has probably reached its apex and could soon be replaced by another unregulated synthetic drug, according to a top DEA official.
"As we move forward, I don't think it will be around for much longer," said A.D. Wright, special agent in charge of the Miami DEA office, which is responsible for all of Florida. "I don't mean it is going away," he added. "[Chinese drug labs] alter the chemical compound and we have to start all over again."
Such is the quandary law enforcement faces in going after synthetic drugs with formulas that change as fast as the feds can regulate or ban them.
During a sit-down interview with VICE, Wright said his office is working 17 cases involving alpha-PVP trafficking. "We are seeing it with poly-drug traffickers," he said. "Flakka is not the only commodity they are dealing. [The dealers] go from crack cocaine to molly to other types of synthetic drugs."
The first federal cases in Florida solely focused on alpha-PVP trafficking were filed in May. A criminal complaint in Palm Beach County federal court against Kevin Bully, a Fort Lauderdale man with previous arrests for molly and cocaine trafficking, and his ex-girlfriend Jaime Nicole Lewis accuses them of bringing several kilos of flakka into south Florida from Hong Kong between March and April. Both cases are still pending.
In June, two central Florida men, Michael J. Hernandez and Jonell Phillip Vega-Mercado, were charged in Miami federal court for conspiracy to import 24 pounds of alpha-PVP. Undercover agents busted them attempting to retrieve their package sent to a bogus address. Hernandez and Vega-Mercado pled guilty last month.
As is usually the case with a hot new product, drug dealers have flocked to alpha-PVP because of immense profit margins. "With a few strokes on a keyboard a trafficker can find a source and buy the product," Special Agent Wright told me. "It's just like shopping on Amazon.com."
A doper can get a kilo from a Chinese source for between $1,500 to $2,000 and then sell it on the streets for $6,000, Wright added.
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The Miami DEA office first came across a substance that tested positive for alpha-PVP in 2012 when agents were collecting random samples of K2 and bath salts sold at retail outlets around Florida. "Back then, it cost $80 for a half gram," Wright said. "Now you can get a tenth of a gram for $5."
Hillman was already deep in the gravel game when he caught the attention of a DEA-led task force that had begun a criminal probe in 2012 against his chief supplier, a North Carolina man named Randall Scott Braddock. When Hillman was arrested on March 16, 2014, investigators found 100 grams of alpha-PVP wrapped in two silver baggies in his car, as well as ammunition for pistols of various calibers, according to his plea agreement.
The court document also states that Hillman admitted to obtaining 100 grams of alpha-PVP every other day between 2012 and 2013. A year later, he was getting a kilo of alpha-PVP a week.
Braddock, Hillman's supplier, allegedly imported and distributed between 35 and 75 kilos of alpha-PVP between 2012 and 2014, according to a proposed plea agreement he entered into with federal prosecutors in July. Braddock sold large quantities to customers like Hillman, who would then break it down into smaller amounts sold on the streets of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
According to the plea agreement, Braddock admitted that he imported alpha-PVP from China via a company called Kanshuo Biotech Co. He would communicate with a Kanshuo employee only identified as "Alice" via email.
For instance, in a November 2, 2012, email Braddock sent Alice that was obtained by the DEA via search warrant, he praised the quality of the drugs he was receiving. "Please send me 500 grams of alpha-PVP the good batch as you always do as soon as u can," Braddock wrote. "Thank you." He would subsequently wire the company $800 through Western Union.
After 500 grams of alpha-PVP was seized by DEA task force officers when he was pulled over in Weaverville, North Carolina, on January 8, 2013, Braddock had his business partner Josh Lindsey take over emailing Alice. On January 12 of that year, Lindsey wrote, "Be careful sending to Tennessee and North Carolina bc Scott Braddock got trouble!! But South Carolina is OK!" Lindsey added, "Yeah I like when u label acrylic paint!! And no more sending to North Carolina!"
Alice responded later that day. "Hi, what trouble Scott Braddock have now?" and later noted, "Apvp is now crystalline powder not crystal."
Braddock continued to deal flakka after being charged and released pending trial, and was arrested again on October 2, 2014, following a meeting with a confidential informant who pretended she was interested in paying $50,000 for the contact information for Alice and Kanshao.
The DEA's Wright said the only real way to stop the proliferation of synthetic drugs is for China to clamp down on production labs—and suggested that the feds are poised to make headway in their efforts to target the stuff at the source.
"The Chinese government has to come on board and start regulating some of these chemical components," Wright said. "I'm guaranteeing a few months down the road, there is going to be something else out there with a different name and different problems."
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance investigative journalist based in South Florida. Follow him on Twitter.