Synthetic drug makers are working like modern-day moonshiners to cash in on the booming market.
FAIRDEALING, MO. -- Inside a backwoods mobile home, Rodger Seratt pulled a handwritten recipe from the front pocket of his jeans and went to work on a new batch of bath salts.
Wearing no gloves, the burly 61-year-old dipped a kitchen spoon into one bag of white powder after another, weighed the ingredients on a plastic scale, then dumped them into a metal mixing bowl. He was making 80 grams of what he called "White Tusk." A woman in the rusting trailer kept busy tracking orders. Two other workers labeled bags and jars.
Seratt has no background in chemistry. All he knows is what he's learned on the Internet -- and that's all the expertise he needed to make $2,400 worth of the drug in a half hour.
Easy money. "Anybody out there can do what I just did," he said in a heavy southern drawl.
In the flourishing underground world of synthetic drugs, Seratt has been among the legions of makeshift manufacturers who have helped fuel the dangerous craze.
Federal authorities often say that synthetic drugs are flooding the United States from overseas outposts where they are cut, packaged and shipped. But there's another side to the booming billion-dollar industry: Small-time entrepreneurs operating in the shadows of American towns and cities, pumping out a patchwork of new drug products for big profit.
Seratt said he knows of at least five other synthetic drug labs not far from here near the Arkansas border; others in the industry estimate there are hundreds more around the country. He had been making $50,000 worth of bath salts a month. But Missouri recently banned chemicals found in synthetic drugs. Now, Seratt is at least temporarily out of that business while he waits for a court ruling on lawsuits he filed seeking to overturn the state law. In the meantime, he is producing a new line of powders and herb products that he contends are "all natural or FDA-approved."
Still, Seratt remains on the radar of local prosecutor Russell Oliver, who is trying to make sure that he never makes synthetic drugs again. Oliver said he decided to crack down after a local hospital started seeing overdose cases from the drugs on a near weekly basis. Other users, he said, had to be treated in a local psychiatric ward.
"They're selling a very dangerous unknown quantity and they don't care," Oliver said.
Seratt acknowledged that most people probably bought his products to get high, but he said he believes the government should keep its hands off the business.
"I like making money," he said. "And I'm not convinced that anybody's getting hurt using it like that."
Building a drug business
Before he started making synthetic drugs, Seratt earned a living fixing cars, selling cars, selling houses, working as a carpenter. One job cost him the pinky finger of his left hand.
His passion, though, is tinkering and inventing. For the past 40 years, he has worked to develop flex-fuel vehicles that can run on wood gas, alcohol and hydrogen. He claims ownership of several patents and one of his websites sells hydrogen fuel cells.
Several years ago, however, Seratt ran out of money for his flex-fuel work.
A friend suggested that he explore the synthetic drug business, where demand for new products far exceeded the supply. Seratt said he spent six months trying to figure out how to compete with other herbal incense makers, and another six months to "surpass" them. He likes to boast that his customers are willing to pay more for his merchandise.
Online retailers widely promote herbal incense as a "legal" alternative to marijuana. The products typically feature some kind of psychoactive chemical sprayed over dried herbs. Seratt sprayed his chemicals onto hops and green tea.
His first incense product, called XXL, hit the market about three years ago. He followed that up with an even more popular XXL2. He said most of his business came through a dozen retailers in southern Illinois and southeast Missouri, mostly mom-and-pop convenience stores and smoke shops that sold everything from fish bait to barbeque. He also sold his products through the Internet.
"I couldn't make enough product fast enough," Seratt said proudly.
Sales reached about $5,000 a week. Then the synthetic drug called bath salts came along. His incense customers went elsewhere.
Seratt said he initially resisted suggestions to make bath salts because he knew that "people were abusing the product."
"I just didn't want to sell something that would hurt somebody," he said.
But when his incense sales slumped to $1,000 a week, Seratt decided to join the crowd.
"The bath salts were taking over," he said. "So I just got into that."
He said he first tried making the drug without "a certain ingredient." Nobody bought it. After he added the ingredient, which he declined to identify, "it sold like crazy."
As Seratt cashed in, so did some local retailers. Selling the synthetic drug helped their struggling businesses.
"It got us out of a hole," said Jim Page, who owns the J & R Quick Stop in Bloomfield in southeastern Missouri. "In four months, we made about $40,000."
Page, who doesn't sell Seratt's products, said he sees no harm in selling herbal incense -- especially in an area that has been ravaged by methamphetamine use and an ailing economy.
"People are broke," said Page, one of four retailers suing Oliver over the seizure of their products. "You've got to try to get something else in here."
A man with secrets
Finding Seratt's place near the Arkansas border is not easy. It's a three-hour drive south from St. Louis. The closest interstate is miles away. The town of Fairdealing, named for the fair deal that folks here could once expect for the local moonshine, is so small it doesn't have its own post office. The area is rural, poor and surrounded by farm fields and old forests.
Seratt refuses to give precise directions to his property. Instead, he has a young woman greet visitors outside a general store just off the highway then lead them to his compound of buildings tucked deep in the woods. It's ringed by a new fence. "No Trespassing" signs are nailed to trees.
There are several houses, pigs and chickens, and three ponds with catfish and bass on the 15-acre spread. Seratt's makeshift lab sits more than a quarter mile away, in a weathered trailer hidden behind a line of trees and hedges.
"There's a side to this business that's a little treacherous," said Seratt, rubbing a hand over his close-cropped hair. "It's well-known that a lot of addicts abuse the product and if they know where you're at, you've got a problem."
It's not just his location that Seratt keeps secret.
He wouldn't say where he got his chemicals, although he did business for a while with a somewhat unreliable Chinese manufacturer.
He wouldn't divulge the names of his customers, saying local prosecutors have made them too scared to talk.
He also wouldn't identify the powders used in his bath salts, except for such benign ingredients as Epsom salts and baking soda.
Laboratory research conducted for the Star Tribune showed that Seratt's White Tusk bath salts contained 23 percent MDPV, a stimulant with effects similar to LSD or methamphetamine that was banned in Minnesota on July 1.
Seratt's bath salts also contained a high concentration of lidocaine, a surgical anesthetic that can cause seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, coma and death if abused, according to Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.
Seratt won't acknowledge the presence of MDPV in his bath salts. He said he has watched people snort "pure MDPV" with no ill effects. Personally, he doesn't use it.
"I drink me a few beers on Saturday night," Seratt said. "I don't need more than that."
A 'podunk prosecutor'
Even before Missouri's new law took effect in August, Seratt was under attack from Oliver, a young prosecutor vowing to significantly influence America's war on synthetic drugs.
This summer, Oliver sent a letter to local store owners telling them that the sale of "synthetic marijuana, synthetic THC, bath salts and synthetic cocaine" violated an existing state law against products that mimic controlled substances.
Days later, Oliver and the local sheriff started confiscating hundreds of packets of synthetic drugs.
"We were getting so much of this stuff, we had to do something about it," said Oliver, 30, who took office in January. "People were seeking this thing, saying 'Oh, they're legal.' And nobody's called them on it."
Until Oliver took action, Seratt said, local officials did nothing to stop him. They didn't like his business, he said, but they said there was nothing they could do about it.
In his lawsuit against Oliver and other county officials, which seeks $11 million in damages, Seratt claims his products were seized without a warrant. Oliver said the store owners voluntarily turned over the goods.
"I've always had a problem with bullies," Seratt said.
Oliver said the case remains under investigation. No charges have been filed.
The day after Missouri's new synthetic drug ban took effect, Oliver took part in another raid, this time more than 200 miles away in Columbia, Mo. With help from the DEA and local police, the group seized products from an alleged synthetic drug distributor who was supplying some of the stores in Stoddard County, Oliver said.
"Some podunk prosecutor is going to make a difference," said Oliver, whose rural county is home to fewer than 30,000 residents. "We'll have a ripple effect across the country. And it began right here in Stoddard County."
New products, new claims
As soon as synthetic drugs became illegal in Missouri, Seratt said, he scrubbed down his trailer, sold his plastic bags full of chemicals to somebody out of state and took the products off his website.
He's now making "health products" that he said are completely legal in the United States. He brought back some of the raw ingredients from Peru; he is planning a future trip to get materials from a "shaman" in the Amazon rain forest.
One of his new items is called Stimulator, which, according to his website, is a "diet aide" that "will invigorate you for 2-4 hours." Seratt is also making "Peruvian Kryptonite Bud," a leafy substance that he said is "legal worldwide."
Stimulator, according to laboratory tests conducted for the Star Tribune, is 50 percent methylhexanamine, a mild stimulant trademarked 40 years ago for use as a nasal decongestant. Its use is banned by sports anti-doping authorities, Wiberg said.
Peruvian Kryptonite contains 0.025 percent mitragynine, which indicates the presence of Kratom, a plant used medicinally in southeast Asia but banned in Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. Wiberg said that products that contain mitragynine "can be abused and can lead to addiction and death."
Wiberg and David Ferguson, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Minnesota, said Seratt's new products appear to contain low doses of those chemicals. They also appear to be legal in the United States.
Seratt said the new products are selling well. "I feel good about it," he said.
Recently, however, Seratt was arrested after he flew his plane back to Missouri from California. He said six squad cars were waiting for him. He said he's sure they were looking for synthetics.
"They thought I had something," Seratt said. "They didn't find anything."
He said the encounter prompted him to file more lawsuits against Stoddard County authorities. It also convinced him to get back into the bath salt business if he wins in court.
"I'm going to go into it 100 times bigger than I did before," he said, "just because they pissed me off."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428