$200,000 worth of synthetic marijuana is found near Winona.
Four days before Christmas, police found $200,000 worth of synthetic marijuana labeled "Naughty Santa" in the rafters of a garage in tiny Alma, Wis.
The raid, which yielded 160 pounds of contraband in red-and-green packages, took place after a months-long undercover investigation involving Winona police and others, according to Buffalo County Sheriff Mike Schmidtknecht. He said the haul was "more than we bargained for."
"The war on drugs is an old term, but it's a constant battle because they come up with new drugs," Schmidtknecht said. "They make drugs. When you take one off the street, they invent another one." The raid took place a few miles up the river from Winona, a college town in southern Minnesota that was hammered by the arrival of synthetic drugs. Earlier this year, Winona police said they were handling up to three calls a day involving so-called "bath salts," a synthetic stimulant that has spawned unusual acts of violence and sent many users to emergency rooms.
Those calls dropped after Minnesota's synthetic ban went into effect on July 1, but Winona police continue to struggle with the problem.
Wisconsin authorities have also battled the drugs. In May, Green Bay authorities seized $160,000 from a store following an investigation launched when two ninth-graders who smoked some of it were hospitalized, according to press reports. Wisconsin police began enforcing a statewide ban on chemicals found in synthetic drugs on July 9, about a week after Minnesota's law took effect.
Blake E. Dennis, 25, and Tamara E. Schrock-Peterson, 40, who lived together at the Alma house, were charged with a felony for allegedly maintaining a drug trafficking place. Schrock-Peterson was arrested at the scene and has since posted bond. Authorities still are searching for Dennis, who wasn't home during the raid and is believed to be hiding with friends or relatives in the Minneapolis area.
Authorities suspected that Dennis was distributing synthetic drugs from the house, but they were surprised at the extent of his manufacturing operation.
Schmidtknecht said police found a large machine used to make synthetic marijuana in the rafters of a three-car garage that was part of the house, which was still under construction. "We had to dismantle it to get it down," he said.
He said it appeared that Dennis and Schrock-Peterson created a "little processing plant" to make the drugs. Authorities believe Dennis ordered a controlled substance called AM-2201 from a seller and had the chemical shipped to his home. He allegedly mixed the substance with acetone and flavoring and sprayed it on an otherwise harmless herb to make synthetic marijuana. Schmidtknecht said it was being produced in six-gram packages. With average retail prices of $7 to $10 per gram, that puts the total haul of processed and unprocessed products at about $200,000, he said.
"The amount was surprising," he said.
Authorities also seized a Remington shotgun, vehicle and a small amount of cash. Two of Schrock-Peterson's children at home at the time were placed with relatives.
Schmidtknecht said that synthetic drugs are causing serious trouble in his community. He said individuals high on synthetic marijuana have fought with police officers and caused damage to squad cars. Burglaries were blamed on the drugs, because perpetrators were either high or trying to support their habits, Schmidtknecht said.
"You can't compare it to a 'real drug' because it is a real drug," he said. "It's the chemicals added to it that cause your brain to change. And you're going to see more of it spring up."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921