Kingsport firefighters arrive with power tools to help open a safe during a search of Ultimate Smoke on Center Street. Ned Jilton II photo.
KINGSPORT — Bath salts, K2 and other items have been seized from a Kingsport head shop as part of an ongoing multijurisdictional investigation by local and federal authorities.
Kingsport Police Chief Gale Osborne said “quite a bit” of bath salts and K2 and “a little bit” of money were among items seized from a safe inside Ultimate Smoke, 2307 E. Center St., on Friday evening. The drugs were among several items seized when the Kingsport Police Department executed a search warrant at the business Friday. The Drug Enforcement Agency’s group supervisor in the Johnson City office, Robert Bailess, was also at the scene.
Osborne did not specify exactly how much bath salts and K2 were found, or describe any of the other items seized, but he said the quantity of items was large enough that they planned to bring a Ford Excursion — a full-size SUV — in to haul the evidence away. He said more details about the investigation and what was found on the premises may be revealed at a press conference next week, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Reeves, Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus, and other local law enforcement heads expected to be in attendance.
“We’re not just looking at one little store. We’re looking at completely across the Tri-Cities. And then you know those operations oftentimes cross not only county lines but state lines,” Osborne noted.
According to Bailess, agencies in Washington County also executed a search warrant at Ultimate Smoke owner Jason Catoe’s residence, which is located at 186 Sherfey Road, Jonesborough, on Friday evening. He had no information about whether any items were seized, and attempts to reach Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal for comment were unsuccessful.
Ultimate Smoke has been shuttered since Wednesday. On Tuesday, Catoe was cited by police for allegedly possessing and selling K2 or Spice containing chemicals banned in Tennessee. At that time, police had reported undercover operations conducted at Catoe’s store had resulted in the purchase of numerous packages of K2 and bath salts over the past several months.
Osborne said Friday he did not know what specific brands of K2 or bath salts had been seized from the business.
With respect to the timing of the search warrants, Osborne said it happened Friday because that’s when the DEA notified him they were ready to move forward.
Osborne commented that one problem with investigating synthetic drugs under current law is that only certain chemical compounds are banned. When one is banned, synthetic drug manufacturers “merely change one compound, and when they change that one compound, it may be legal again.”
“In this case, when we served the citation, what we got back from the lab violates the current state law,” Osborne said.
Osborne said in addition to this investigation, he is also working with local legislators to get a law passed that will prohibit the purchase, sale, possession or manufacture of synthetic drugs and carry felony penalties for certain offenses.
“And part of that legislation says that you don’t have to send it to the lab. So in the future we can react, or act, in a lot more timely manner than what we’ve done in the past.”
It takes about three months to get lab results, so that would speed up the process significantly, he said.
“So many people stood up in protests, and we’re so thankful that’s happened. ... This has only been on the radar screen — synthetic drugs — maybe a year and a half, but it’s turned into just a complete epidemic where the hospitals are flooded,” he added.
Osborne said he talked to a doctor who had said bath salts users are “so strong, they’re so combative, they’re out of their minds, you know, so they (medical personnel) are concerned for their own safety.”
Osborne said he talks to heads of surrounding jurisdictions on a daily basis to discuss “what’s going on and how to address it and the large volume of complaints they receive, you know lives being destroyed, everybody in the emergency room and ultimately there, people dying.”
According to Bailess, the DEA is maintaining an “advisory” role in the ongoing investigation, with the goal of helping to identify the products. He said the DEA is assisting the Bristol Tennessee Police Department and Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office as well, and that they have also “been in contact” with Graybeal and Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry.
Members of the Kingsport Fire Department assisted police at Catoe’s store by using various tools to force open the safe. Members of the SCSO were also present.