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Head shops remain open after taking hit from U.S.

Pipes, other paraphernalia confiscated in crackdown

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

By Torsten Ove and Ernie Hoffman, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

A day after federal authorities took away the bongs and marijuana pipes, it was clear that employees of Tela Ropa in Oakland and their customers didn't see eye-to-eye with the U.S. attorney general on the drug war.

Still for sale: several bumper stickers extolling the virtues of using drugs, including one that read, "My clock is stuck at 4:20."

The term "420," which originated in California 30 years ago among teens who smoked marijuana every day at 4:20 p.m., is a universal code of sorts for pot smokers.

"Can I help you with something, sir?" asked a guy with blue hair behind the counter.

Tela Ropa is still in business, selling non-drug-related items like clothing, candles and posters, but commerce is likely to take a hit in the coming months.

The shop and its proprietor, Richard Kevin Jaussen, 48, are under federal indictment along with six other area head shops as part of a nationwide crackdown on drug paraphernalia sold on the Internet and in retail stores.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan and Attorney General John Ashcroft on Monday announced the indictments of 55 people across the country, including top Internet distributors whose businesses have been shut down.

Tela Ropa and the other local stores will remain open, Buchanan said yesterday, but all of the illegal paraphernalia has been confiscated by agents and police. Employees at several of the shops contacted by phone yesterday said they were still selling shirts, jewelry and other knickknacks, but said they couldn't talk about the indictments.

A raid at one of the shops, Heads-N-Threads in North Huntingdon, led to additional arrests -- some of the easiest township police have ever made, according to Chief Charles Henaghan.

"While we were there, we kind of got an added bonus," he said. "Customers were coming in to purchase the illegal items."

To do that, they had to walk past two marked police cars outside the shop on U.S. Route 30.

Inside, federal, state and local officers in uniforms were searching for paraphernalia.

One woman walked up to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was wearing a marked shirt, pointed to a pot pipe and told him that she wanted to buy a pipe "just like that." The pipe was in a bag marked "evidence."

Some of the shoppers arrived carrying drugs or paraphernalia. Township police confiscated an unknown amount of suspected heroin and marijuana, plus several pot pipes and cash.

"It was almost hard to believe," Henaghan said. "I don't know how to characterize it -- as naivete or stupidity or whatever -- to walk into a store when you have uniformed officers standing there and try to buy something illegal from them. I really don't know what it says about our society."

The customers made no effort to hide contraband they had when they walked in.

"One individual had the bag of marijuana sticking out of his back pocket," Henaghan said.

Another had a large bag of marijuana in his clothing, along with several packets of heroin and more than $1,700 in cash. Others were carrying pot pipes. Police also confiscated a pizza box filled with marijuana.

Township police arrested the following people on various state drug charges: Jeremiah S. Kuharic, 22, Brian K. Silvis, 22, and Rebecca L. Sillett, 22, all of Mount Pleasant; Dale E. Myers, 43, of Manor; A.M. Burgunder, 23, of Oakdale; David E. Teske, 21, of Bridgeville; John D. Petroy III, 35, of Greensburg; and Charles T. Heminger, 28, of North Huntingdon.

The federal investigation shut down national distributors that supplied more than half of the country's drug paraphernalia, according to the government. The distributors sold their goods online, through catalogs or at head shops.

Buchanan said yesterday that some of the distributors raked in millions from their operations. One had sales of $50 million a year.

Prosecutors are seeking to seize property and assets owned by those charged, but the head shops themselves will not be taken. In general, small retail stores are housed in rented buildings, so the property can't be forfeited.

Of the 35 indictments nationwide, 17 were handed up by a grand jury in Pittsburgh on Jan. 28. All were under seal until Monday's raids and arrests. Buchanan said all but one of the 27 defendants indicted here has had an initial appearance hearing in federal court and been released on bond. Ten are from Western Pennsylvania and work at head shops in Pittsburgh, Erie, Johnstown, North Huntingdon and Clarion.

The federal investigation, dubbed "Operation Pipe Dreams," began in Pittsburgh during the prosecution of Akhil Kumar Mishra and his wife, Rajeshwari, who ran two shops Downtown. They were convicted in federal court in 2000 of selling illegal drug paraphernalia and conspiracy.

According to an affidavit by Richard Nolan, one of the two lead DEA agents, the probe of the Mishras revealed numerous suppliers across the country who sold online and through catalogs.

The trail led them to Heads-N-Threads, whose owners, Michael Anthony Deblasio, 24, and Tracie Lynn Zimmerman, 34, agreed to cooperate and turned over additional records of online sales, Internet addresses and credit card information.

Sitting at computers, Nolan and other agents viewed various Web sites where the distributors were advertising and selling illegal merchandise. In July and August, for example, Nolan looked at a site controlled by Edward Ian Rothschild of Columbia, S.C., under the domain name 420Now.com, where he saw such items for sale as a 15-inch water pipe for $59.99.

Rothschild, who ran Edward Rothschild Entertainment Inc., did business under other Internet names, too, including Gothicdungeon.com, 420smile.com and Themallusa.com.

By making controlled buys on the Web sites, agents were able to build their case against Rothschild, whom they identified as a national distributor. His Web sites have been shut down.

Some of those indicted, however, were selling paraphernalia the old-fashioned way, over-the-counter.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. Ernie Hoffman can be reached at ehoffman@post-gazette.com or 724-836-2655.

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