Drug lab discovery surprises officials: The Big Bear City raid was the largest seizure of synthetic heroin ever made in the U. S., police said.
[Big Bear City, CA]

By Raymond Smith
The Press-Enterprise
March 25, 2001, Sunday

(Big Bear City, CA) -When detectives broke through the cabin door in Big Bear City, they expected to find marijuana plants. They did not expect Jason Clark Williamson.

Combining knowledge from a couple of college chemistry courses with information from the Internet, Williamson apparently figured out how to manufacture a synthetic heroin so powerful that just touching a pure form of the drug can kill, police say.

The lab and the allegations against Williamson are anomalies in a world where cartels and kingpins dominate narcotics trafficking.

Williamson, 32, does not appear to be involved with any organized distribution ring and has only one misdemeanor conviction, police say. And it is possible he managed to produce a fortune in drugs the first time he set up a lab, San Bernardino County sheriff's Detective Mike Wirz said.

Detectives who raided the cabin Dec. 4 seized fentanyl with a wholesale value of $ 4 million to $ 5 million, enough of the drug to get 3 million addicts high. It was the largest seizure of illicit fentanyl ever made in the United States, police said.

"It's such a fluke. There are seizures of an ounce here and an ounce there, which were thought to be huge," Wirz said.

Williamson pleaded innocent to federal charges of manufacturing fentanyl and possession with intent to distribute the drug. He is scheduled for trial next month in U.S. District Court in Riverside. If convicted, he could face more than 20 years in prison.

An uncommon find

The lab was so unusual, in part, because illicit fentanyl is so rare.

In the Inland counties, police uncover hundreds of clandestine methamphetamine labs each year. But U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials say they have documented only three fentanyl labs in the United States in the past 25 years.

The drug is incredibly potent. Where a methamphetamine user might get five or 10 hits from a gram of high-quality speed, 1 gram of pure fentanyl can be enough for 5,000 doses of the drug, experts say.

"If you just have an extra microgram or two, that could be above the lethal range," said Tom Abercrombie, assistant laboratory director at the state Department of Justice's DNA lab in Berkeley.

Manufacturing fentanyl is more complicated than synthesizing some other drugs. The chemicals include solvents such as acetone and more exotic substances that initiate or halt reactions used in making plastics, Abercrombie said. Some can cause cancer or damage the nervous system.

Created as a synthetic narcotic for surgical procedures, fentanyl can be used as a painkiller or an anesthetic. Like heroin, it produces euphoria. Potency among the dozen or so forms of fentanyl can range from 50 to several thousand times greater than heroin. Most often, abusers are medical professionals with access to pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl.

Federal drug agents are trying to link a number of nonfatal overdoses in Arkansas to the drug that Williamson is accused of manufacturing, Wirz said.

"How many other states got deliveries, I don't know," he said.

An Internet recipe

Detectives went to Big Bear City after a source had tipped them that someone was growing marijuana in the cabin on West Country Club Boulevard.

Police with a search warrant knocked on the door, and when no one answered, they broke in, Wirz said.

Inside, police recovered 86 marijuana plants, most less than a foot tall. Detectives also found what they thought was a methamphetamine lab.

But as Wirz and another agent popped open a small document safe, an officer approached with a piece of paper found in another room. Information taken from the Internet described the chemicals and procedures used to make fentanyl. The safe contained 8.8 pounds of diluted fentanyl powder in plastic bags.

Wirz recalled his training classes. Instructors said agents probably would never see a fentanyl lab. But if they did, Wirz said, "they told us that it was the most deadly thing we'll ever come across."

Wirz looked at the fentanyl dust that coated the safe he had just handled. He ordered everyone outside and sealed the house until officials with proper protective gear arrived.

In addition to the fentanyl powder, authorities found 16 ounces of liquid fentanyl in the refrigerator, Wirz said.

All told, there was enough fentanyl for every man, woman and child in the Inland counties to receive one dose, drug experts estimated. The cabin also contained chemicals for another batch, Wirz said.

The raid and the allegations astonished one of Williamson's next-door neighbors.

"He never bothered anything. No loud company or noises," said Frances Sebastenilliea. "He even got along with my dog."

The woman said she rarely saw Williamson during the day. Describing him as clean-cut and quiet, she said he seemed nice.

He apparently has a minor criminal record, police said. Williamson was arrested twice in his hometown of San Diego in the late 1980s on drug and petty-theft charges, police said. Charges were dropped in one case, and he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor in the other, Wirz said.

In documents filed in federal court in Riverside, Williamson's attorney said his client was going through withdrawal from methadone after his arrest. Methadone is a drug used to help heroin addicts kick their habit.

Sebastenilliea recoiled at the thought of a potentially lethal lab a few feet from her home.

"I couldn't believe anyone would produce something like that, (something) that could kill people," she said.

Powerful drug

Illicit fentanyl abuse was more common in the 1980s, when heroin was in short supply, said Dr. Gregory A. Thompson, director of the Los Angeles Regional Drug Information Center at the University of Southern California.

In 1999, there were 337 emergency-room visits related to fentanyl abuse throughout the United States, according to estimates from the Drug Awareness Warning Network. The network collects data from 500 hospitals across the country and extrapolates the data nationwide.

In the same year, coroners in about 40 U.S. metropolitan areas attributed 53 deaths to fentanyl abuse. Deaths from heroin and morphine abuse numbered 4,820.

Investigators suspect Williamson used Internet chat rooms to contact people looking to buy the drug. Along with the drug were instructions on how to dilute, or cut, the fentanyl to reduce its purity, Wirz said. Analysis showed the powdered fentanyl from the cabin was 7.8 percent pure and the liquid, which had not been cut, was 87 percent pure, Wirz said.

Without sophisticated measuring devices, diluting fentanyl can be a lethal gamble, DEA spokesman Jose Martinez said.

"You're going to be shooting up stuff that's still too powerful, and it's going to kill you," he said.

Police checked chemical-supply houses, which report sales of certain chemicals to the state, and found the record of a one-time purchase by Williamson. It is possible, Wirz said, that Williamson manufactured drugs worth millions of dollars on his first try.

Investigators do not like the fact that the Internet can teach people how to make drugs, explosives or other dangerous compounds. But 20 years ago, the same kind of information was available in some bookstores and most large libraries.

"I just don't think there's anything we can do about it. It's just a fact of today's technology," said Ed Synicky, special agent in charge of the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement office in Riverside. "This is just so in your face because the Internet is everywhere."

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