West Virginia target of federal 'bath salts' prosecution agrees to plead guilty

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The owner of two strip-mall head shops in northern West Virginia has agreed to plead guilty on Nov. 26 to distributing "bath salts" -- synthetic hallucinogens -- to hundreds of customers who lined up outside his stores.

Jeff Paglia, 48, owner of Hot Stuff and Cool Things stores in Clarksburg and Buckhannon, is the main player in one of the largest bath salts cases in the country. According to the U.S. attorney's office in Wheeling, he and a co-conspirator, John Skruck, 56, were largely responsible for the high number of medical incidents in West Virginia related to the use of bath salts, which can induce psychosis and paranoia.

President Obama signed a law this summer making the chemicals in bath salts illegal, making permanent an emergency ban imposed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2011.

DEA imposed the ban after tracking a spike in emergency-room visits and bizarre behavior by bath salts users across the U.S.

West Virginia had the most such incidents in the country, and Harrison County -- where Mr. Paglia's Clarksburg store is located -- recorded the most in the state.

Police and federal agents watched in the mornings as dozens of customers lined up outside the store, waiting for it to open, and then left with bath salt packages wrapped in foil.

Mr. Paglia's plea comes after two of his employees entered pleas on Monday.

In addition to selling bath salts, Mr. Paglia is accused with maintaining a storage building in Stonewood, W.Va., for the purpose of drug distribution as well as structuring monetary transactions to avoid IRS reporting requirements.

Banks are required to report any transactions above $10,000, so money-launderers often deposit or withdraw cash in amounts just under that figure. A pattern of such transactions, however, triggers a suspicious activity report to law enforcement.

Agents with the criminal investigation division of the IRS said Mr. Paglia and his corporation, Jemrose Inc., structured deposits totaling $747,430 across six months in 2011.

In addition to the criminal prosecution, the U.S. attorney's office has moved to forfeit 11 properties and various vehicles as well as $750,000 in cash.

Mr. Skruck, a Texas strip-club owner identified as Mr. Paglia's partner in the drug business, is awaiting trial.

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Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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