Man who fled drug trial faces extradition to W.Va.

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Former fugitive John Skruck, accused leader of a large-scale synthetic hallucinogen operation in West Virginia, will appear today before a federal magistrate in New Mexico in preparation for his return to Clarksburg, W.Va., for two trials that could put him in prison for more than a decade.

After eight months of hunting him, federal marshals tracked Mr. Skruck, 58, to his hideout in San Cristobal, N.M., south of the Colorado border, and arrested him Saturday without a fight.

Mr. Skruck is expected to be returned to West Virginia in early February.

Supervisory U.S. Marshal Alex Neville said Monday that initial reports indicated Mr. Skruck may have fled to Mexico, but the marshals service didn't see that as likely.

While Mr. Skruck ran two strip clubs in Texas and had some business ties to Mexico, the marshals rarely see fugitives remain south of the border. In such a drug-ridden, violent country rife with corruption, the cost of protection is too much for someone without family ties there to stay very long.

"It's been my experience that fugitives who choose to flee to Mexico do so for only a limited time," said Mr. Neville, who has been chasing fugitives for 22 years. "It's dangerous and expensive. We discounted that early in our investigation and focused our attention on Texas and New Mexico."

Mr. Skruck, who had been living in Michigan, was set for trial in May and received permission to travel to Youngstown, Ohio, for a family function. He didn't show up for the trial and disappeared.

Mr. Neville said he couldn't reveal his agency's investigative techniques for obvious reasons, but he said the marshals looked at contacts from Mr. Skruck's businesses in Texas and his past.

"Fugitives reach out to confidantes," he said. "We were aware that he was possibly associated with an older gentleman in the San Cristobal area."

Life on the lam has taken a toll.

"He's lost a significant amount of weight," Mr. Neville said. "His eight months on the run were not kind to him."

Mr. Skruck is accused of running two head shops in West Virginia called Hot Stuff and Cool Things in Buckhannon and Clarksburg, where customers lined up to buy synthetic hallucinogens called "bath salts" before federal agents shut down the stores in April 2012.

Agents and prosecutors said the outlets were a major source of synthetic drugs and brought in as much as $20,000 a day. The U.S. attorney's office said the operation, the largest case of its kind in the nation, was responsible for a spike in bizarre behavior and medical emergencies among users in northern West Virginia.

The chemicals in bath salts were temporarily banned in 2011 under an emergency Drug Enforcement Administration order. President Barack Obama later signed a law banning them permanently.

Mr. Skruck faces two trials in federal court -- one on counts of distributing the drug and a second on counts of laundering the proceeds.

Prosecutors also have served notice they intend to use Mr. Skruck's flight against him at trial to show "consciousness of guilt."

He had been facing a 10 years behind bars but could now get substantially more.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-231-0132.

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