Last year, emergency services officials in Harrison County, W.Va., logged 177 emergency calls for medical incidents involving the use of the hallucinogens called bath salts.
Federal agents and police said Jeff Paglia's addicted customers were responsible for almost all of those calls.
On Monday he admitted as much, pleading guilty to selling bath salts from his Clarksburg head shop, Hot Stuff and Cool Things, where police watched people line up in the mornings to buy the synthetic drugs from a back room.
Mr. Paglia, 48, pleaded to drug conspiracy and structuring monetary transactions to evade reporting requirements as part of a money-laundering scheme to hide income from the Clarksburg store and a second store in Buckhannon.
The criminal division of the IRS, which worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local police on the investigation, said Mr. Paglia laundered his drug money through 11 properties in West Virginia, including his homes in Clarksburg and Lost Creek, W.Va.
As part of the plea, he will forfeit all of that real estate and also give up a 12th property that he owned in his native Massachusetts in the town of Gardner.
He also agreed to surrender five vehicles, two motorcycles, an excavator and other equipment, in addition to more than $730,000 in cash.
In exchange for his plea, federal prosecutors promised not to prosecute his son, Zack Cormier, who worked at one of his stores, or Zack's mother, who is Mr. Paglia's girlfriend.
Mr. Paglia agreed to cooperate with federal authorities, including providing sworn statements and grand jury testimony.
Two of his underlings, Derrick Calip and Jeremia Phillips, also have pleaded guilty, but Mr. Paglia's business partner, Texas strip club owner John Skruck, is awaiting trial.
Mr. Calip and Mr. Phillips, who ran day-to-day operations for the Hot Stuff and Cool Things stores, have both worked for Mr. Skruck at Sonny's BYOB in Waco and other strip clubs he controls. Mr. Skruck's daughter also worked at one of the West Virginia head shops, although she has not been charged.
The investigation began in the spring of 2011, when a DEA task force began hearing about bizarre behavior from bath salts users.
"We received information, and were witnesses to, users of these drugs and learned they had or were committing acts of violence, were enduring unbelievable hallucinations and were committing acts of self-mutilation," said Bridgeport Lt. Brian Purkey, a deputized DEA agent, in a search warrant affidavit.
The U.S. attorney's office in Wheeling said West Virginia has had more incidents related to bath salts than any other state, and Harrison County has led the state.
President Barack Obama signed a law last summer banning the chemicals in bath salts, making permanent a temporary DEA ban.
The agency now categorizes the chemicals in the same class as LSD and heroin.nation
Torsten Ove: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1510.