Potential ignorance defense disputed in West Virginia bath salts trial

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A Texas man charged in West Virginia as a ringleader in one of the nation's largest synthetic hallucinogen cases should not be allowed to argue that he didn't know the drugs were illegal, federal prosecutors say.

The U.S. attorney's office in Wheeling has asked a judge to prohibit John Skruck and his lawyer from pursuing ignorance as a defense in any arguments or lines of questioning at Mr. Skruck's upcoming trial.

Mr. Skruck, 56, a Texas strip-club owner, is charged with distributing the drugs -- commonly called bath salts -- from two head shops in West Virginia owned by Jeff Paglia.

Mr. Paglia has pleaded guilty to distribution and money-laundering and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. Two underlings who worked at his shops and at Mr. Skruck's strip clubs in Waco and elsewhere also have pleaded and agreed to cooperate.

Mr. Skruck has elected to go to trial, and prosecutors anticipate that he may try to argue that he did not know the drugs were against the law.

In 2011, the chemicals in bath salts were temporarily banned under an emergency order by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which categorizes them in the same class as LSD and heroin.

In July, President Barack Obama signed a law banning them permanently.

Mr. Skruck is accused of selling packages of the drugs labeled "not for human consumption," but prosecutors said that warning should not protect him. They said the packages were "mislabeled" deliberately because it was "obvious to all that human consumption is exactly why the drugs were being sold."

Mr. Skruck and the others also used code words for the packages, such as "water softener," "potpourri" and "glass cleaner."

"Who would pay $50 to $60 for little packages of such things to clean glass or soften one's bath water?" prosecutors said in a motion before U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley.

Mr. Skruck is charged with conspiracy and distribution. No trial date has been set.

The investigation began in the spring of 2011, when a DEA task force began hearing about bizarre behavior, a spike in strange crimes and medical emergencies across West Virginia involving bath salts users.

West Virginia has had more incidents related to bath salts use than any other state, prosecutors said. Harrison County, where customers had lined up every morning to buy bath salts at Mr. Paglia's shop in Clarksburg, led the state in 2011.

The U.S. attorney's office said Mr. Skruck and Mr. Paglia were largely responsible for those incidents.

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

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