Accused West Virginia bath salts ringleader a fugitive

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A Texas strip club owner charged as the ringleader of one of the nation's largest synthetic hallucinogen cases was supposed to go on trial Tuesday in Clarksburg, W.Va.

But he didn't show up and is now a fugitive.

Federal marshals were hunting for John Skruck, 57, who faces more than two dozen drug counts connected to the sale of illegal "bath salts" at Hot Stuff and Cool Things stores in Clarksburg and Buckhannon.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Kaull, who had released Mr. Skruck on bond last year over the objection of the U.S. attorney's office, issued a warrant for violating bond and his name was entered into a national fugitive database.

Supervisory U.S. Marshal Alex Neville said Mr. Skruck -- who had been living in Jackson, Mich., with his girlfriend and 13-year-old daughter -- had received permission to travel over the weekend to a family function in Youngstown, Ohio.

He was supposed to be back Monday for a meeting with the U.S. probation office in Clarksburg but didn't arrive.

His lawyer, Thorn Thorn, last spoke to Mr. Skruck Friday in his Morgantown office.

Prosecutors previously had argued that Mr. Skruck was a risk to flee and a danger to the community and asked that he be locked up pending trial.

The judge agreed he was a flight risk but said he could be released to the home of his girlfriend in Michigan, with U.S. probation officers there monitoring him.

A federal grand jury said Mr. Skruck -- who, according to prosecutors, previously ran prostitution rings out of strip clubs in Laredo and Waco, Texas -- distributed bath salts from head shops owned by Jeff Paglia.

Mr. Paglia pleaded guilty to distribution and money-laundering and agreed to cooperate. Two underlings who worked at his stores and at Mr. Skruck's strip clubs also pleaded and agreed to cooperate.

The investigation began in the spring of 2011, when a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force began hearing about bizarre behavior involving bath salts users, in addition to a spike in strange crimes and medical emergencies.

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.

In 2011, the chemicals in bath salts were temporarily banned under an emergency DEA order.

Last year, President Barack Obama signed a law banning them permanently.

Mr. Skruck has filed numerous motions to delay his trial, and he and his lawyer have sparred repeatedly with the U.S. attorney's office.

Prosecutors said Mr. Skruck's history includes a kidnapping, prostitution, fraud, a federal prison term for concealing a felony and "beating a lot of women."

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Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com


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