ELKHART — The June 9 raids were clearly coordinated and investigators shared information.
But one week after authorities from Elkhart and St. Joseph counties launched a crackdown on convenience stores accused of selling synthetic marijuana, criminal cases against nearly two dozen suspects are moving in two distinct directions.
The difference depends on the location of the stores.
The raids on 12 stores were the result of a months-long investigation and netted 20 arrests.
While suspects in St. Joseph County face numerous charges for dealing, Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill upped the ante on local suspects and focused more on store owners using charges associated with operating illegal business activities.
The allegation that the illegal sales were happening inside businesses opened the door for such a strategy, Hill said.
“You have to look at the situation for what it really is and as we see it, it is an organized criminal enterprise where legitimate assets are being intermixed and utilized alongside illegal activity,” Hill said.
The prosecutor’s office also prepared paperwork ahead of time to close the stores and seek forfeiture of assets associated with the illegal sales through the court system.
Soon after the raids ended, stores in St. Joseph County reopened for business. But in Elkhart, six stores that were raided remain closed and could stay that way indefinitely as the forfeiture process goes through the court system.
The types of charges against suspects in Elkhart County underscores a stark difference in the approach.
While all 20 suspects from both counties face drug dealing charges, those from Elkhart County — including some who were employed as clerks — face additional charges of money laundering.
Four people with ties to Elkhart, including two who authorities believe operated four stores in the city, were also charged with corrupt business influence.
Bonds for the nine people in St. Joseph averaged $11,388 and totaled $102,500.
Bonds for the 11 people arrested in Elkhart County averaged $213,636 and totaled more than $2.35 million. That includes four people whose bonds were set at $500,000.
The largest bond set in St. Joseph County was $25,000.
Hill said Tuesday he believed a stronger approach was needed than just arresting sellers and buyers. Focusing on owners, he believes, can more effectively cut off the drug source.
A spokesperson for St. Joseph County Prosecutor Mike Dvorak acknowledged the different outlook.
“We did not take the same approach as Elkhart County, (but) that doesn’t preclude us from filing for civil asset forfeiture,” said Jessica McBrier, director of special projects and media relations for the office.
She declined to comment further, saying the investigation is ongoing.
Elkhart authorities also took a more pronounced step in the way the buildings were shuttered.
In Elkhart, all of the stores were heavily boarded up. One of two different posters left on some of the buildings made it clear the property was being seized and under control of the Elkhart city police.
A week after the raids, crime tape still outlined the perimeters of some of the properties.
Part of the effort involved sending a message, Hill said.
Hill said authorities were intent on eliminating the illegal sales “in a very efficient and demonstrative manner for anyone else that may be engaged or is thinking of being engaged in a similar activity.”
Hill said he believes other stores beyond the ones raided have also been selling synthetic drugs and that the raids should prompt “anyone with half a brain” to cease the practice.
“We’re hoping the consequence is sufficient enough to get people to think differently in terms of how they run their businesses. If they don’t think differently, there will be more of this coming. It’s pretty simple.”
The high-profile raids and a follow-up news conference featuring both prosecutors also put a spotlight on an elusive drug problem, Hill said.
Even though state lawmakers banned the sale of synthetic marijuana in 2013, the legislation failed to include appropriate testing standards, which led manufacturers to change the chemical contents in an effort to avoid prosecution, he said.
As a result, the drug sales have become a “moving target ever since,” he said.
Changes in the formulas, though, have left users experiencing dangerous side effects that include chest pains, hallucinations, and in some cases, violent behavior, Hill said.
“Synthetic drugs are extraordinarily dangerous because they are unknown to a lot of people, hidden behind little, cute packages,” Hill said during a June 10 news conference.
The only store in St. Joseph County that was raided and has not reopened is on South Main Street in downtown Mishawaka.
No steps have been taken to close the store according to McBrier, of the prosecutor’s office in St. Joseph County. She speculated the store owner may have simply chosen not to reopen after the raid.