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State AG seeks $675K penalty against Watertown head shop owner

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The state attorney general’s office is seeking $675,000 in penalties against the owner of Tebb’s Headshop for selling mislabeled products that were actually synthetic drugs.

At a state Supreme Court hearing Wednesday to determine how much John E. Tebbetts III, Rome, should be fined for selling the products at nine locations statewide, including Watertown, Mr. Tebbetts invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself 27 consecutive times in response to questions from Deanna R. Nelson, assistant attorney general in charge of the Watertown office.

Under advice from his attorney, George F. Hildebrandt, Syracuse, Mr. Tebbetts declined to answer any of Ms. Nelson’s questions, which ranged from whether he owned the nine shops in question to whether he knew products that he sold were unfit for human consumption and had led to some consumers requiring hospitalization.

The attorney general’s office has targeted retailers across the state for selling synthetic marijuana and other misbranded products that induce a narcotic effect, including “bath salts,” a synthetic drug with effects similar to methamphetamine and cocaine. An undercover investigator with the office, Chad Shelmidine, testified Wednesday that he visited Tebb’s now-closed Watertown store at 144 Eastern Blvd., as well as locations in Syracuse and Herkimer, and had been advised by clerks how to use the products and was told of experiences that could result from taking the street drug alternatives.

Judge James P. McClusky ruled in early January that Tebb’s violated state law by selling the mislabeled products. He ordered a hearing to determine the amount of penalties the company should face, which resulted in Ms. Nelson arguing that it is the state’s position that the business should be fined $5,000 for each of 15 mislabeled products sold at Tebb’s nine locations, or $675,000 total.

“The state believes that is not shocking to the conscience considering the impact this business has had on consumers’ lives and the state at large,” said Ms. Nelson, who is leading the attorney general’s prosecution of 15 head shop businesses statewide.

Ms. Nelson told Judge McClusky that the amount would serve not only as an appropriate penalty for a business that was “destroying lives,” but as “a warning” for any other business that may consider selling similar products.

In addition to the civil penalty, the office is seeking a $100,000 performance bond for each of Tebb’s four locations that remain in operation, as well as for any future locations. The money would be collected from Tebb’s as assurance that it would not sell any mislabeled products at its stores, Ms. Nelson said. As long as the stores remain in compliance with state law, the money would be returned to the business at some point.

Judge McClusky reserved judgment on the amount of the penalty, giving Mr. Hildebrandt until March 4 to file a written motion in opposition to the proposed penalty. Judge McClusky said he would issue a ruling “shortly” after the motion deadline.

Mr. Tebbetts also faces criminal penalties for selling the products. He pleaded guilty Dec. 19 in U.S. District Court, Syracuse, to possession with the intent to distribute controlled substances and controlled substance analogues and engaging in a monetary transaction in property derived from specified unlawful activity. He faces up to 20 years in prison and fines topping $5 million when he is sentenced April 29. He also is expected to be ordered to forfeit several vehicles and more than $300,000 in cash that were seized from warehouses he owns.

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