Wisconsin brothers charged with operating counterfeit vaping cartridge operation

USA Today 1 month ago

MILWAUKEE – Two Wisconsin brothers were charged Monday in a massive counterfeit THC vaping cartridge operation.

Tyler T. Huffhines, 20, and his 23-year-old brother, Jacob D. Huffhines, of Paddock Lake, Wisconsin, face numerous charges including possession of THC with the intent to deliver, maintaining a drug trafficking place, identity theft, possession of a firearm by a felon and cocaine possession.

They're being held in the Kenosha County Jail on $500,000 bail each and are ordered to appear for a preliminary hearing Sept. 26.

According to the criminal complaint:

Tyler Huffhines admitted starting his THC vape cartridge business on Jan. 28, 2018, the same day he took a picture of his business to post on Instagram. He told detectives that he didn't smoke marijuana but saw a good business opportunity by purchasing THC vape cartridges in California for $2.50 each where they are legal and bringing them back to Wisconsin to sell for $15 apiece.

Eventually, Tyler Huffhines admitted he figured out he could boost profits by buying empty vape cartridges and jars of liquid THC and paying 10 workers to fill them. Initially, he paid his workers $20 an hour to fill vape cartridges but then realized if he changed his business model to pay them 30 cents per cartridge, it would increase their productivity and he could save more money.

"You invest more, you make more. No risk, no reward," Tyler Huffhines told detectives, according to the complaint.

He admitted flying to California during the Labor Day weekend with $300,000 in cash to buy liquid THC. Plus he posted photos on Snapchat of himself flying in first class and mentioning that he was in California. 

Employees working out of a condo in the Village of Bristol that Tyler Huffhines acquired in early August for the operation cranked out 3,000 to 5,000 counterfeit vaping cartridges each day. They were packaged in boxes with labeling that included candy-like names and wording suggesting the THC content was minimal.

Instead, the cartridges contained as much as 1,000 mg of THC – more than 150 times what the label indicated, authorities said.

Tyler Huffhines told detectives he sold 100 THC cartridges at a time for $15 each, earning $500 to $800. He admitted he recently decided to change his minimum sale to 500 cartridges.

The criminal complaint does not reveal to whom Tyler Huffhines sold the cartridges, which sell on the street for around $35 each. 

Before acquiring the condo, the cartridges were filled in hotel rooms. Tyler Huffhines leased the condo and registered for utilities in the name and Social Security number of a Las Vegas man who confirmed to authorities that he didn't authorize anyone to use his name and Social Security number.

Tyler Huffhines admitted to detectives that he didn't know the man whose identity was used for the condo; Tyler Huffhines got the man's name and personal information by paying "some guys in California" about $2,000, he told detectives.

During the investigation, detectives discovered numerous photos and videos Tyler Huffhines posted on Snapchat showing garbage cans, plastic totes and boxes filled with THC cartridges as well as dozens of pound bags of marijuana bud.

During searches of the condo and the home where the Huffhines brothers lived with their mother, authorities found loaded guns, cocaine, 31,200 cartridges each filled with around 1 gram of THC, 98,000 unfilled cartridges, 57 glass jars filled with a total of roughly 12½ gallons of refined liquid THC, 18½ pounds of marijuana and three money counting machines.

The huge counterfeit THC vaping cartridge operation, believed to be one of the largest of its kind in the nation, came to light after the parents of a high school student contacted police.

When the parents caught their son with vaping cartridges with THC, they brought him to the Waukesha Police Department in early July. The counterfeit and high-potency THC cartridges were ending up throughout Waukesha-area high schools and elsewhere, authorities said at a news conference last week.

Authorities are working with federal agents to determine whether the cartridges are tied to any of the deaths or illnesses across the country that doctors have suspected were tied to vaping.

"Many of the people hurt very possibly are the cause of this family's willingness to make money at other people's expense," Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said last week.

On Monday, health officials in California announced the death of a person who died from complications from vaping. The death in Tulare County, California, is the seventh death attributed to complications related to use of e-cigarettes.

“With sadness, we report that there has been a death of a Tulare County resident suspected to be related to severe pulmonary injury associated with vaping,” said Dr. Karen Haught, Tulare County Public Health Officer. 

Officials did not identify the person, but said the person was older than 40 and suffered from other health problems in addition to vaping-related symptoms.

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