SANTA ANA, Calif. – A Newport Beach man behind a far-reaching conspiracy to smuggle, manufacture and distribute millions of dollars’ worth of analogue drugs has been sentenced to 120 months in federal prison.
Sean Libbert, 41, was sentenced June 21 by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney. The case was the result of a lengthy probe by the Los Angeles HIDTA (High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) Southern California Drug Task Force, which includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service - Criminal Investigation.
According to court documents, Libbert organized and led a drug ring that manufactured, marketed, and sold synthetic marijuana, commonly called “spice,” under the brand name “Da Kine Blend.” Libbert pleaded guilty in November 2016 to multiple felony counts, including conspiring to manufacture, possess and distribute controlled substance analogues; conspiracy to smuggle controlled substance analogues into the United States; being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition; and money laundering. In his plea agreement, Libbert admitted that at least 100 kilograms of synthetic marijuana was manufactured using the analogue chemicals he provided, and that he knew the “spice” was being distributed for human consumption.
“Spice” is known as an analogue drug because its chemical composition is very similar to a controlled substance. Analogues are intended to have a substantially similar or greater physiological effect than the narcotics they mimic. Popular with teenagers and younger adults because of the cheaper cost and glossy packaging, “spice” has been linked to overdoses, serious injuries and deaths across the country. In fact, the 2014 federal indictment – which was the first in the Los Angeles area involving drug analogues – alleged that chemicals distributed by Libbert nearly killed a victim in Florida who had ingested them.
Though it contains THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) and is commonly referred to as “fake marijuana,” health officials consider “spice” to be much more dangerous due to its high potency, and because the quality and quantity of chemicals used to make the “spice” are unregulated. The chemical analogues are typically manufactured in clandestine laboratories in China.
Over the course of 16 months in 2011 and 2012, Libbert’s organization smuggled over 200 pounds of chemicals into the U.S., knowing that the drugs would be used to manufacture “spice.” During Wednesday’s lengthy sentencing hearing, Judge Carney noted that Libbert used fraudulent documents and misbranded labels to smuggle the chemical analogues from China.
As part of the scheme, Libbert incorporated a series of companies, opened up a series of bank accounts and private mailboxes, and sold more than $5 million worth of “spice” to people across the U.S., including other distributors and individual users.
Two other defendants charged in this case previously pleaded guilty, including a Chinese national who sold Libbert and his associates synthetic drugs that were smuggled into the U.S. Additionally, three defendants charged in separate cases pleaded guilty to conspiring with Libbert to manufacture, possess, and distribute controlled substance analogues. All five individuals are expected to be sentenced by Judge Carney later this year.
In July 2012, HIDTA investigators executed a series of federal search warrants and seized several luxury vehicles, hundreds of pounds of analogues, and firearms – including a rifle, a shotgun, two pistols and approximately 700 rounds of ammunition, all of which Libbert was prohibited from possessing due to three prior felony convictions.
In addition to the drug and firearms charges, Libbert also pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering stemming from his purchase of real estate in Ohio using drug proceeds. Investigators seized more than $1.1 million in assets connected to the case – including more than $700,000 in profits from the sale of Libbert’s former residence in San Juan Capistrano – all of which have been administratively forfeited to the United States.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol Alexis Chen of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.