Two brothers in their early twenties have been accused of running what authorities say could be one of the largest operations to manufacture and sell illegal THC-filled vaping cartridges in the US.
Authorities said 20-year-old Tyler Huffhines was the ringleader of a sophisticated vaping “empire” that is now being investigated for links to the recent vaping-related illnesses and deaths across the country.
Huffhines was charged Monday on several counts of possession with intent to manufacture and distribute THC over 10,000 grams, maintaining a drug house, and identity theft. He was held in lieu of a $500,000 cash bond as of Tuesday. His 23-year-old brother, Jacob Huffhines — who was previously convicted for dealing cocaine — was charged on counts of possessing cocaine, THC, and a firearm.
The two brothers allegedly ran the operation out of a rented condo in Bristol where they paid at least 10 people to fill liquid THC — which is illegal in Wisconsin — into vaping cartridges and package them to look like candy with names like “Chronic sour patch.”
Authorities said they seized more than $1.5 million worth of THC products during the bust.
“It looks like candy,” Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said at a news conference. “It’s not candy. It’s highly potent drugs.”
Beth said his office would work with other agencies to see if the brothers had “any responsibility in hurting hundreds of people” across the country.
Health officials on Tuesday announced that a California man became the seventh person to die from a vaping-related illness as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) activated an emergency operation to investigate the outbreak of lung illnesses linked to e-cigarettes. The CDC said there have been at least 380 cases of lung illness reported from 36 states and one US territory.
A spokesperson for the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department told BuzzFeed News Tuesday that the office was working with local, state, and federal agencies “in all aspects of the investigation.”
The brothers were arrested after authorities searched their family's residence in Paddock Lake on Sept. 5 and found approximately $59,000 in cash, eight firearms with ammunition, nine cellphones, cocaine, marijuana, Xanax pills, and various drug paraphernalia.
At the brothers' Bristol condo, which was rented under a false name, authorities seized approximately 31,200 vape cartridges filled with 1 gram of THC each, around 98,000 unfilled vape cartridges, 57 mason jars filled with 1,616 ounces of refined liquid THC, approximately 18 pounds of marijuana, three money-counting machines, and thousands of empty vape cartridge boxes and packaging, authorities said.
Attorneys for both brothers declined to comment to BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
The Waukesha Police Department launched an investigation in July after the parents of an unidentified teen who “wanted to hold their son accountable” informed police about finding the candylike vaping package in his room, Beth said.
Authorities discovered that THC-filled vaping devices were being distributed and used in high schools within the Waukesha community.
A confidential informant told police that he had seen thousands of THC cartridges and buds stored in the condo where Tyler Huffhines allegedly ran his drug dealing operation, according to a criminal complaint.
Detectives found Tyler Huffhines’ Snapchat, where he had posted several photos and videos showing large boxes filled with thousands of THC cartridges in a garage and walk-in closet, the complaint states. One video on his Snapchat account showed large amounts of money lying on a carpet next to marijuana buds, as well as a desk with a bill counter.
Huffhines also posted Snapchat videos of himself flying first class to California, where he allegedly bought enough jars of THC liquid to fill between 4,000 to 5,000 vaping cartridges per day in Wisconsin, the criminal complaint states.
He later told authorities that he began his THC vaping cartridge business on Jan. 28, 2018, and posted a photo of it on Instagram on the same day.
He said that he never smoked THC and got into the business only to make money after observing the demand for THC vape cartridges. The 20-year-old said that all the money he made from selling the cartridges was put back into the business.
“You invest more, you make more,” Huffhines told detectives, according to the complaint. “No risk, no reward.”
Tyler Huffhines said that he initially bought prepackaged THC cartridges from California for $2.50 apiece to sell for $15 in Wisconsin, earning him anywhere between $500 to $800 for 100 cartridges. He later decided he could make more money by paying people to fill THC liquid into empty cartridges and package them.
The operation in the Bristol condo involved an “assembly line” where 10 people used syringes to fill the empty cartridges with liquid THC. Huffhines told authorities that he originally paid them $20 per hour to fill the cartridges, but later began paying them 30 cents a cartridge so that they would work harder and save him more money, the complaint states.
The operation was “sophisticated” enough for the employees to have time cards, Beth said. Tyler Huffhines allegedly rented the condo under a Nevada resident’s name whose private information he had paid to illegally obtain.
“He prides himself on being a young businessman,” Beth told reporters. “He’s a 20-year-old businessman who is willing to put other people’s lives at risk, including children, for his own benefit.”
Beth said that he was certain the Huffhineses had already “sent out thousands” of the THC-filled cartridges and that “many of the people hurt are because of this family’s willingness to make money at other people’s expense.”
Several others involved in the operation are being investigated, meaning there could be additional arrests and charges in the case, Beth added.
He also warned parents to be on the lookout for their children using THC-filled vaping devices that have misleading candylike wrapping and smells.
“This was going on under our noses,” Beth said. “Parents cannot take this lightly.”