FARGO, North Dakota — A Texas man accused of distributing the chemicals used to make a batch of synthetic drugs that ultimately led to the deaths of two teens in the Grand Forks, North Dakota, area pleaded guilty Monday in federal court.
Charles Carlton, of Katy, Texas, is the 14th person to plead guilty in the wide-ranging investigation known as "Operation Stolen Youth." Christian Bjerk, 18, of Grand Forks, and Elijah Stai, 17, of Park Rapid, Minnesota, died within a week of each other after ingesting the drugs.
Carlton, 29, pleaded guilty Monday to three counts, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Authorities said Carlton and his company, Motion Resources LLC, imported controlled substances from Asia and Europe and made hundreds of thousands of dollars by reselling them over the Internet to domestic buyers. One of those customers, Andrew Spofford, of Grand Forks, cooked up the hallucinogens that killed Bjerk and Stai.
Spofford has received the stiffest sentence in the case at 17 ½ years in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers said during Monday's hearing that Carlton's company misled customers about the safety and legality of the substances. Visitors to the website were asked to click on a disclaimer that said the chemicals were not meant for human consumption when the sellers knew people were ingesting the drugs, the prosecutor said.
"This whole scheme was designed to look like this company was a legitimate company," Myers said.
Myers added that Motion Resources continued to sell the chemicals after the deaths of the two teens in June 2012 and continued doing business until August 2013.
Carlton told U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson that Myers' summary of the criminal enterprise was "for the most part" accurate, but said there are legitimate uses for the substances, including research into treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.
"I'm certainly not trying to defend what we were doing," Carlton said.
Defense attorney Alexander Reichert declined comment after Monday's hearing. Reichert had earlier argued that his client was "at least three steps removed" from the deaths because the drugs manufactured by Spofford were stolen before they were delivered.
Carlton also pleaded guilty Monday to conspiracy to introduce a misbranded drug into interstate commerce and a new charge of money laundering. The deal calls for Carlton to forfeit $385,000 in drug proceeds.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 27.