A large amount of drugs were stacked on and around a table set up at the Homer Thornberry Federal Judicial Building Friday morning. They were just some of the items seized as part of a multi-agency investigation called Operation Spiderweb
“This and a number of the other items that are on this table are poison,” said U.S. Attorney Greg Sofer, who was joined Friday morning by representatives from several federal agencies and local authorities in announcing the raids that started Thursday.
Investigators say drug sales were taking place on the campus of UT Austin as well as in the West Campus community. The drug ring reportedly worked out of several locations; some were used to grow marijuana and one elaborate manufacturing site in Dripping Springs had a press used to make pills
“The quantity ... we had a pretty good idea with the first investigation, the first enforcement action we took in 2019 involved 14 kg of Psilocybin tablets, that’s 22 pounds that’s a lot, so we had a good idea but we were engaged in that kind of organization, the psilocybin Gross surprised me, it’s the biggest grow I’ve seen,” said Assistant USA Mark Marshall.
The operation was launched last year after Austin Police noticed an increasing number of counterfeit drugs showing up on the streets and a corresponding increase in overdose reporting, according to Sofer. Two suspects died from overdoses before they could be arrested.
The federal indictment names 22-year-old Varun Prasad of Austin as the leader of the drug ring. He and 12 others have been arrested. Eight of the accused are current or former UT students; majoring in studies like mathematics, chemistry, psychology, and business. Those arrested includes:
- 26-year-old Charles Zenker of Houston
- 68-year-old Benny Daneshjou of Austin
- 26-year-old Ashley Larue of Austin
- 21-year-old Drew Zarate of Austin
- 32-year-old Christopher Edwards of Portland, Ore
- 21-year-old Jacob Schelling of Cypress
- 22-year-old Madison Scott of Houston
- 21-year-old Adrian Andreescu of Plano
- 21-year-old Nikit Shingari of Austin
- 21-year-old Nolan Fogleman of Austin
- 23-year-old Samuel Parry of Austin
- 27-year-old Brandon Carpenter of Austin
All of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Prasad, Daneshjou, Larue, and Zarate are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. Most of those named in the federal indictment has already been processed out of jail and are awaiting trial. If convicted they face between 10 years to life in federal prison.
Another University of Texas campus is linked to this case. Investigators say the drug ring was being supplied by a former professor from UT-San Antonio. Rose Rabin was arrested for allegedly converting meth into pills that look like Adderall.
UT-San Antonio issued a statement to FOX 7 Austin saying that Rabin is no longer employed at the university and that she "was placed on leave as a lecturer in December 2019 following her arrest. Subsequent to the university’s formal termination process, her employment was terminated on March 31, 2020."
“They were pretty sophisticated about how they did it, they used social media, group me is a real common, ... they used to arrange the sales of the narcotics,” said Steve Whipple, the Houston DEA Special Agent in Charge.
Many of the students who were buying the drugs were not trying to get high but were trying to make it through final exams, according to investigators.
“They're buying Xanax, they think. It’s manufactured to look like Xanax but it’s going to be fentanyl. And parents are seeing the kids come home college messed up, and they don’t understand why, the kids say mom I took an Adderall, turns out it was methamphetamine. Highly addictive, Fentanyl highly deadly,” said Whipple.
The indictment also says real estate investor Daneshijou allegedly helped the drug ring purchase property in the Austin area where some of the manufacturing processes took place. The name may be familiar to some as about 20 years ago he was sued by actress Sandra Bullock. The civil lawsuit involved the construction of a home overlooking Lake Austin. She claimed faulty construction and in 2004 won a multimillion-dollar verdict.
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