Authorities are investigating whether a large-scale operation by two Paddock Lake brothers allegedly manufacturing illegal THC vaping cartridges — the cartridges packaged to look like candy and believed to have been marketed to teens — could be connected to a spate of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths.
Tyler Huffhines, 20, and Jacob Huffhines, 23, were arrested Sept. 5 after simultaneous warrants were served on the home where they lived with their mother and grandfather, 24622 74th St. in Paddock Lake and a rented condominium at 7937 Williamsburg Court in the Bristol Bay subdivision in Bristol.
Tyler Huffhines is being held on a temporary bond of $500,000. He is expected to be charged Friday with several drug-related felonies along with unauthorized use of an individual’s personal identification.
Jacob Huffhines is being held on a probation violation — he was on probation for a felony cocaine dealing conviction from 2018 — along with possession of cocaine and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
At a press conference Wednesday, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said at the Paddock Lake home investigators found $59,000 in cash, eight guns and ammunition, 10.6 grams of marijuana and a small amount of cocaine and Xanax, along with scales and other paraphernalia related to drug sales.
The bulk of the operation was found at the Bristol condominium, which had been rented under a false name.
“Of this type, it’s the largest we’ve ever had, and as far as I know one of the largest in the country,” Beth said.
In the sparsely furnished condo, investigators found more than 100,000 filled and unfilled vape cartridges, three money-counting machines, 18 pounds of marijuana and 57 mason jars, each filled with 1,616 ounces of refined liquid THC, the oil in each jar valued at approximately $6,000. The filled cartridges contained approximately 1 gram of THC.
Beth said the operation, allegedly launched by Tyler Huffines in January 2018, had as many as 10 employees who were paid to use syringes to inject THC oil into the vape cartridges, which were then placed in candy-like, brightly colored packaging with names like Sour Patch, and distributed for sale.
Employees were at first paid $20 an hour until, Beth said, the brothers decided they would have higher profits if they paid 30 cents for each filled cartridge. Huffhines kept timecards to record the employees’ time.
The sheriff said because the investigation is ongoing, he could not say how the vape cartridges were marketed and sold.
Vaping illnesses, deaths
Beth said the department hopes to work with federal agencies and jurisdictions around the country to see if the operation could be tied to any of the spate of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths that have been reported over the last two months.
“We’ve lost six people (who died from vaping-related illness); hundreds and hundreds have been hurt. I am very curious, and we’re willing to work with any agency in this country ... to see if our people here in Kenosha County have any responsibility in hurting the hundreds and hundreds of people in the United States, especially in Wisconsin,” Beth said.
As of Sept. 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been 450 cases of vaping-related illnesses, including six deaths, with deaths reported in Illinois, California, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota and Oregon.
The CDC states that many of the people affected reported using THC vaping products. The first vaping-related illness was reported in Illinois in August.
The CDC investigation has not found an exact cause for the vaping-related illness.
According to the Washington Post, federal authorities are looking into the possibility that product contamination or counterfeit vaping products are tied to the outbreak, as many of the victims reported buying THC vape products from the street rather than through legal distributors.
Started in Waukesha
The Huffhineses’ alleged operation came to light after parents of a teenager in the city of Waukesha brought their son to the police station there to report that he was involved in the sale of THC vape pens at a local high school.
“The parents (of the Waukesha teen) were focused on holding their son accountable,” said Capt. Dan Baumann of the Waukesha Police Department. “These parents were courageous for what they did and should be commended.”
Baumann said the investigation went through “five tiers” of distributors before leading to the Huffhineses.
The Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, the Kenosha Drug Operations Group and the Racine County Metro Drug Unit were all involved in the investigation along with the Waukesha Police Department.
Beth said the operation “was not on our radar screen” until they were contacted by the Waukesha Police.
“It was right under our nose,” he said.
The sheriff said he anticipates additional people will be charged as the investigation into the operation continues.
He said the motive for the operation appears to be entirely on profit, with the younger of the two brothers telling investigators he does not use drugs.
At the same time he was running the drug sales business, Tyler Huffhines was featured in the Kenosha News as a “young entrepreneur” for his business selling athletic shoes, Beth said.
Beth said Huffhines has been cooperative, but not remorseful, saying he was focused on “this family willingness to make money at other people’s expense.”