Recognized by its colorful mural of the Florida swamp, the Everglades Convenience Store on 10th Street North in Naples had become known for another feature: selling synthetic marijuana, police say.
For $15 to $20 a pop, Naples police went undercover over three months to buy small packets of the drug known as "spice" in flavors ranging from "Scooby Snax" to "Bomb! Marley."
The store's owner and a clerk were arrested Tuesday and face felony charges of selling the drug, among other charges. A woman was also arrested as part of a warrant execution, though she is not accused of selling spice.
Naples Sgt. Randy Durniak said he was not sure whether this bust is connected to the $1.2 million synthetic marijuana arrests in Lee County last week.
"It's all over and we're working diligently to control it," he said.
Store owner Kassem Ibrahim Bannout, 61, of the 800 block of Pine Court, Naples, faces six counts of the sale of synthetic cannabinoids within 1,000 feet of a public park along with charges of possessing and intent to sell, manufacturing or delivering the drugs. He is also facing charges for drug paraphernalia possession among others.
The store's clerk, Gregory Murphy, 60, who lived at the store at 271 10th St. N., faces the same six counts of criminal conspiracy, six counts of synthetic narcotic sale within 1,000 feet of a school or park and six counts of possession with intent to sell, manufacture or deliver within 1,000 feet of a school or park.
He also faces charges of possessing less than three grams of the drug and narcotic paraphernalia.
Norma Sue Gable, 43, of the same address as Bannout, faces charges of possessing a synthetic narcotic of more than three grams, possessing the controlled substance methamphetamine and possessing narcotic paraphernalia.
All three remained in custody as of Tuesday night.
According to reports, an "unwitting source of information" told police the store was selling spice behind the counter and the owner was receiving it in the mail at his home before bringing it to work. Police began what turned into a three-month-long investigation, sending undercover officers to buy the drug at the store on five occasions before arresting Bannout for the first time in December, a detective said.
The U.S. Postal Service intercepted a package containing 204 packets of the drug Nov. 26, reports stated. Police then conducted a controlled delivery of the package to Bannout's home. One Bannout opened the package, a SWAT team entered the home and found it in a bedroom along with marijuana and other drug paraphernalia in plain view. Police obtained a search warrant for Bannout's home at 830 Pine Court in Naples and found more packets of the drug, some matching the ones sold at his store, investigators said.
Durniak said Bannout was jailed and released on $23,000 bond days later.
"A month later, we were still buying spice from the store," Durniak said.
Police sent another uncover officer to the store shortly after the arrest but were told by the clerk that the drug was not in supply following Bannout's arrest.
It took a month before the owners were back in business. Naples police again bought the drug from the store Jan. 3, the sixth and final undercover buy, before obtaining a search warrant and conducting a raid at the convenience store.
Detectives converged on Bannout's Mercury sedan Monday morning as he pulled into the store. In the car with him were Gable and Murphy.
More than 557 packets of the drug were found at the store including in a duffel bag kept in a closet, reports said. Bannout was arrested again, along with Gable, the female passenger in his car at the time, and Murphy.
"(Gable) just happened to be there at the time we served warrant at the scene," Durniak said. "She happened to be in possession of ecstasy and some other pills."
Durniak said the new problem of synthetic marijuana is spreading here and across the country.
"It sends mixed messages when a gas station sells spice," Durniak said, adding that the fun packaging is often aimed at kids. "And the message we want to get it out is it is illegal."