Orange jumpsuit is the new red carpet for a drug-making movie man whose downfall began in Las Vegas
INT. THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, PARK CITY, UTAH — DAY
All smiles for the paparazzi, independent movie producer BURTON RITCHIE strolls the red carpet for the screening of his latest film, a documentary about stand-up comedians, directed by his buddy, actor Kevin Pollak.
INT. U.S. COURTHOUSE, NORFOLK VIRGINIA, TWO YEARS LATER — DAY
BURTON RITCHIE is not facing paparazzi today. He is facing U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE RAYMOND JACKSON. JACKSON is about to impose sentence on RITCHIE for his convictions on conspiracy and drug distribution charges. RITCHIE is wearing the orange jumpsuit that’s standard dress for residents of the Tidewater Western Regional Jail.
The Court finds ... that you were a clever, corrupt drug dealer who made millions of profits from this episode, corrupted other people, destroyed other people’s lives, got other people in prison, all because of your dealings.
With that, JACKSON sentences RITCHIE, 46-year-old father of two with virtually no criminal history, to more than three decades in a federal penitentiary ...
How did this moviemaker who played charity poker with Chelsea Clinton and produced films starring Glenn Close and Kristen Wiig wind up as federal inmate #23554-017? The story of Burton Ritchie’s rise and fall could be a screenplay. His rise would be set in Florida — but his fall began in Las Vegas, in a nondescript warehouse.
On July 25, 2012, agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service served a search warrant at 5435 Desert Point Drive, part of a warehouse complex not far from the Orleans hotel-casino. Inside, agents found one man, 29-year-old Ryan Eaton, and all the makings for spice, commonly referred to as synthetic marijuana. Foil pouches of spice have been sold in gas stations and head shops as potpourri or incense, though some users smoke it like marijuana. It’s composed of ground-up plant leaves sprayed with powerful, mood-altering, synthetic cannabinoids. These chemicals act on the same receptors in the brain as the THC in pot. But synthetic cannabinoids can produce far more powerful effects and can cause serious, even fatal, medical reactions.
“If you wanted to take THC and raise it to an exponential power, that’s what these drugs are,” says Paul Doering, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Florida
Although not illegal, per se, at that time (it would be within a year), officials considered it a controlled substance under what’s known as the “analogues” act. This outlawed newly created “designer” drugs that are substantially similar to existing controlled substances. For the spice trade, underground chemists constantly tweaked their formulas to stay ahead of laws banning them. In Las Vegas, investigators seized about seven kilograms of the synthetic cannabinoid XLR-11, which had been imported from China.
Information from the warehouse linked the spice-making operation to Zencense Incense Works in Pensacola, Florida. According to court documents, Zencense had moved spice production from Florida to Las Vegas because the chemicals dried more quickly in the desert. The co-owner and executive in charge of Zencense was Burton Ritchie.
Ritchie was not a central-casting drug dealer. In many ways, he was an all-American entrepreneur. “He was determined to succeed in life, and he did,” his mother, Linda Crews, wrote in a letter to Judge Jackson. “Burton’s continued self-motivation led him to independently start a T-shirt business on Pensacola Beach before he was 21 years old, without financial backing from family.”
That T-shirt business led to other enterprises, including a chain of smoke shops called Psychedelic Shacks — in which a product called Sonic, an early form of spice, flew off the shelves. Indeed, Ritchie couldn’t keep up with demand. So he went into the spice business himself, manufacturing his own under names like Bizarro, Neutronium, and Orgazmo. He retailed it out of his smoke shops and sold it wholesale to others. It was a huge hit. According to court records, Ritchie and partner Ben Galecki raked in more than $20 million from spice in less than a year.
But the 2012 raid in Las Vegas, which didn’t result in immediate charges, was a wake-up call. “I decided to cease manufacturing as a result of that raid,” he said in deposition for a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a couple whose son died after smoking Zencense spice.
In December 2012, Ritchie and Galecki sold Zencense to Victor Natoli, a California smoke shop maven. He continued to make spice under the corporate moniker ZenBio. Though Ritchie was no longer involved, federal prosecutors allege that he received profits from ZenBio until April 2013.
After selling Zencense and the Psychedelic Shacks, Ritchie moved himself, his wife, and two young children to Park City, Utah, where he bought a house worth more than a million dollars, and became a fixture at the Sundance Film Festival. Before getting out of the synthetic cannabinoids business, Ritchie and Galecki had formed a production company called Heretic Films. Spice had given them money to finance movies, and the company flourished. Among the movies it played a role in: Welcome to Me (2014), starring Kristen Wiig and Tim Robbins; Low Down (2014), starring Glenn Close and Elle Fanning; and Misery Loves Comedy (2015), a documentary directed by actor Kevin Pollak that starred some of the biggest names in standup comedy.
He was also an avid poker player, finishing in the money at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas three years running. According to his biography on the Internet Movie Database, Ritchie “got his start in producing (movies) after he won a walk-on part in Red 2 while playing in a charity tournament in support of the Clinton Foundation.” Photographs show Ritchie chatting amiably with Chelsea Clinton across a poker table.
In January 2015, at the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Films announced it had purchased the rights to distribute Misery Loves Comedy. Ritchie, the producer, stood beaming on the red carpet. It may have been the pinnacle of his success.
But at the same time, federal agents were piecing together a picture of a nationwide spice distribution network for Zencense and ZenBio, involving hundreds of people. Indictments followed in Norfolk, Virginia; Duluth, Minnesota; San Francisco; Mobile, Alabama — and Las Vegas.
And there were the wrongful death suits. One was filed by the parents of 20-year-old Karl Ladue, of Talent, Oregon. He went into a rage after smoking Bizarro. Police officers shocked him nearly two dozen times with a taser. As three officers struggled to take him into custody, Ladue stopped breathing.
In Oswego, New York, Teresa Woolson’s 19-year-old son, Victor, went for a swim after he and a friend smoked a package of Avalanche. He began flailing and drowned. Woolson sued Zencense and Burton Ritchie. “All these people that bought his products? Their lives are devastated, all over the United States. Yet he’s mingling with the rich and famous like he did nothing wrong,” she said.
In a deposition for Ladue’s suit (trial is set for November 6), Ritchie said he’d never seen anyone smoke his products. He’d heard reports of maybe four people claiming adverse reactions, but said he later discovered they had used actual illegal drugs. “We were always the scapegoat,” Ritchie testified. “When in fact they’d been using heroin or methamphetamine or actual illegal substances and didn’t want to confess.”
On the day Ritchie testified in that deposition, a warrant for his arrest was issued in Norfolk on spice-related charges. More indictments followed Alabama and in Nevada, where Ryan Eaton was also charged. Meanwhile, other figures in the spice conspiracy had been indicted. Victor Natoli pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the government. A former Zencense bookkeeper also rolled.
In October 2016, Ritchie and Galecki went on trial in Virginia. The jury could not reach a unanimous verdict — a few jurors were reportedly hung on the issue of whether XLR-11 was, in fact, an analogue of an actual illegal drug. A mistrial was declared. But Galecki and Ritchie were retried in January, and both were found guilty on all counts.
Prior to sentencing, letters from friends and associates were submitted to the court on Ritchie’s behalf. Kevin Pollak’s appears to be the only one from a Hollywood celebrity:
“I have never witnessed even the possibility of selfish, negative or harmful intent from Mr. Ritchie, nor do I think him capable. With rehabilitation available in today’s society at its most varied and successful in history, it seems an injustice to incarcerate an otherwise remarkably intelligent, respectful and thoughtful citizen.”
In asking for leniency, Ritchie and his lawyer insisted that Ritchie had relied on legal and scientific opinions that the chemicals he was using were not illegal. Judge Jackson was unconvinced: “(I)t’s very clear you were involved in committing this offense long before you consulted any lawyer. ... The truth is that you were involved in one massive drug-dealing operation.” Although Ritchie’s lawyer asked for a sentence of five years, Jackson handed Ritchie 32 years, which he is serving in Talladega, Florida.
As for the wrongful-death suits, they’re still active, though the feds have seized most of Ritchie’s assets and will likely retain them until criminal proceedings in all jurisdictions are complete. Teresa Woolson now runs the Victor O. Woolson (VOW) Foundation, named after her son, which provides synthetic-drug education. “At least I feel that some justice has come,” she says. “He’s not out there making movies anymore, or going to film festivals, or living in a million dollar mansion. He’s in jail.”
Where he’s scheduled to remain until at least 2044. He still faces additional trials in Alabama, and in Las Vegas, where his court date was bumped from last month to next May.