Six individuals involved in an extensive illegal THC vape cartridge operation were sentenced Friday morning, and all were given fines or probation.
Tyler Huffhines, of Bristol at the time, his brother, Jacob Huffines, of Salem, and their mother, Courtney Huffines, of Salem, appeared before Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder for their roles in the operation.
Tyler Huffhines, 23, the mastermind of the operation, pleaded guilty in the spring to felony possession with intent to deliver THC in an amount over 10,000 grams and felony misappropriation of an individual’s personal identifying information to obtain money. On both counts his sentences were withheld and he was placed on probation for three years.
He had already spent nearly two years in jail.
Jacob Huffhines, 26, pleaded guilty in the spring to felony possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and felony possession with intent to deliver THC in an amount over 10,000 grams. On the firearm charge the sentence was withheld and he was placed on two years of probation. He was fined $10,000 for the drug charge.
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Their mother, 46-year-old Courtney Huffhines, pleaded guilty to felony misappropriation of an individual’s personal identifying information to obtain money and felony maintaining a drug trafficking place. She was fined $15,000 for the offenses.
In September 2019, law enforcement raided the Paddock Lake home Tyler Huffhines shared with his brother and mother. They also raided a Bristol condominium that had been rented by the them using a stolen identity.
At the Paddock Lake home, investigators found marijuana, guns, cocaine and Xanax. At the Bristol condominium — where they had employees who were paid to manufacture vaping cartridges — investigators found 31,200 flavored vape cartridges filled with THC, about 98,000 empty vape cartridges, 57 mason jars filled with THC oil, pounds of marijuana, three money-counting machines, thousands of empty vape cartridge boxes and packaging, and time cards documenting their workers.
In all, investigators placed the value of the illegal THC products found at the condo at about $1.5 million. THC is the ingredient in pot that provides users a high.
One worker told investigators they were making 3,000 to 5,000 cartridges a day.
The arrest of the Huffhines brothers and, in later weeks, their mother, captured the imagination of readers in Kenosha County and around the nation, the case even ending up on the front page of the New York Times under the headline “Vaping Bad: Were two Wisconsin brothers the Walter Whites of THC oils.”
The THC vaping business was busted after a teenager in Waukesha confessed to police at the behest of his parents that he was involved in THC vape sales at his high school. That investigation led to Kenosha County and the Huffhineses.
According to prosecutors, Tyler Huffhines, with the help of his brother and mother, ran the illegal manufacturing and sales operation like a traditional business, complete with employees, time cards and branded merchandise.
A witness quoted in court documents said Tyler Huffhines, a Carthage College student at the time of his arrest, began purchasing and selling vape cartridges in at least August 2018, a few months after a feature story about him ran in the Kenosha News about his sneaker selling business. In an interview with police, Tyler Huffhines said he switched to having workers manufacture the cartridges to increase his profits.
The business appears to have been generating profits.
Not long before his arrest — when, unbeknownst to the Huffhines, they were already being watched by investigators — Tyler Huffhines brought a suitcase with $300,000 in cash to California on a trip to buy 40 to 50 jars of THC distillate. Tyler Huffhines documented the trip on Snapchat, according to court documents, posting a video of himself sitting in first class on the plane.
Apologized in court
All three of the Huffhineses apologized for their actions in court Friday morning.
“I’m sorry for my actions,” Tyler Huffhines said, adding his actions will “stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Jacob Huffhines said “I’m holding myself accountable” and believes he struggles with drug addiction.
“I’m just asking for help through the court,” he said.
Courtney Huffhines teared up when she spoke and said it feels like she “lost everything.”
Prosecutor Zach Wittchow had asked for lengthy prison sentences for both brothers and for an example to be made of them.
He called Tyler Huffhines a “high-level drug dealer” and that his case was unique because “it’s not often law enforcement catches the head of the snake.”
Wittchow said Jacob Huffhines was “actively involved in this criminal enterprise.”
Wittchow declined to comment after the hearing.
Mark Richards, attorney for Tyler Huffhines, and Corey Chirafisi, attorney for Jacob Huffhines, both asked for short prison sentences and probation before Schroeder made his sentencing decisions.
“There is a punishment portion, hopefully there is a rehabilitation portion,” Chirafisi said.
Richards said a lengthy prison sentence seemed “heavy handed.”
He also said the “tide is changing” on marijuana and to young people “it’s like alcohol.”
“This is marijuana for somebody with no prior record,” Richards said.
After the hearing Richards seemed to be pleased with the ruling imposed on Tyler Huffhines.
He also said Schroeder was “just and fair.”
“He did almost two years in jail. It was three years ago, We’re happy with the sentence. As I said, it’s marijuana,” Richards said.
Throughout the sentencing Friday Schroeder said he was “unsympathetic” to their crimes and was “not trying to minimize these cases.”
Schroeder, however, said laws surrounding marijuana are a patchwork across the nation, and that sentencing people to prison for first-time marijuana-related offenses is expensive. THC is still illegal in Wisconsin although surrounding states have legalized the drug in some forms in recent years.
Three others involved in smaller capacities in the scheme were also sentenced Friday before Schroeder.
Wesley Webb, 23, pleaded guilty in the spring for possession with intent to deliver THC in an amount over 10,000 grams. He was issued a $2,500 fine. Webb drove the vehicle from California to Wisconsin on behalf of Tyler Huffhines.
Webb acknowledged his “poor decisions” and said he’s committed to turning his life around for his family.
Hannah Curty, 23, pleaded guilty in the spring for possession with intent to deliver THC in an amount between 200 grams and 1,000 grams. She was issued a $2,500 fine.
Curty helped fill some of the vape cartridges and kept a time card. Curty said she’s “ashamed and embarrassed” for what she did and apologized to all impacted by the operation.
Daniel Graumenz, 22, pleaded guilty in the spring for possession with intent to deliver THC in an amount of 200 grams or less. He was issued a $2,500 fine for helping fill vape cartridges.
Although Webb, of Racine, Curty, of Racine, and Graumenz, of Salem, requested the felony charges be expunged from their records, Schroeder declined to do so Friday but left the possibility open if state laws change and depending on their future conduct.
How to convince, scare or bribe your kids not to vape
Dealing with teen vaping
Go Ask Your Dad is parenting advice with a philosophical bent as one dad explores what we want out of life, for ourselves and our children, through useful paradigms and best practices.
Of all the pre-teen related parental worries I have about my seventh grade daughter, at the top of my list right now is making sure she doesn’t vape.
This week, New York became the first to report a teen had died from a vaping-related lung injury, and it’s the latest in a rash of vaping-related illnesses and deaths across the country.
But I was concerned even before the headlines. The long-term health consequences of a nicotine addiction are so significant with e-cigarettes that I’m even less worried about her trying regular cigarettes (unless she starts vaping first).
The practice continues to skyrocket among minors, in large part because of the e-cigarette manufacturers’ effective playbook of “cool” ads, fun flavors and downplaying health risks. According to new research, 20% of eighth graders have reported using a vaping product; that number jumps to 36% for high school sophomores and 40% of high school seniors. Just two years ago, those percentages were 10%, 21% and 25%, respectively. Ask teens around the country, and they will likely tell you from their experience those numbers are much lower than what they see every day.
So what’s the best way to go about convincing my daughter and othersnot to start? Or, for other parents, to get their child to quit?
Do I scare her, or reason with her? Do I bribe her not to experiment? Wait, and then punish her if I catch her? All of the above?
I know one tactic I won’t try: threats. I don’t think they work in general and especially in this case. Kids tend to rebel against their parents in reaction to threats and ultimatums. And we all know a popular pastime for rebellious teens, right? Smoking.
From smoking to vaping: Why do we abuse our lungs?
What is clear is that I, along with every other parent out there, can’t procrastinate. Vaping among minors has been classified asan epidemic, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 5,700 kids start vaping every day. We need to work hard at stemming that tide.
“We don’t have a vaping problem, or an opioid problem or a heroin problem,” said Laura Searcy, the program director of the Georgia Tobacco Free Youth Project who works with students, faculty, health care professionals, parents and community groups on reducing vaping among minors. “What we have in the United States is an addiction problem. We have to stop creating a hierarchy of ‘good drugs’ and ‘bad drugs.’ “
The bottom line is that the farther out you can push the first year of any mind-altering substance — alcohol, nicotine and/or opioids, for example — “the less likely they are to have a lifelong addiction,” she said.
That is the goal: Delay the experimentation and use of these substances for the long-term benefit of our children’s mental and physical health.
If your child is already experimenting with e-cigarettes, “don’t shame and blame,” said Marnie Grodzin, the youth development coordinator for Decatur Prevention Initiative, a nonprofit that provides prevention services to youth and families in Georgia. Nicotine is highly addictive to a still-developing brain, so “come from a place of care and concern, not from a punitive stance,” she wrote in an email to me.
And that’s why, if my daughter does try vaping, we won’t punish her. We’ll help her.
While schools need to be active and self-educating on this urgent matter, their efforts can’t be alone. And don’t look to science to get us out of this, either. There are currently no FDA-approved nicotine cessation products for e-cigarette users under age 18.
For now, the primary answer to this problem lies with parents. Avoiding potentially harmful behavior is one of the many areas where effective, well-intentioned parenting has the biggest impact.
“The opposite of addiction is connection,” said Searcy, who is also a pediatric nurse practitioner at WellStar Kennestone Regional Medical Center. “Parents talking to their kids is one of the most powerful tools we have.”
So, let’s consider what may be effective as you talk to your children about vaping.
Reason with them
When talking to your kids about vaping, Grodzin recommends you “only use language you are comfortable with and be real and authentic. Teens can smell a con from a mile away.”
The conversations (not just one) are best led with non-judgmental curiosity: What’s happening with their friends? What’s going on at school? What do they know about the risks? And so on.
Also “pick some key facts to focus on that you think will grab your teen’s attention,” Grodzin added.
Searcy agreed. When she speaks at schools, kids tell her to “lead with the science. Tell me why I shouldn’t vape.” Here are some starter facts that may help.
- Nicotine is addicting, and more so for developing brains. Although vaping may be a tool to help some adult smokers wean themselves from cigarettes, for new smokers that road heads in the opposite direction, toward cigarettes and other addictive substances.
- One Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the company.
- We know vaping harms developing lungs, but other effects are largely still unknown. We won’t have the research on the damaging long-term health consequences of vaping until we have long-term users. “In effect, you are human guinea pigs,” Searcy tells kids.
- Peer pressure is usually, but not always, a terrible reason to change your behavior. Following others usually means you’re not following your own path.
- If they make a distinction between smoking cigarettes and vaping, point out how they are the same when it comes to the health risks of nicotine addiction and the methods manufacturers use to get you addicted — namely that these big tobacco companies are duping users with their dishonest advertising campaigns and kid-friendly flavors.
- And, as with any addiction, there’s an enormous financial cost on top of the physical toll: For cigarettes, the average lifetime cost is $1.4 million per person, according to 2015 data.
If your kid agrees that trying is a terrible idea, they may still need tools to help them stick to that view. Ask them to think of what they’ll say if they are offered an e-cigarette by a friend.
And stress the importance of never trying someone else’s e-cigarette. Even if they know the person, they don’t know exactly what other substances are in the chemical liquid they’re inhaling. Pods are not tamper-proof and there could be illegal or dangerous substances added.
If your child wants to quit, start by asking them why they do it and addressing those factors. “Is the drug of choice being used as a coping mechanism?” Grodzin asks. “If it is, then we need to work on adding healthy coping mechanisms.”
They may also confess that they feel hooked, and it’s difficult to stop. Or they may not even be aware that they’re struggling. Ask about their vaping habits and whether they show signs of addiction. Habits are difficult to break, especially when friends or school routines act as triggers. They may need to reroute those habitual behaviors into more benign ones until the desire to vape fades. Help them find solutions; smokefree.gov has a modern interactive guide and free live counselor chats to get people off tobacco products.
Scare the bejeezus out ’em
Reasoning may not always work though. A teen’s prefrontal cortex is still forming, Grodzin points out. Teens “think that negative consequences happen to ‘other people, not me. I’m special. I got this,'” she said.
Neither Grodzin nor Searcy think trying to scare kids is the best approach. “There’s a science around prevention,” said Searcy, “and the evidence is that fear doesn’t work.” But “fear can be useful to get their attention,” she added, and the recent reports of vaping-related illnesses and deaths “may be breaking through the noise.”
Talk about the fact that hundreds of people are currently getting very sick, and some are even dying unexpectedly, caused by a still unknown lung illness associated with short-term use of e-cigarettes. Cigarettes often take years of smoking before lung cancer becomes a deadly threat, but vaping could kill you or impair your movement or brain function now and for the long term.
If you think fear is a motivator for your child, perhaps ask them to consider other risky behaviors that could lead to brain or bodily function problems, or even the remote possibility of death. Riding in a car without a seatbelt? Climbing on the roof of their home? Playing with matches? If you focus on behaviors you’re confident they won’t do, ask them why they avoid those actions.
Even if your child doesn’t have a sense of their own mortality yet, they may be influenced by how a vaping-related illness could keep them from playing sports, affect their ability to learn, or prevent them from participating in other activities they love.
Make it worth their while
When my wife was in high school, her mother offered her $1,000 if she didn’t try a cigarette before the age of 21. When my wife reached that age, her mom paid up. She made a similar deal with her son, plus inflation. It worked both times.
Yet there is no body of research on incentivizing young people to avoid smoking in particular.
“Rewards for positive behavior can work,” Searcy said, “but bribing to not do[a bad behavior] can backfire.” The argument commonly made against this incentive approach is that we shouldn’t reward our children for behavior they should be doing anyway.
I personally see an advantage in creating one extra (and potentially long-term) incentive to keep their focus on the north star of not vaping or smoking. It may even give them ammo to keep peers from pressuring them into it. It’s pretty hard to argue with, “My parents are actually going to give me money not to.”
Of course, it requires them to be honest about it — but isn’t integrity exactly the kind of virtue we should always be encouraging?
Know your kid
There is no one right way to get through to your kids. Your tactic should align with how you already effectively parent. By the time they are old enough to experiment with smoking, you should have a good sense of what motivates them, what they need to hear and when.
With my daughter, I jumped right in with questions: What do you know about vaping? Are kids at your school vaping? Your friends? I even snuck in, “Have you tried?”
And, when she started replying, every answer was reassuring. But her understanding of how vaping worked was lacking, mainly due to disinterest, it seemed. She listened to my talking points. And when it came to an offer for a pay-off for not trying until age 21, she said we were wasting our money, but she’d take it anyway.
And after this first real conversation on the topic, vaping is no longer a big concern for me. But I’ll keep checking in.
As with all the sensitive topics that you must talk to your kids about (bullying, porn, alcohol, drugs, sex etc.) the most important thing to do is keep the conversation open and ongoing. If you come down too hard or judgmental, you make it scarier for them to talk to you. If you’re too light or flippant, they may not take you seriously.
Look for the balance. Stay open, attentive, loving, curious and helpful while you model clarity and trust. If you can do that, you make difficult topics less difficult for them, and you.
If you try and try again, and it’s not getting through to them for whatever reason, consider enlisting the help of another person they trust or admire. If you and your ally are equally concerned and on message, the village approach may be your answer.
And if you want to do more to help your child and others, Searcy recommends getting active at the local, state and federal levels to push legislators to pass more restrictive laws that reduce access to vaping: Keep raising the legal age, restrict flavors and limit the locations where vape shops can open, especially near schools.
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