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U.S. attorney's view: No Last Place headache for Duluth

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U.S. attorney's view: No Last Place headache for Duluth
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

I am writing to clarify some issues related to the prosecution of Jim Carlson and the proceedings concerning his shop, Last Place on Earth. This paper’s June 19 editorial, headlined “Head shop headaches will linger for years,” may have left a false impression of how our recent prosecution and forfeiture proceedings will affect the citizens of Duluth.

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When I became United States attorney in February, I received a thorough briefing on this case. It was an impressive undertaking.

On Dec. 10, 2012, prosecutors in my office obtained a federal indictment charging Carlson with drug distribution and related charges. The indictment represented one of the most significant synthetic drug prosecutions in the country.

After a long trial, on Oct. 7, 2013, a federal jury in Duluth found Carlson guilty on 51 charges, including the distribution of synthetic drugs. By all accounts, Carlson’s shop on Superior Street was a danger to the community and a negative presence for local business owners and residents. Our office coordinated the prosecution of this case and the forfeiture of the Last Place on Earth shop with local law enforcement, the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office and the Duluth City Attorney’s Office.

The shop, which was shut down by an order from St. Louis County Judge Shaun Floerke in July 2013, was seized by the federal government after the jury verdict. At the time, our combined efforts were applauded by local elected officials and community leaders. In fact, an Oct. 4, 2013, piece in this paper cited the closing of Last Place on Earth as a “turning point” in making downtown Duluth “clean, safe and friendly.” Since Carlson’s conviction, hospital officials, community leaders and law enforcement all have noted a substantial decrease in synthetic drug-related admissions to local emergency rooms.

In short, the prosecution of this case and the closing of Carlson’s shop did what local and federal authorities hoped: They removed a dangerous criminal enterprise from downtown Duluth and prevented further synthetic drug injuries.

But there is more work to be done. As the June 19 editorial noted, the store remains shut down under the interim care of the United States Marshal’s Office, and something must be done with it. But the paper’s conclusion that taxpayers will inherit the costs of this process was unwarranted.

Let me explain. Not only was Carlson convicted of serious federal charges, but the federal government also was able to seize more than $4 million in currency and other assets related to his crimes. The money and assets are in federal custody. In considering the impact of this case on Duluth, the editorial inexplicably failed to inform readers of the process for distributing this money. When large federal forfeitures such as this are conducted, federal law provides that local law enforcement agencies involved in the underlying case receive a portion of the money through a process called “equitable sharing.” Although the plans for this equitable sharing will be finalized after Carlson’s appeal is decided, we expect to distribute about $1 million to the Duluth Police Department based on the extraordinary role of its officers in bringing Carlson to justice. That money will, of course, benefit the citizens of Duluth.

In addition, under standard procedures, the building that formerly housed the Last Place on Earth will be sold by the U.S. Marshals. The editorial opined no one would buy the building because of its “sorry state,” that the building probably would revert to Duluth, and that the city would have to pay to fix it up to use as a rehab center or for a similar purpose.

The editorial continued: “Eventual and expensive demolition seems a quite-likely result, with us taxpayers picking up the sizable tab.” That is simply not the case. To be clear, while the federal government can turn the building over to the city, it does not have to do so. Typically, the federal government sells the building, and that is what is likely to occur here. Moreover, there is no provision in the law that would require the taxpayers of Duluth to bear any of the federal government’s costs in selling this property. The U.S. Marshals have retained real estate experts to assist in selling the building and do not intend for it to be turned over to the city. While the building is in disarray (that is how Carlson kept it), the marshals will attempt to sell it as quickly as possible at no cost to the taxpayers.

One neighbor of the Last Place on Earth compared Carlson to someone “who pours toxic pollution into a river.” Not anymore. Duluth’s skilled law enforcement officers and local officials, federal agents and our dedicated prosecutors worked to end this unfortunate chapter in Duluth’s history. Contrary to any suggestion otherwise in the June 19 editorial, the hard work paid off and will continue to pay off for the citizens of Duluth. As we prepare for Carlson’s sentencing and appeal, the money seized from his operations awaits the distribution process. Once the appeal is concluded, Duluth will see its portion of the “equitable sharing” agreement, as it should.

No amount of money can offset the damage from Carlson’s operation. But this paper owes it to its readers to provide all the facts about how this case will affect the city.

I am proud of the work of our office did on this case and I am glad that, working with local officials, we made a positive impact on Duluth.

Andrew M. Luger is the United States attorney for the District of Minnesota, based in Minneapolis.

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