U.S. News

04.23.14

Preppy Drug Bust High on Hype

They’re the WASPy Walter Whites of the Philadelphia elite, if you listen to the district attorney. But a look at the government’s case reveals a very different story.

The house at 560 Barrett Ave. in the bedroom community of Haverford, Pennsylvania, doesn’t fit the profile of a drug lord’s den. Situated on a quiet tree-lined block just a stone’s throw from the storied rail line that has linked the affluent towns west of Philadelphia since the 19th century, the tiny duplex is more King of Queens than King of New York.

But to hear local law enforcement officials tell it, it was the epicenter of one of the most audacious criminal drug conspiracies to hit the swanky Main Line corridor since the 1980s, when Larry Lavin—the Ivy League-educated dentist the media dubbed “Dr. Snow”—was indicted along with 83 co-conspirators for moving more than 2,000 pounds of Colombian coke over the course of several years.

On Monday prosecutors in Montgomery County and five other jurisdictions unveiled their case against the home’s occupant, 25 year-old Neil Scott, and 10 other defendants who they say comprised a sophisticated drug distribution network with tentacles in at least eight elite high schools and colleges.

According to documents provided by the District Attorney’s office, detectives from the county’s Narcotics Enforcement Team initiated their investigation in January when a confidential informant alerted them to a student dealer at Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia who was moving small quantities of marijuana.

Over the next two months police orchestrated a handful of arranged buys. Then the officers followed the money back to Scott and Timothy Brooks, his 18 year-old lacrosse buddy and partner-in-crime. The two were arrested at the end of February and promptly confessed. Investigators relied on their testimony along with a ream of text messages to build cases against the “sub-dealers” the pair were selling to.

In a well-publicized press conference high on hyperbole prosecutors displayed the fruits of their score: eight pounds of marijuana, three grams of hash oil, a little less than an ounce of cocaine, about 75 doses of MDMA, several firearms, and just over $11,000 in cash.

“There’s nothing more than a bumbling amateur who barely made it a month in business before the police were onto him.”

“Parents across our community have chosen to send their children to these schools and colleges because they are some of the finest institutions of learning in the United States,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, in a statement. “These drug dealers, motivated by their own greed, sought to create a network to push poison into our educational institutions…While parents sought to provide education to their kids, these defendants sought to use the schools to create drug addicts.”

Both Scott and Brooks attended the prestigious (and pricey) Haverford School for boys—as did two of the other defendants, including one who is still a student—and the media was quick to pick up the narrative of privileged kids breaking bad.

Commenting on the defendants’ social media profiles yesterday in The Washington Post, Terrence McCoy observed:

“On Facebook, [Brooks] and the accused sub-dealers play lacrosse, pose for family photos, hug cats, fence and wear lots of button-downs. In all, they look like everyday, if wealthy, teens and 20-somethings—perhaps characters out of ‘The Social Network,’ the movie about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s birth.”

McCoy’s description of the defendants as everyday teens and 20-somethings is pretty much spot on.

Factor in the unattenuated hubris that often accompanies a privileged upbringing and for the most part that’s exactly what they were.

Brooks left high school in 2013 and accepted a lacrosse scholarship starting last fall at the University of Richmond. He returned to his parents’ home after less than a semester when he was sidelined by an injury. Scott—who graduated from the Haverford School in 2008 and worked mostly as an itinerant lacrosse coach—moved back to the Main Line from California in October following a bad breakup.

But comparing them to the founders of Facebook is a stretch.

Despite the brashness of their self-styled “Mainline Takeover Project,” case files indicate that rather than running a sophisticated network of ruthless thugs, Scott and Brooks presided over a loosely organized group of middle-class potheads who may or may not have even been aware of each other.

The one thing they all seemed to have in common was an utter lack of street smarts. Many of the deals were conducted in plain sight and using mobile phones with legitimate numbers, making it exceptionally easy for police to trace.

Scott did his best to play his role as the Walter White of the WASPs. He allegedly offered incentives to dealers who moved more than a pound of pot a week. And he attempted to secure his grip on his tenuous dominion using an iron fist—on one occasion threatening an underling who had squelched on a payment: “You have a thousand dollar bounty on your head, I will find you.”

But a detailed reading of the prosecution’s case reveals little more than a bumbling amateur who barely made it a month in business before the police were on to him and who had to stop fronting product to lower-level dealers because they kept refusing to pay him.

At least initially, neither of the primary defendants had terribly high hopes for their budding operation. In his initial interview with police, Scott—who had worked briefly at a medical marijuana dispensary in San Diego—said he started selling marijuana because he had run out of money and remembered how hard it was to get good bud when he was in high school. Brooks was sick of living with his Mom.

“Brooks said he started selling marijuana because he was having problems at home with his family and wanted to move out of his parents’ house,” the complaint against him reads. “Brooks stated he was broke at the time and wanted to earn some money to get out on his own.”

Whatever visions of grandeur are revealed in the text messages sent between the partners—like the one boasting that they would soon control “every Nug on the Main Line”—they didn’t adequately reflect reality on the ground. Police have managed to identify just 20 customers of the ring and most of them are named in the complaint.

When the original dealer who sparked the investigation in January—a juvenile identified by the initials M.G.M.—was finally hauled in on March 5, police recovered just an ounce of weed and a bong from his house, along with a digital scale and some baggies. His profit margin on the quarter pounds he admitted to selling was a measly $200.

According to a confidential informant interviewed by police in February, the pair was moving 10-15 pounds of high-grade marijuana a week, which Scott was having shipped in from a supplier in California. Yet by Scott’s own estimation—which is supported by evidence—it was more like 3-5 pounds every two weeks, for which he earned about $2,000 in proceeds. Brooks—who was still living with his parents when he was arrested—says he was barely making minimum wage.

This in an alleged market that included five high schools with student bodies totaling over 1,000 each and three mid-sized college campuses.  Not exactly the stuff of legend.

What is true is that all the defendants, including two juveniles, now face an assortment of felony charges including possession with intent to deliver and criminal conspiracy—some of which carry mandatory minimum sentences of three years in prison.

In the end, whatever Neil Scott and Timothy Brooks lacked as drug kingpins on the street, prosecutors are sure to make up for in the courtroom.