The Santa Barbara County District Attorney expects to file felony charges today against two graduate students in the Chemistry Dept. for possession of an illegal substance suspected to be Ecstasy (MDMA), possession for sale of Ecstasy, and conspiracy to manufacture Ecstasy. One of the students allegedly used his grant money to buy chemicals to make the drug.
According to UC Police Dept. Capt. Bill Bean, Alvaro Mercado used grant money from the National Institute of Health to make the purchases and David Woodmansee gave the chemicals to an unidentified person, possibly in the Bay Area, to make the drugs.
Bean said he thinks both Mercado and Woodmansee have left the university, but no sources were able to confirm this. Bean does not know if the suspects have stayed in the area, as police had not contacted them since Mercado’s arrest.
After a two-month investigation, police obtained a search warrant to enter Mercado’s Goleta residence, where they arrested him on March 1. He was taken to Santa Barbara County Jail, where he was probably released the next day, UCPD Sgt. Mark Vellekamp said. Jail officials cannot comment on when or how suspects are released.
Six graduate students in the Chemistry Dept. expressed concerns to their department chair, Stanley Parsons, that a fellow graduate student had drugged them. According to police, Parsons, who was not available to comment, relayed the information to the police.
“I believe that they feel they have been drugged,” Bean said. “But we were unable to establish any of those instances which happened over the course of a year for a criminal prosecution.”
The students are unsure of whether or not they were sexually assaulted, although some recalled symptoms characteristic of the “date rape” drug GHB, Bean said.
“There were a couple of incidents that became suspicious but they just don’t know – no memory,” Bean said.
The students reported suspicious symptoms associated with consumption of alcoholic beverages, Vellekamp said.
“There was no evidence found to associate GHB with [Mercado] during the search, but Ecstasy in powder form was found at his residence,” Vellekamp said. “It’s suspected Ecstasy and that’s what Mr. Mercado identified it as. It was less than six or eight grams of powder.”
Estimates on how much grant money Mercado used to buy the chemicals range from under $500 to $1000. During a two-hour interview with Mercado after his arrest, Vellekamp described the suspect as cooperative.
“He admitted to making the purchases of the precursor chemicals for Ecstasy and for having made arrangements to have the ingredients turned into a powder form,” Vellekamp said.
Woodmansee’s residence was searched by consent, where the suspect identified “a small amount” of powder substance as Ecstasy, Vellekamp said. Woodmansee was not arrested because he expressed an interest in wanting to cooperate further with the investigation, Vellekamp said. Instead of putting Woodmansee in jail, police submitted the case to the District Attorney’s office for charges to be filed against him.
Starting in November 2000, Mercado purchased chemicals four times through the Chemistry Dept. with grant money, police said. After obtaining the ingredients, Mercado gave them to Woodmansee, who then gave them to the “mystery man,” Vellekamp said.
“The mystery man in turn would give our second suspect [Woodmansee] the final product which was then divided between Mercado and he,” he said.
Although police are continuing an ongoing investigation about the third unidentified suspect, “very little” is known about him at this point except his possible location in Northern California, Vellekamp said.
“The supposition is that the actual lab work was done in the Bay Area,” Bean said.
A faculty member of the Chemistry Dept. who wished to remain anonymous said that the materials Mercado needed for his research were “nothing like what he was actually buying” and that his grant was probably about $1,000.
The faculty member said it is very unusual for a grant to give a student as much personal authority as Mercado’s gave him and that it seems likely that changes will soon be made to the process of allocating and monitoring grants.
“He wasn’t really the most engaged graduate student,” the faculty member said. “I was worried about his success in grad school a long time before this happened. He really didn’t accomplish all that much in his research, which in retrospect isn’t all that surprising.”
The faculty member was “shocked” when informed of Mercado’s case.
“I never even dreamed that our grad students could do something like that. I thought it was really a shame,” the faculty member said. “He could have made something of himself and now he’s looking at jail and he’s screwed up his life pretty bad. Plus all the damage he’s done to other people in the course of all this.”