13 people including current and former UT students arrested on drug trafficking charges, DOJ says


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Federal, state and local authorities have arrested 13 individuals Thursday, including current and former University of Texas at Austin students, charged in connection with trafficking LSD, fentanyl, and methamphetamine pills to UT students in Austin.

United States Attorney Gregg N. Sofer, DEA Special Agent in Charge Steven S. Whipple and IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Richard Goss all spoke about the arrests at a press conference Friday.

The defendants allegedly conspired to distribute LSD, fentanyl and methamphetamine in the Austin metropolitan area and other locations since April 2019 and also allegedly conspired to launder the financial proceeds of unlawful activities. Investigators said during the course of the investigation, called Operation Spiderweb, more than $1 million of “camouflaged poison” were sold and distributed to people in Austin, including students at UT.

“These kids, they’re all well-educated. We saw eight current or former UT students that were members of this organization. We saw mathematics majors, chemistry majors, a psychology major, business majors, and they decided to turn their talents into this illicit operation,” Whipple said.

Those arrested include:

  • Varun Prasad, 23, of Austin
  • Charles Zenker, 26 of Houston
  • Benny Daneshjou, 68, of Austin
  • Ashley Larue, 26, of Austin
  • Drew Zarate, 21, of Austin
  • Christopher Edwards, 32, of Portland, Oregon
  • Jacob Schelling, 21, of Cypress, Texas
  • Madison Scott, 22, of Houston
  • Adrian Andreescu, 21, of Plano
  • Nikit Shingari, 21, of Austin
  • Nolan Fogleman, 21, of Austin
  • Samuel Parry, 23, of Austin
  • Brandon Carpenter, 27 of Austin

All of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Prasad, Daneshjou, Larue and Zarate are also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Sofer said two suspects in the investigation overdosed and died while the investigation was ongoing. He also said the organization used smartphone apps GroupMe and Venmo to initiate and complete transactions.

A former professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio is also implicated in the case. Rose Rodriguez-Rabin is accused of giving methamphetamine-laced counterfeit drugs to Prasad “on numerous occasions,” Sofer said. She and Brandon Sims were indicted in January on separate cases and are awaiting trial.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs, San Antonio Field Office; Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez; Austin Police Chief Brian Manley; and Lakeway Police Chief Todd Radford were also part of the announcement.

UT released a statement to KXAN Friday afternoon, saying they are grateful to law enforcement.

“The Office of the Dean of Students follows up in matters like this that involve current students. UT has recently dedicated new resources to combat substance abuse through SHIFT, an effort to change the culture of substance use from one of misuse to one of well-being. We remind parents and students with concerns about any member of the university community to reach out to the university through the Behavior Concerns and COVID-19 Advice Line http://safety.utexas.edu/bccal or 512-232-5050, so we can connect people with the appropriate resources.”

The university also confirmed that of the 13 people arrested, six are former students and Nikit Shingari is a current student.

Daneshjou involvement

One of those indicted was 68-year-old Austin businessman Benny Daneshjou. You may know his name—he lost a lawsuit to actress Sandra Bullock back in 2004 over a home he built for her.

Federal investigators say he was responsible for laundering thousands of dollars, and then using that money and real estate investments to supply the drug dealers with houses to safely store and grow the drugs.

KXAN visited an address that Travis County Appraisal District records shows belongs to Daneshjou’s company. It matches up to cross streets where federal investigators say they served a warrant and discovered one of the largest psychedelic mushroom growing operations they had ever seen.

KXAN’s Alex Caprariello spoke to one of Daneshjou’s former business partners over the phone. He didn’t want to be named out of fear of retaliation. He said Daneshjou was aggressive and often unethical, but he didn’t think he was criminal.

“I mean, this is just really, really shocking,” the associate said after KXAN broke the news. “I never thought he was capable of something like this, that could put you in jail.”

KXAN reached out to Daneshjou over the phone and visited his home address. We weren’t able to get in touch wth him or a representative for comment.

If convicted, Daneshjou could face 10 years to live in federal prison.

  • Psilocybin seized by the DEA Austin DO Tactical Diversion Squad during Operation Spyder Web. (DEA Photo)
  • Counterfeit Pills seized by the DEA Austin DO Tactical Diversion Squad during Operation Spyder Web. (DEA Photo)
  • Pill Press used to manufacture counterfeit pill seized by the DEA Austin DO Tactical Diversion Squad during Operation Spyder Web. (DEA Photo)
  • Alprazolam laced sweet tarts seized by the DEA Austin DO Tactical Diversion Squad during Operation Spyder Web. (DEA Photo)
  • Counterfeit Adderall seized by the DEA Austin DO Tactical Diversion Squad during Operation Spyder Web (DEA Photo)
  • Counterfeit Adderall seized by the DEA Austin DO Tactical Diversion Squad during Operation Spyder Web (DEA Photo)

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