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In late February, Internet entrepreneur Tony Wisdom sat down at the computer in his Flushing bedroom and, with a few regrettable keystrokes, brought a halt to his booming e-commerce business. For almost a year, Wisdom, 46, had been selling do-it-yourself kits containing the chemical components needed to manufacture GHB, commonly known as liquid Ecstasy or, more nefariously, the "date-rape drug."
Aided by a handy Web address, ghbkits.com, and some good online reviews of its product, Wisdom's InterChem Scientific ("Dedicated to the Advancement of Knowledge") had emerged as a leader in the sale of these controversial home-brew sets following the site's launch in May 1998. In fact, Wisdom had claimed that he was filling thousands of dollars worth of orders weekly. When a representative from his Internet service provider asked about charges that GHB (gamma hydroxy butyrate) was used to incapacitate women and facilitate sexual assaults, Wisdom blithely replied, "Oh, no, that's a bunch of crap."
While not currently a controlled substance under federal lawthough 13 states have "scheduled" GHBit is a crime to manufacture and distribute the drug and its components. Wisdom's site carried a disclaimer noting that the firm's "research kits," priced between $30 and $120, were of a "non consumptive" nature. (He has also claimed that customers purchased his kits because the compound "sizzles and fizzles. It's a reaction, it gets hot by itself. It's interesting to watch.") Another page, though, reported that the drug was "very safe and medically useful" and could improve memory, heighten sexual performance, and lower cholesterol.
The site also provided detailed cooking instructions and sold pH testing strips and thermometers. Monitoring the drug's chemical levels is crucial since GHB's two components are sodium hydroxide, known commonly as Drano or lye, and gamma butyrolactone, a substance used to remove paint and clean engines.
But Wisdom knew that the Food and Drug Administration, which describes GHB as an "unapproved and potentially dangerous drug," had long ago rejected the notion that GHB was some kind of wonder drug. The agency has reported that GHB, now mainly produced in clandestine laboratories, can cause vomiting, tremors, dizziness, and seizures.
Aware that FDA investigators were closing in on InterChem, Wisdom revamped his Web site, disabling its online ordering component. He had just shipped out 36 orders, but the packages were mysteriously being held at the United Parcel Service's Maspeth facility and Wisdom suspected that the feds had seized the merchandise.
Above a crude drawing of a GHB molecule, Wisdom posted a statement to his customers, explaining that he was temporarily halting sales, while vowing to "rectify whatever problems" government officials had with his online enterprise. "I have always followed the law 'to the letter' all my life," Wisdom wrote, "and have no intent to break any laws under any circumstances."
As he typed and then uploaded those lines, Tony Wisdom must have sat there chuckling. Here was a man whose checkered background all but vanished into the Internet's anonymous air. He wanted you to believe that he was some type of shaman, a guy whose customers were "the regular John Smiths and Mary Smiths of the United States" who "practically kiss the ground" on which he walked. But in reality, he was just playing an angle.
For starters, he was using an alias. His real name is Anthony Dobre. He lifted the surname from his ex-wife, whose maiden name was Wisdom.
As for always following the letter of the law, well, Dobre seemed to forget about his 1996 federal felony conviction for selling an undercover U.S. Customs agent computer equipment designed to decrypt satellite TV transmissions. Some of his other customers, investigators learned, included members of the Gambino crime family, who used Dobre's chips to receive transmissions of horse races for their illegal, OTB-style betting parlors.
And then there was the matter of Dobre never having paid corporate taxes during the 13 years he operated a mail-order computer equipment business from his Queens home.
Dobre also seemed to forget his 1997 extortion arrest for refusing to return a neighbor's missing Scotch terrier unless its 84-year-old owner upped his reward money tenfold.
But far more distressing was another of Dobre's secrets, one hidden behind a false wall in the basement of his Parsons Boulevard home. That is where federal agents executing a search warrant in late February found Dobre hiding with his 7-year-old son. While gathering evidence of Dobre's extensive GHB operation, investigators also discovered cartons of videotapes and magazines in the concealed basement chamber. The material, of unmatched depravity, depicted children between the ages of five and 11 being sexually assaulted by adults. Thirty videotapes alone depicted young girls as they showered, undressed, and used the toilet.
In the sleazy universe of online creeps, con men, and assorted reprobates, Anthony Dobre seems like a singular sleazeball.
Ten days ago, the Connecticut ISP, My Free Office Online, Inc. (myfreeoffice.com), that hosted ghbkits.com shut down the site after receiving a grand jury subpoena for some of its server files. As a result of his GHB sales, Dobre could soon be indicted in Brooklyn federal court, sources said, for conspiring to distribute an unapproved drug in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
But for Dobre, the demise of his lucrative online enterprise may be the least of his worries. In fact, he is probably unaware that his Web site has been unplugged. And that is because there is no Internet access from the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island, where Dobre is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail. He has been charged by the Queens district attorney with 70 counts of possessing child pornography and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, in this case his son Alexander. As a result of Dobre's arrest, the boy has been placed in foster care.
Richard Rosenberg, Dobre's lawyer, said that his client would contest any charges that his GHB sales were illegal. As for the child pornography counts, the attorney acknowleged that the material was discovered in a "private area" used by Dobre, but claimed that the Flushing residence was "shared by many people." Dobre has rented rooms in the house to a succession of boarders.
According to a federal search warrant application, Dobre did not attempt to cloak his GHB operation from law enforcement officials. When his probation officer visited his home last yearhe was sentenced to three years probation for his 1996 federal convictionDobre gave officer Nella Yelenovic a tour of his operation, showing her his computer setup. In Dobre's bedroom, Yelenovic noticed chemicals in powder and liquid form as well as bottles and labels used to package the GHB kits.
Stewart Magee, who heads the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, said that the agency has "recognized GHB as a very serious problem" that poses a "clear public-health risk." He added that FDA agents are now closely monitoring GHB-oriented Web sites, since "the Internet seems to be the marketing tool of choice for the GHB producers."
Despite the FDA restrictions, Dobre appeared convinced that he was operating within the law. In a recent story in Student.com, an online magazine, Dobre assured reporter Christopher Tennant that while some states have outlawed the drug's sale, "the federal government has no laws on GHB and has only made a proclamation. So federally, I'm in the clear."
After graduating from Brooklyn Tech in 1970, Dobre attended Polytechnic University for three years before dropping out. He could not finish his studies, he once told investigators, because he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a malady reportedly triggered by a deadly May 1970 train accident.
Investigators point to a March 1997 episode involving Dobre and neighbor Louis Mesticky, now 86, as illustrative of the felon's bizarre character. When Mesticky's dog Kayo disappeared one day, he posted "Missing" notices around his neighborhood. He was initially relieved when Dobre called saying he had found Kayo. But he was shocked when, after offering Dobre an $18 reward, the supposed Good Samaritan demanded $200 or it was curtains for Kayo. Dobre was arrested for strong-arming the old man, though the dognapping charges were eventually dropped.