It was one of Charleston’s bigger drug busts: A network of present and former College of Charleston students and other 20-somethings accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars of cocaine, pills and other narcotics into downtown’s white-hot party scene.
But the bust only hinted at a problem that’s been hiding in plain sight for years: A drug- and booze-fueled culture around the college that generates enormous profits for young drug dealers even as it increases risks of addiction and violence.
A Post and Courier examination of police and court documents, along with interviews with people knowledgeable about the drug ring, reveal an eye-opening portrait of audacity and excess.
Operating from million-dollar homes steps away from the college’s oak-shaded courtyards, networks of students and former students stamped out pills by the thousands with a factory-grade press using chemicals from Chinese internet suppliers and other sources.
They obtained large amounts of cocaine from suppliers in Georgia and marijuana by mail from states where its use is legal. Then they found a steady supply of customers among the thousands of students and other young people who pack downtown’s historic district.
Leaders of the ring were in their early 20s, white and generally came from privileged backgrounds. Their social media accounts show grinning faces on private planes and at Charleston’s priciest restaurants.
Fraternity members allegedly were key players in the operations, with pledges enlisted as drug runners and systems in place to thwart drug raids. One man arrested in the police investigation was the former president of the college’s Kappa Alpha Order fraternity.
Another young person with direct knowledge of the drug ring told The Post and Courier of raucous all-night parties featuring Xanax-spiked punch. Plying young women with these drinks left some girls “beyond wasted” and unable to remember what happened the next day. The fraternity-based party scene could be exhilarating, but “if you do not leave, it will suck you in.”
Police said they worked hard to crack open these networks, but the brazenness in which the ring operated raises questions about whether city and college leaders are doing enough to attack both supply and demand. “There’s nothing good that can ever come out of” the fraternity-based party scene, said the person with knowledge about the networks. The city has turned numerous students into confidential informants in recent months, “but there are multiple kingpins around here, and they’re doing nothing about them.”
Moreover, the growth of the drug rings increased the potential for violence, and, on March 4, that potential turned into homicide. A gunman shot Patrick Moffly once in the chest in his apartment on Smith Street, a few short blocks from the College of Charleston’s main library.
Moffly, 23, son of a former Charleston County school board member, had connections to the network’s members, police and other sources said. He was found on the floor, surrounded by white Xanax pills.
Moffly’s death that afternoon in March happened amid an ongoing narcotics investigation, one that had begun some months before with a tip.
It came last fall: Someone was peddling drugs from a lavender-colored home at 47 Ashley Ave.
Built in the late 1800s, the Victorian-era house overlooks Colonial Lake. Its two circular front porches have rotten columns, and some of its windows are broken. The house often sported young people hanging over its porch railings, and its worn condition was a testament to a long-standing problem of students and other young people packing the city’s old homes.
Based on the tip, a police informant bought Ecstasy from a resident in late October. On Nov. 3, the department’s Special Investigations Unit executed a search warrant.
“That’s where it all started,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
Inside 47 Ashley Ave., officers discovered cocaine in a false bottom of an Arizona Tea can in a bedroom refrigerator. They retrieved $7,500 in Xanax pills and $7,000 worth of marijuana in small bags, one labeled “Jolly Rancher.” They found several Citadel cadet uniforms, and through one of the apartment’s windows, they could see Moultrie Playground.
After the search, police arrested Samantha Hincks, 26, on marijuana, cocaine and other narcotics distribution charges. Hincks attended The Citadel but did not graduate. Also arrested was her boyfriend, Jake Poeschek, 21, who also attended but did not graduate from The Citadel, school officials said.
It was an unusual launch to a narcotics investigation, Mullen said. Most begin after police arrest small-time street dealers or drug users. Detectives then use such arrests as leverage to go after higher-level distributors. But this one started with what Mullen described as mid-level dealers.
“These weren’t people who sold one pill at a time.”
Over the next few months, police set up surveillance operations and began working with confidential informants.
Then, on March 4, in the late afternoon, someone pumped a .45-caliber hollow-point bullet into Patrick Moffly’s chest. The shooting happened in Moffly’s apartment. Two white male College of Charleston students were with him inside. Another witness saw three young black men flee the apartment and climb into a red Volkswagen Jetta.
Suddenly, the department’s drug investigation intersected with a murder case.
Moffly was a thin man with curly blond hair. Family members called him “Patch.” He’d cooked in some of Charleston’s restaurants and taken classes at Trident Technical College. He’d enrolled at the College of Charleston last summer and found an apartment at 97 Smith St., several blocks from campus. He’d also had run-ins with police.
Charleston police had arrested him several years before on a misdemeanor charge of possession of a controlled substance. According to court records, he paid a $331 fine. Last year, Richland County authorities charged him with cocaine trafficking, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and other drug charges.
Shortly before 4 p.m. on March 4, Moffly’s roommates heard a gunshot.
“Help, I was shot,” Moffly told them, struggling for breath.
One opened Moffly’s shirt and put pressure on the wound.
When officers arrived, they found Moffly behind a partially closed front door, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest. Xanax pills were scattered by him and on the sidewalk in front of the house.
Looking for other clues, officers also found a lease agreement for a small house behind 43 Gadsden.
“Sometimes we have a puzzle, and we need a piece, and when we get that piece we’ll run with it,” Mullen said.
Just south of the medical complex, Gadsden Street has rows of homes built mostly in the late-1800s and early-1900s. At 43 Gadsden, a raised cottage sits at the end of a brick driveway, separate from the main home.
Detectives pressed their confidential informants about the out building. Two identified in court documents as “Fireball” and “Budda” said it was a “stash house” known as the “Tree House.” They told police they had seen a kilo of cocaine and 5 to 10 pounds of marijuana, and that a drug member who operated there had “one million pills.”
They pointed police toward Zachery Kligman. One of them also said they sent Kligman a warning text the day of Moffly’s killing.
Kligman, 24, had moved to Charleston from Myrtle Beach, where his father, Bruce, runs Klig’s Kites, a large retailer of kites, gag gifts and flags.
Zachery Kligman also had previous brushes with the law, including an arrest in 2011 by Charleston County Sheriff’s Office on charges of Ecstasy trafficking. In 2013, he was arrested in Horry County on a charge of manufacturing and possession of flunitrazepam, which can be used as a date-rape drug. That charge was dismissed three months later.
Through a surveillance operation, police said that on the day of Moffly’s death, Kligman went to the so-called “Tree House.” About an hour after Moffly was shot, Kligman was seen entering the Extra Space storage complex on S.C. Highway 61 carrying a plastic container.
The investigation gathered momentum.
Police learned that a storage unit was leased to Daniel A. Katko. Katko, 25, had been arrested in 2014 on charges of possession of cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy and other controlled substances. He was later placed on probation.
Several weeks passed, and the narcotics team set up a sting.
On April 1, undercover detectives went to a house on West Sandcroft Drive, in a quiet West Ashley neighborhood. Inside, two officers saw a young man with marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy. Police would later arrest Katko on charges of trafficking in Ecstasy, possession with intent to distribute LSD and marijuana.
Police executed search warrants across the city, including the Extra Space storage locker and Kligman’s house at 177 Spring St. Among the items seized: two pistols, a military-style rifle with an ordnance launcher; a 2012 Cadillac CTS; scales; heat seal bags; a hollowed out book full of cash; 21 grams of cocaine; 33,742 pills; and 235 grams of alprazolam, better known as Xanax.
Though just half a pound, the 235 grams of Xanax powder was enough to make between 500,000 and 900,000 pills.
Kligman was charged with cocaine trafficking. Police declined to say why they didn’t file charges in connection with the Xanax.
Kligman’s attorney, Adam Young, declined to comment.
The searches also yielded more than $214,000 in cash. Seeing so much money surprised the narcotics team.
“They saw what level these guys were working on,” Mullen said.
With the seizures and a growing number of confidential informants, police began to get a clearer picture of the scope and volume of the ring. Some participants bought chemicals from internet suppliers in China and manufactured pills themselves using a press, Mullen said. These pills then ended up in the hands of other students and in downtown bars, especially along Upper King Street.
Some in the network specialized in marijuana, others in prescription-type controlled drugs, such as Xanax, and others in cocaine. Marijuana was largely purchased legally in Oregon and Colorado and illegally mailed to the ring in Charleston. Cocaine came from a major supplier in Atlanta, Mullen said.
“It clearly demonstrates that the demand is not only high, it’s there for a variety of drugs. That was one of the interesting things about this case. We had multiple types of drugs.”
Investigators then turned their attention to Montagu Street and Robert Liljeberg III, 22.
The son of a surgeon, Liljeberg in 2014 was president of Kappa Alpha Order fraternity and last year was the fraternity’s philanthropy chair.
His social media postings say that he was a marine biology major and show him playing golf at a Kappa Alpha fundraiser. For a time, Liljeberg lived in a house at 7 Montagu St., now on the market for $1.2 million.
In late April, police used a confidential informant to buy about 1 pound of cocaine, an arrest affidavit says. On April 22, officers stopped Liljeberg near the corner of Montagu and Coming streets, a block from campus.
Searching Liljeberg’s truck, officers said they found three bags of cocaine and a Cape Cod Potato Chip bag containing a vacuum-sealed bag of marijuana. Officers also recovered nearly 564 grams of AB-FUBINACA, a chemical compound that mimics the effect of marijuana and has been blamed for thousands of poisonings nationwide in the past year. Liljeberg was then arrested on a cocaine trafficking charge and a charge of distributing a controlled substance. Liljeberg declined to comment.
Jesse S. Lyons, assistant executive director for advancement and editor of the Kappa Alpha Journal, said the fraternity is aware of a criminal investigation.
“Disciplinary action within the fraternity may be taken pending the outcome of the still ongoing criminal investigation.”
Mullen downplayed the case’s connection to fraternities, saying that it involved only three fraternity members who knew each other.
But fraternity members played critical roles in the drug dealing networks, according to the young person with knowledge of the ring’s operations. The person spoke to The Post and Courier in part because of Moffly’s death and its impact on his family. The person asked for anonymity because of safety concerns.
The person said fraternity pledges had marijuana bags taped to their bodies and were used as drug couriers to other students. Members spoke openly about drug-dealing profit margins.
“It’s extremely obvious that the drug culture is within the frat culture and thriving. It gave you a group of people bound together by brotherhood to hide drugs.”
Nights began at 11 p.m., the person said, often at bars where people rang up $800 tabs. In a haze of alcohol and pills, students moved parties to off-campus houses, usually away from official fraternity chapter homes to avoid attention.
“Everyone was doing cocaine and Xanax, and no one was making sense.”
Some fraternity members put in place alert procedures in the event of a police raid.
This manic lifestyle created a culture that turned some students into addicts.
“A lot of people dropped off the map. ... No one wants to throw mud on the Holy City, but I’ve never seen a place where the drug scene is so rampant.”
The rings were so successful that Charleston became a pill-pressing hub that supplied fraternity members across the region.
“The cash flow coming in and out is insane. It’s so much bigger than anyone thinks.”
Police declined to comment on the allegation that the drug ring supplied other university populations.
“There are still ongoing aspects of this case,” said Charles Francis, the department’s spokesman. “Therefore, we are not able to discuss, at this time, what may become parts of a broader investigation.”
The drug raids nevertheless put Charleston on a growing list of college communities with fraternity-linked drug operations: In 2010, New York police in “Operation Ivy League” busted a ring operating from Columbia University fraternities that dealt cocaine and LSD painted onto Altoid mints and SweetTarts. In 2008, police in California arrested 96 young men in “Operation Sudden Fall,” in which undercover officers infiltrated seven fraternities at San Diego State. Last year, a Florida International University nursing student died of an overdose of cocaine and alcohol after an off-campus fraternity. Police found text messages from members of Phi Gamma Delta bragging about coke dealing, including one that said: “We practically supply (FIU).”
At the University of South Carolina, three-quarters of the school’s chapters — 18 in all — have been closed or put on probation in the past three years for drug, hazing and alcohol violations, the Columbia Free Times reported this week. Earlier this year, Gov. Nikki Haley signed a law requiring colleges to post fraternity and sorority members’ conduct violations on their websites. Called the “Tucker Hipps Transparency Act,” the law named after a Clemson University student who died last year as he was pledging Sigma Phi Epsilon.
Susan Lipkins, a New York psychologist and author of the book “Preventing Hazing,” said that fraternities have a code of silence that allows drug dealing and other illegal activities to flourish. In her practice, she’s heard stories about how pledges were used to move cocaine through U.S. Customs. One patient saw a drawer full of date-rape drugs in a fraternity.
“I called the university about it, and they said they would warn (the fraternity) that they were watching.”
Over time, she added, students who don’t normally do drugs become desensitized, and their drug use becomes more frequent.
“Why do colleges let this alcohol- and drug-fueled culture exist? Ask any administrator, and they will tell you: ‘We don’t want these things to happen.’ But then they turn a blind eye. They don’t know how to stop it because it’s so rampant and integrated within the culture of all colleges.”
At the College of Charleston, Mike Robertson, senior director of media relations, said the safety and well-being of “our students is our top priority.” Noting that the college is “in the middle of a thriving urban environment in which all of the elements of our society exist. ... as hard we might try to encourage positive behavior and conduct, some of our students will make mistakes.”
He added that the college has “a comprehensive” discipline system, drug prevention and education programs, and a range of student support services that includes counseling and substance abuse programs.”
Mullen said he suspects that members of the ring were seduced by money and status but seemed to lack an understanding “of the dangers and complexity of what they were involved in. ... They want to be drug dealers, but then they begin to realize that the real dealers aren’t such nice people.”
Many of these young people were given plenty of opportunities to do productive things with their lives other than sell drugs, he noted. And then they threw those chances away.
Two weeks after Moffly’s death, police arrested Charles Edward Mungin III, 21, and charged him with murder.
Police are still searching for two more people seen running from the shooting scene.
Reach Doug Pardue at 843-937-5558 and Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554