CONNIE SWINNEY • STAFF WRITER
BURNET —A designer drug at the center of a capital murder case has prompted a warning from drug enforcement officials in Burnet County.
Results of a Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab described in the Dec. 12 conviction of capital murder suspect Garrett Ballard showed the drug used by the defendant prior to murdering two people was in fact a designer drug known as 25N-NBOMe, a chemically altered form of LSD or “acid.”
“A lot of times, they think they’re taking a drug, and it’s a designer drug. The chemical components of it aren’t the same as the drug they think they’re taking,” said Capt. Dwight Hardin, who oversees the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Operations Unit (SOU).
“You never know how proficient the chemist is who is doing this altering. They’re trying to build a drug that will achieve the same effect as the one they’re copying, but this isn’t being done in a chemical lab,” he added. “It’s hard to determine how the drug will affect you.”
Defense attorneys for Ballard, 24, attempted to persuade the jury that authorities faltered in their investigation by questioning the defendant while he was still under the drug’s influence.
Prosecutors as well a drug investigation expert maintained Ballard was responsible for the deaths of 17-year-old Elijah Benson and 26-year-old Travis Fox, despite the effect of the drug.
“Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to any crime,” Hardin said.
During a confrontation around the height of intoxication, Ballard and Fox became involved in an altercation. According to prosecutors, Ballard then retrieved an AR-15 rifle from the trunk of his father’s vehicle and shot his two friends. His father is Burnet County Precinct 3 Constable James “Jimmy” Ballard.
Although he could not address the case specifically, Hardin offered a precautionary note.
“There’s no way of determining exactly the effects that it’s going to have on a given individual because these are experimental,” he said. “Anytime you abuse drugs, you’re a danger to yourself and others.”
Due to the severity of violent incidents associated with designer drug ingestion, lawmakers within the past several years have addressed the issue in the Health and Safety Code under a penalty group 1A section, which identifies and criminalizes chemically altered derivatives of LSD.
“If (drug makers) change the chemical makeup of a certain drug, then it’s not considered illegal,” Hardin added. “The feds and the state are all recognizing this, and they’re beginning to write laws that are more general to cover these things.”
About a year ago, drug interdiction teams identified a pipeline for the drug into the Highland Lakes.
“A lot of this stuff we see coming into this area of this nature — the LSD, the NBOMe — a year or so ago, a lot of it was coming out of the Houston area,” he said.
According to the case investigation, Ballard and the two victims had taken the drug to “celebrate” Benson’s 17th birthday.
During the trial, testimony revealed that, in the early morning hours of Aug. 19, the young men began having what’s described as a “bad trip” during which Ballard believed his friends were “demons.”
“They’re altering reality,” Hardin said. “The biggest problem is they take these drugs, and they don’t known exactly what the effects are going to do to them.”
Although the chemical composition of these types of hallucinogenics continues to change rapidly, investigators have identified certain trends associated with its use.
“The way the drug is delivered has not changed over the years. It’s in liquid form. You can drop it on a cigarette or a piece of paper. It’s absorbed in the membranes in your mouth,” Hardin said. “You have people who are chemically altering drugs and making them available to people without any known side effects. It’s a very big concern.”
The timing of upticks in the drug’s usage has proved troubling for those in the business of interdiction.
“The hallucinogens such as LSD have been around here for years and years. They tend to come and go,” Hardin said. “When school starts, we see an uptick in the number of drug-related cases involving that.”
Hardin believes the first line of defense starts at home.
“The parents are the first defense. If the parents, hopefully, are taking care of business at home, they’ll notice any change in their child’s behavior and start asking them questions about where they’ve been and who they’ve been hanging out with and being a good parent,” the captain said.