By REID J. EPSTEIN

When Rhinelander police busted a man on suspicion of possessing cocaine he bought over the Internet, the usual course of action would have been to end the investigation after finding the source of the drugs.

But in a tactic authorities called one of the first of its kind in Wisconsin, federal investigators joined the case. They not only found what they believe was the drug source, but they adopted the accused online drug dealer's persona in order to catch his customers.

The new strategy, called sanctions-based demand reduction, was spearheaded by former Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson, and it has gone into use here in the last six months, said J.B. Van Hollen, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin.

According to the charges against the man authorities identified as the online dealer, Thomaz W. Franzl, 27, of Chicago had a menu of 13 different substances that ranged from common prescription drugs, such as Ritalin and Percocet, to cocaine and methamphetamine.

The Rhinelander man who became an informant after he was arrested used his credit cards to purchase more than $6,000 in cocaine, OxyContin and Ketamine from Franzl between October 2003 and June 2004, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Madison last month.

"Before, we probably would have just taken Mr. Franzl and closed down the site and not done anything further," Van Hollen said. "We wouldn't have gone down the ladder to figure out who some of his buyers are."

But in this case, the first involving Internet drug sales in the federal court's Western District - roughly the western two-thirds of the state - authorities from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the North Central Drug Enforcement Group, a conglomerate of several northern Wisconsin law enforcement agencies, pretended to fill Internet orders.

Prosecuting drug users has been primarily the responsibility of local and state law enforcement agencies, while federal authorities concentrated on kingpins and big-time dealers. But foreign countries that the government has been pressuring to curb their drug exports have responded that the United States is not limiting drug demand, Van Hollen said.

Because Franzl's alleged illegal operation used the Internet, federal prosecutors were able to increase the charges against his suspected customers. On Oct. 6 a federal grand jury in Madison indicted nine of Franzl's would-be customers not only on an attempted drug possession charge, which carries a sentence of up to one year, but also with one count of using the Internet to facilitate the unlawful distribution of a controlled substances. That charge has a maximum four-year sentence.

Mostly professionals

The accused customers were mostly white-collar professionals, according to Tim O'Shea, the federal prosecutor assigned to the case. Authorities said the seven men and two women included a 20-year-old female college student at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania who ordered Ritalin and Adderall; a 26-year-old public relations man in Chicago who ordered Ketamine; and a Glendale man who tried to have cocaine delivered to the house he shares with his parents.

The nine people charged have been ordered to appear in court in Madison but have not been arrested because they are not considered flight risks, O'Shea said.

They are:
Thomas Bronson, 46, of Somerville, Mass.; Steven Cornute, 21, of North Hills, Calif.; Ashley Hans, 20, of Collegeville, Pa.; Matthew Harper, 27, of Nashville, Tenn.; Jonathan Houlihan, 31, of Glendale; Brandon Jenkins, 21, of Scenery Hill, Pa.; Dane Kinchen, 20, of Richmond, Va.; Vince LaConte, 28, of Chicago; and Nicole Sears, 26, of West Sacramento, Calif.

Prosecuting Internet drug dealers' customers, Van Hollen said, sends a signal to others who order drugs on the Web or through the mail thinking it is safer than going into rough neighborhoods to purchase drugs.

No more hiding in offices

"We want to make sure that people out there know that even though they're sitting in their offices, there is a great risk of being found out," Van Hollen said. "We're trying to make sure that the Internet doesn't get used for inappropriate purposes."

But some experts on the drug war say prosecuting small-time drug users such as those ordering from Franzl won't help in the government's effort to wipe out drug sales.

"There's just no evidence at all that the government is having any significant impact on the drug market," said Tim Lynch, the director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice. ". . . For this particular operation, it's not going to have much impact beyond those handful of customers. There's plenty more where they came from."

Lynch said that publicizing drug busts such as those of Franzl and the Internet customers might deter others from making similar purchases now, but it won't make a difference in the long run.

"If they can generate some media coverage of this operation, the idea behind it is they'll get people to think twice before purchasing things online," he said. "It might have some very short-term impact, but overall, I don't see it having any sort of an impact in the black market in narcotics."