Store owners still recovering from ‘Operation Candy Crush’

February 9, 2019
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In this Jan. 22, 2019 photo, Scott and Gina Ritter, owners of Vapesboro in Murfreesboro, Tenn., pose in their store. The Ritters, along with other shop owners, were arrested and falsely accused of selling drugs. Charges were eventually dropped, but they and other store owners filed a federal lawsuit against local agencies. (Brinley Hineman/The Daily News Journal via AP)

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — It’s been a year since nearly two dozen local smoke and vape shops were raided as part of “Operation Candy Crush,” and Gina and Scott Ritter still feel the pain daily.

The husband and wife own Vapesboro, the Murfreesboro store where the news conference was held announcing the raids.

Sitting in the back room of the store, away from the smoky haze of vapes, Scott Ritter shared the trauma he said he and his wife have endured since they were falsely accused of peddling drugs.

The Ritters and 19 other shop owners were arrested Feb. 12, 2018. Law enforcement officials closed and padlocked their shops and accused them of selling illegal CBD products.

What followed the arrests was chaos, with scrutiny falling on the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s office. Finger pointing ensued, with different agencies attempting to shrug off blame to other organizations. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued a statement condemning the arrests.

By Feb. 28, 2018, District Attorney Jennings Jones confirmed all charges were being dismissed because the TBI was no longer willing to testify that the products in question contained an illegal Schedule VI substance.

After the couple was locked up, Scott Ritter said he and his wife couldn’t leave the house for weeks. They stayed home and cried. His wife was too emotional to complete an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee.

“What hurts me is (seeing) her (hurt). I’ve been married 25 years to this woman,” Scott Ritter said, choking up with tears. “I’ve never seen her that hurt. Never.”

The arrests put a strain on their marriage and trickled into other relationships in their life. They’ve certainly lost valued customers who don’t want to be associated with “drug dealers,” but the personal relationships that have suffered came as a shock, Scott Ritter said. They’ve lost dear friends since the arrest, and have stopped attending church due to judgment.

Scott Ritter has owned businesses in La Vergne since 1986, and said those have suffered, too. Investors questioned his practices, and he had to meet with attorneys to clear the air. Eventually, he wanted to run for public office but said those dreams have been squashed since the raids happened.

“I hate them for what they’ve done,” he said. “Oh God, I hate them ... I just can’t get rid of the anger. The anger that’s inside is unbelievable.”

The stress of the case also affected Gina Ritter’s mother, who suffers from lung disease, and nearly had to be sent to the hospital for treatment after learning about the arrests.

While the family loves Murfreesboro, they’ve even thought about selling all their possessions and businesses and leaving town.

“That’s how bad it got,” Scott Ritter said.

While the aftermath has been messy, it’s made shop employees closer and connected the CBD community in ways that would’ve otherwise never happened, Scott said.

“We had some African-Americans, we had Egyptian folks, we had two female partners, all of us stood in court together and supported each other and said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to back down,’” Scott said. “And we fought together.”

“I got to meet some amazing people from the vape community,” Scott said.

John Pryhoda, the original owner of Vapesboro and a Ritter family friend, said the raids were “an abuse of resources, an abuse of power.”

Authorities involved in the sting should issue a public apology in the form of a news conference like they did when they announced the arrests, he said.

“I challenge those people that stood in front of Vapesboro to come back ... to set the story straight,” Pryhoda said. “The public deserves it, voters deserve it, and more importantly, everyone in the vape community deserves it.”

An attorney representing Jones declined to comment on whether the district attorney would organize a public apology.


Information from: The Daily News Journal, http://www.dnj.com

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