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Monday, February 24, 2003 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Mushroom business lands 4 in trouble

By Peyton Whitely
Seattle Times staff reporter

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In a way, it seems so '60s.

After all, aren't magic mushrooms a hippie thing of the past, long since pushed aside by cocaine, crank and meth?

Apparently not.

Last week, four people from the tiny town of Amanda Park in Grays Harbor County were charged with conspiring to sell, not mushrooms, but mushroom spores.

The four defendants indicted by a federal grand jury are Robert W. McPherson, Steven Coggin, Judy Kreigh and McPherson's wife, Margaret McPherson.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Whalley said it's not illegal to sell mushroom spores alone, but selling them with the purpose of producing hallucinogenic mushrooms is illegal.

The investigation goes back to 1999, when law-enforcement agencies in Washington and elsewhere in the country started getting complaints about the Amanda Park mushroom-spore shipments. The spore businesses themselves date back years before that. The Amanda Park business once operated from an address on East Pike Street in Seattle, according to a publication in the Netherlands.

While getting high on hallucinogenic mushrooms saw its heyday in the 1960s, techniques for cultivating the mushrooms began in the late 1970s.

The mushroom-growing techniques are widely advertised and described on dozens of Internet sites and in ads in High Times, a drug-culture magazine.

The conspiracy charges stem from what federal agents say is a business selling mushroom spores that McPherson operated under the name Psylocybe Fanaticus. One of Robert McPherson's Amanda Park neighbors, who began feeding his cats after his arrest, said the mail-order business wasn't much of a secret around there. "They had a lot of mail business. It's a small town," said the neighbor, who declined to be named.

The neighbor described McPherson as a gifted jazz musician in his mid-50s, bright and smart:

"They've been great neighbors, really nice people. They've been awesome with my kids, helping with fund-raising and everything."

Someone writing under the name of Psylocybe Fanaticus in 1996 gave an extensive description of the spore business to Soft Secrets, a Dutch publication catering to the mushroom trade. The Psylocybe Fanaticus business address listed in the magazine was in the 1200 block of East Pike Street in Seattle.

Various Psylocybe Fanaticus articles and publications describe a growing process in which mushroom spores are purchased in a syringe, which is then used to cultivate various species of mushrooms in a soil base.

In one article, Psylocybe Fanaticus said that people interested in growing the mushrooms could fly under police radar by selling just syringes and the spores, neither of which are illegal.

"That is not against the law, because spores contain no prohibited substances. By doing so, I have also more time for hobbies like jamming and smoking fine herb," Psylocybe Fanaticus said.

According to the federal charges, hundreds of mushroom-grow kits were sent out from Amanda Park, Whalley said.

The investigation was prompted by calls from concerned parents around the country whose children had received packages from Psylocybe Fanaticus. The packages contained syringes and instructions on how to grow hallucinogenic mushrooms, according to Daniel Mancano, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent. Parents were even calling telephone numbers at the National Park Service, apparently because Amanda Park is near Olympic National Park.

Through its Internet site and through ads in High Times, the mushroom-business operators described how the spores could be used to grow magic mushrooms, which contain psilocybin and psilocyn, both of which are illegal to possess, according to the indictment. Kits were advertised for $30 each.

"I have not identified any reason why customers would buy spores for so much money unless they would produce a mushroom that was hallucinogenic," said Mancano.

Years of on-and-off investigation followed, with agents doing periodic surveillance of McPherson's house on North Shore Drive in Amanda Park and at the Amanda Park post office and other locations.

Agents bought spore supplies from the business and tracked shipments sent from Amanda Park. On Feb. 3, for example, investigators reported seeing Kreigh go to the Amanda Park post office with mail "tubs" containing about 100 packages to be shipped, according to the charges.

Last Tuesday, agents served search warrants at the North Shore Road house and found a mushroom-growing operation and live mushrooms, according to the charges.

A second search warrant was served at Coggin's house in Neilton, about five miles south of Amanda Park, and more syringes and other mushroom-growing equipment were found.

At an initial appearance, McPherson estimated he was making $30,000 a month shipping the mushroom spores.

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com

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