RICHARD PENDLEBURY investigates insanity of taking deadly drug flakka (2022)

Camille Balla will next appear at the Palm Beach courthouse, Florida, at the end of March.

If her case goes to trial, the evidence is likely to unsettle even the most stout-hearted juror. And that is some understatement.

In March 2018, police were called to Balla’s home in Royal Palm Beach. There, they found the 32-year-old covered in blood, with large cuts to her fingers and palms. In the property’s garage they came across her mother Francisca, lying dead in a pool of blood.

Factory worker Andrea Horvathova, 23, died after taking flakka with a cocktail of other illegal substances in the UK

Camille Balla, 32, allegedly smoked a flakka-laced marijuana joint before killing her mother at their home in Royal Palm Beach, Florida

Her eyes had been gouged out, seemingly by some of the shards of broken glass which lay around her...apparently by her own daughter.

Francisca’s eyeballs had been placed on a cardboard box a few yards from her corpse. While officers were contemplating this horror, Balla reportedly veered between icy calm and shrieking hysteria. When formally arrested she allegedly began to chant, ‘I’m a murderer’!

Later she is said to have told police that before she killed her mother she had been smoking marijuana, which she believed had been laced with the designer drug flakka.

This will have surprised no one in the Sunshine State, because in the last half dozen years Florida has been hit by a flakka epidemic. It has manifested itself in dozens of overdose deaths and suicides, as well as a number of disturbing public incidents.

Balla's mother's eyes had been gouged out, seemingly by some of the shards of broken glass which lay around her...apparently by her own daughter

Flakka, which sells for just £2.30 per 'hit' in the UK, is described in the US as '$5 insanity' because of its cheap price and terrifying effects on the mental state of users

Its cheap price and terrifying effects on the mental state of users mean it is described in the United States as ‘$5 insanity’.

In 2015, police in Melbourne, south-east of Orlando, arrested a 17-year-old girl after finding her running down a street naked. She was screaming, ‘I am god! I am Satan!’ and, like Camille Balla, was covered in blood.

Many under the influence of flakka appear to be ‘possessed by the devil’ or to mimic the sluggish, repetitive movements of a zombie from television series The Walking Dead.

But flakka’s usage has spread beyond the southern United States to other un-gilded communities much nearer home.

This week an inquest in Plymouth confirmed the first known UK death connected with the substance, which looks like finely ground glass and smells of cat pee. Factory worker Andrea Horvathova, 23, died after taking flakka with a cocktail of other illegal substances.

Flakka gets its street name from the Spanish slang phrase la Flaca. This loosely translates as ‘a slim attractive woman’. But there is nothing beautiful about the effects of the drug or the circumstances of those who abuse it. They are often poor, if not desperate, individuals.


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In the UK a hit of flakka can be purchased for as little as £2.30 — and it is said to be more potent and addictive than crystal meth.

Alpha-pyrrolidinovalerophenone is flakka’s scientific name, or more simply alpha-PVP. It is a synthetic version of the natural chemical cathinone, the active ingredient in khat leaves that are chewed for their stimulating effects in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Alpha-pyrrolidinovalerophenone is flakka’s scientific name, or more simply alpha-PVP. Stock picture

Flakkais a synthetic version of the natural chemical cathinone, the active ingredient in khat leaves that are chewed for their stimulating effects in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula

On the street, cathinones are known colloquially as ‘bath salts’.

In the UK, they are categorised as Class B under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Possession attracts a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. People convicted of supply and production, meanwhile, can be sentenced to up to 14 years.

First produced in the 1960s, alpha-PVP came into vogue soon after the turn of the century. Until its side-effects gained notoriety and legislators took action, it was manufactured in industrial quantities in China (and to a lesser degree the Indian subcontinent) and sold quite openly by mail-order over the internet as a ‘legal high’.

It can be smoked, injected, vaped or taken orally.

Flakka — or ‘gravel’ as it is also known in the U.S. — heightens neurotransmitter levels in the brain. This can produce a euphoric stimulation similar to that of cocaine.

But other side-effects are grim, even deadly. Flakka can cause paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, aggression and psychotic behaviour, leading some abusers to think they have superhuman powers, such as flying or prodigious strength.

Sweating and dilated pupils are common indicators. Heart attacks and strokes are a risk under its influence. First-time users are said to take three to four days to return to a normal state of mind. Repeat users can take more than two weeks to be restored to equilibrium.

The first flakka victim to attract international attention — and a wider appreciation of the drug’s growing presence — was one Matthew Kenney. In April 2013, he was filmed by a bystander sprinting naked, save for his trainers, among the early evening traffic in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

On being apprehended by police, wild-eyed Kenney, 34, admitted having smoked flakka. He said he thought unknown people had stolen his clothes and were chasing him with intent to kill. He reasoned that if he were hit by a car they would stop the hunt. He was hospitalised.

This was but one of a spate of bizarre flakka-related incidents in the coastal city at the time. Earlier in the year another abuser had managed to kick in the hurricane-proof glass doors at a police HQ.

In 2014, when it was placed on the U.S. list of illegal controlled substances, the authorities in Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, recorded 190 incidents involving flakka.

By early May 2015 the number of incidents involving the drug had already reached 275. And in one 16-month period in 2014-2015, 63 supposed flakka users died from acute intoxication, accidents, suicides and homicides in Fort Lauderdale alone.

‘We are ground central,’ said Robert C. Hutchinson, deputy special agent for Homeland Security Investigations in Miami. ‘We want to nip it in the bud before it gets out of control. We are crossing the threshold into a new world.’

Kenneth Crowder was another Florida flakka abuser to make headlines. He was arrested having been seen, like Kenney, running naked through a neighbourhood before ‘attempting a sex act with a tree’.

He resisted arrest so strenuously that officers twice fired Tasers. On both occasions Crowder, then 41, simply ripped the barbs out, declaring himself to be ‘Thor’. He was eventually physically overwhelmed.

One epidemiologist called flakka ‘the most intense, rapidly emerging drug problem since the 1980s with the emergence of crack cocaine.’

The Obama administration made representations to the Chinese government about the manufacture of flakka in 2015 and, in October that year, Beijing also made it an illegal controlled substance.

But the problem had already crossed the Atlantic. In May, a Scottish man died in custody after being restrained by nine police officers. A post mortem showed that Sheku Bayoh, 31, had taken flakka and ecstasy prior to his arrest.

In the Spanish resort of Magaluf that summer, two British teenagers were hospitalised after reportedly taking the substance. One was ‘totally disorientated’ and complained of bugs up his nose. He was using a stick to clear them out.

Now, as we have seen, it may be driving some users to murder. Camille Balla’s case is not the first gruesome killing linked to flakka use. Nor even the first in Palm Beach.

In 2017, Derren Morrison was sentenced to life imprisonment for beating to death Louise Clinton on her 83rd birthday. He told police he believed the grandmother, a total stranger, was a blood-covered demon who had been trying to kill him. He had been smoking flakka before the assault, he said.

Last year, another alleged flakka user gouged out his own eyes and attempted to chop off his penis. The 35-year-old medical student from Brazil had been depressed after splitting from his girlfriend.

Flakka use by people with existing mental health issues can have explosive consequences. But such is the drug’s reputation for inducing spectacular psychosis that it has been blamed for shocking crimes without solid proof of a connection.

In 2012 it was widely reported — on the suggestion of police officers —that a naked Rudy Eugene was under the influence of flakka when he attacked and partially ate Ronald Poppo in Miami Beach.

In a roadside assault which lasted 18 minutes, Eugene chewed most of the face off his victim, who was a stranger to him. Poppo lost his nose, cheeks and chin and had an eye gouged out but survived. Eugene had to be shot dead before he stopped. Later, largely unreported toxicology reports showed only marijuana in his blood.

Another cannibalistic attack linked to flakka abuse goes to trial this week. Austin Harrouff killed a Florida couple at their home in 2016 and was found by police gnawing the male victim’s face. His attorney says he will plead not guilty due to insanity and claims an FBI analysis found no trace of flakka or cathinones in his blood.

But there is no doubt flakka played a role in the death of Britain’s first known victim. Miss Horvathova, who died at a house party in March 2018, had also taken a number of other drugs and the combination caused a fatal heart attack. Dr Mark Piper is a biochemist employed as toxicology services manager for Randox Laboratories, a UK company which works with law enforcement agencies worldwide.

In 2015, Randox brought to market the first screening process for flakka, based on urine samples. Dr Piper told the Mail: ‘It is very difficult to know how widespread flakka is being made available. It depends on supply at any given moment. A major illegal lab can hit full production and flood the market and it is easy to buy.

‘Equally, a manufacturer can be closed down, production can drop significantly and supply dries up. It doesn’t take much to move on and start up again, though, so these drugs can wax and wane.

‘Synthetic drugs like flakka are relatively easy to produce. They can literally be knocked out in a fairly unsophisticated fashion in a bathroom or kitchen a la Breaking Bad [the cult TV series].

‘However, economies of scale drive this industry just like any other and production can also be set up in factory units. They seem to keep staying ahead of prohibition by just tweaking the formula.

‘The 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act outlawed a lot of these drugs under various brand names which took them out of High Street shops, but supply just seems to have moved on to the web now.

He added: ‘Different drugs affect people in different ways. One person can take a tablet and experience one set of symptoms whereas someone else can take it and have a different set.

‘Reports of feeling superhuman are probably exaggerated but because your body is in such a heightened state you will not feel pain in the normal way. It is the delusional side, the hallucinations that drive people to jump off buildings thinking they can fly. Again, there is a lack of clarity to the users’ mind thanks to the drugs.’

Asked about the use of flakka in the UK, a Home Office spokesman said: ‘We are absolutely committed to reducing drug misuse and the harm it causes. All those involved in the supply and production of illegal drugs should fear the full consequences of the law.’

All very well, but not necessarily a message that will resonate when you believe you are combating a blood-soaked demon.

Additional reporting: SIMON TRUMP

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