Authorities in Wisconsin are investigating whether a large-scale operation by two brothers allegedly making illegal THC-infused vape cartridges could be connected to recent vaping-related illnesses and deaths across the country.
Tyler Huffhines, 20, and Jacob Huffhines, 23, were arrested on Sept. 5 after authorities conducted various search warrants on their family's home in Paddock Lake and a rented condominium in Bristol, both villages of Kenosha County. Investigators believe the younger brother was the "ringleader" of what they say was the "sophisticated" drug operation and the condo was its headquarters, according to Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth.
At the Paddock Lake residence, where the brothers live, $59,000 in cash, guns, drugs and drug paraphernalia was found, according to authorities. But that was just the "tip of the iceberg" in their alleged "empire of illegal drugs," Beth said.
It was the raid at the condo, which was rented under a fake name, that netted 31,200 vape cartridges, each filled with 1 gram of liquid THC -- the main psychoactive component of cannabis -- and ready to be distributed, according to Beth. There were also 98,000 empty vape cartridges and 57 mason jars filled with liquid THC, with the contents of each jar valued at approximately $6,000, as well as three money-counting machines and 18 pounds of marijuana, Beth added.
"This is a major, major operation," the sheriff said at a joint press conference with other law enforcement agencies on Wednesday.
Investigators believe Tyler Huffhines, who allegedly started the operation in January 2018, hired several employees to fill the vape cartridges with liquid THC and package them in brightly-colored wrappers, mimicking candy with names like "Sour Patch." The back of the packaging states the product contains a very small amount of THC, about 5 mg, when in reality it's 1,000 mg, Beth said.
"It looks like candy," he told reporters. "It's not candy. It's highly potent drugs."
The investigation into the alleged operation started this summer after the parents of a high school boy in Waukesha found THC vape cartridges on their their son and brought him to the police station, providing information that was ultimately traced back to the Huffhines brothers, officials said.
“These parents were courageous for what they did,” Waukesha County Police Captain Dan Baumann said at Wednesday's press conference. “They should be commended.”
Tyler Huffhines was being held in the Kenosha County Jail on a $500,000 cash bond, according to Milwaukee ABC station WISN. He faces several drug-related felony charges. He was scheduled to appear in court Friday.
Jacob Huffhines was being held in the Kenosha County Jail without bond on charges of cocaine possession, possession of a firearm by a felon and violating probation.
Formal charges have not yet been filed, according to WISN. It was unclear whether the brothers have obtained attorneys.
Investigators are "actively searching" for others involved in the alleged drug ring, and there may be more arrests, according to Beth. Authorities in Kenosha County are also "willing to work with any agency in this country" to determine whether the Huffhines brothers and other members of the community "have any responsibility in hurting the hundreds of people throughout the United States, especially Wisconsin," the sheriff said.
Earlier this week, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment confirmed the first death in the state from a vaping-related lung disease, bringing the nationwide total to six.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously confirmed five deaths from a vaping-related lung disease across five states: California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Oregon. The agency also said it is aware of over 450 possible cases of vaping-related illnesses in 33 states and one U.S. territory.
There is no specific vaping device or chemical that have been linked to all the cases, but the CDC reports that a majority of the patients are male, between the ages of 18 and 35, and admit to using nicotine, THC (the main active component in cannabis), or both, about 90 days before experiencing symptoms, which include shortness of breath, gastrointestinal issues, fever and fatigue.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating at least 127 reports of people suffering seizures or other neurological symptoms after using e-cigarettes. All of the reported cases occurred between 2010 and 2019, and many involved youth and young adults. It remains unclear whether there's a direct link between vaping and the reported cases of neurological events, according to the federal agency.
ABC News' Rachel Katz contributed to this report.