Sex, Spice, and Small-Town Texas Justice

A rogue prosecutor makes the war on drugs personal.


On the morning of May 7, a law enforcement team headed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) broke down the door of The Purple Zone, a smoke shop in the small, rural community of Alpine, Texas, owned by 29-year-old Ilana Lipsen. With their weapons drawn, officers pointed the security cameras at the wall and tore apart the store. Lipsen's sister, Arielle, who happened to be on the premises, was pinned to the ground by the butt of one agent's rifle, according to witnesses.

Next, DEA officers raided a nearby apartment also owned by Lipsen. When her tenant, Nicholas Branson, asked to see a search warrant (which they didn't have), a gun-wielding agent reportedly replied, "What are you, a fucking lawyer?"

No illegal substances turned up at either the store or the apartment.

Why did the government go after The Purple Zone? The DEA says the raid was one in a series of nationwide enforcement actions carried out that day with the goal of taking down purveyors of synthetic drugs who funnel their proceeds to Middle Eastern terrorists. It also says that Lipsen was a prime suspect. But as a Jew and avid supporter of Israel, she hardly fits the profile of an Islamic terrorism financier.

A more likely reason: Brewster County District Attorney Rod Ponton is Lipsen's jilted ex-lover, and has been carrying out a personal vendetta against her for the past few years. He prompted federal law enforcement agents to pursue a groundless and expensive crusade against her smoke shop, turning life for Lipsen and her family into a living hell. (Ponton declined to be interviewed by reason, and denied the charge.)

Shortly after moving to Alpine at age 18, Lipsen had a brief affair with Ponton, who at the time was a lawyer in private practice. After their tryst ended, she says she caught him driving slowly by her house "like he was stalking me."

After Ponton was elected district attorney for the county that includes Alpine, he started using state resources to go after the smoke shop owner, publicly accusing her of "singular incorrigibility" and "poisoning the youth of the town."

The first raid on The Purple Zone was in 2012, when police seized "spice packets," or synthetic cannabinoids, which Lipsen sold as potpourri in the store's incense section. "You can buy these products online or in any gas station or smoke shop in Texas," says Lipsen. Though lab tests revealed no illegal substances, Ponton later moved to indict Lipsen on the grounds that the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 makes it illegal to sell and possess substances that are "similar to controlled substances." The basis of the indictment: three chemicals in the potpourri that were legal in Texas at the time they were seized but would be banned by the federal government a year later. Lipsen was arrested and brought up on felony charges.

In 2014, Ponton convinced the DEA to carry out another raid on The Purple Zone. When the bust turned violent, the DEA attempted a cover-up. At the behest of the U.S. attorney's office, a judge strong-armed Lipsen into signing a letter absolving the agency of any wrongdoing by asserting that she and her sister had attacked the DEA officers first.

Lipsen agreed to plead guilty to charges stemming from both raids in exchange for serving no jail time. To date, she's lost over $100,000 on legal bills and seized property. Now she's ready to move on with her life and is selling The Purple Zone. Of her relationship with the town of Alpine, Lipsen says: "I love it here, but it's become toxic."