Air Force Academy Student Accused of Distributing Drugs to Fellow Cadets

By Paul Gaita 08/21/15

Decorated junior cadet Nathaniel Penalosa is facing up to 15 years in prison.

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Witnesses in a court-martial case involving cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., testified on Monday that they were given LSD and MDMA, or “Molly,” by a cadet who purchased the drugs online and had them shipped to the academy.

Junior cadet Nathaniel Penalosa is charged with 10 counts of drug-related charges including manufacturing, using and distributing both illegal and prescription drugs to fellow cadets while attending the academy. Three cadets were granted immunity from criminal charges in exchange for testimony against Penalosa, including his former roommate, Luca Simmons, who stated at a hearing that he used LSD given to him by Penalosa.

If convicted by a court-martial, Penalosa, a former airman and one-time recipient of the Air Force Achievement Medal, could face up to 15 years in prison. The case against him began last fall, when a routine dorm room inspection turned up drug residue, as well as an electronic scale and other related paraphernalia.

When the residue tested positive for MDMA, a larger investigation was launched, netting the three cadets who eventually agreed to testify against Penalosa. The witnesses stated during the recent hearing that he purchased the aforementioned drugs, along with the anti-narcolepsy medication Modafinil, with bitcoin through an online black market site.

The items were sent directly to the academy cadet mailroom in discreet packaging. Penalosa sold them to fellow cadets, assuring them that, as junior cadet David Chong stated, “[the academy doesn’t] test for this, and it’s not that big of a deal.”

However, Special Agent John Grunik of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations stated that in the course of searching Penalosa’s room, he discovered a homemade drug testing kit in a wastebasket that later tested positive for MDMA.

The statements made during Monday’s testimony, along with other evidence, will be compiled into a report for the academy’s commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams, who will have the final say on whether the case will advance to a trial by court-martial.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.