Calling it the single biggest roundup of methamphetamine manufacturers in U.S. history, federal and state drug agents ended a successful 9-month sting operation Sunday with the apprehension of about 100 suspected drug dealers and the closing of 23 meth labs in the San Diego area.
About 350 officers from several law enforcement agencies descended on dozens of homes at 6 a.m. and arrested numerous suspects in San Diego and Orange counties and as far north as Mammoth Lakes.
According to DEA officials, 45% of all the illegal methamphetamine labs in the United States are found in California. The majority of clandestine labs are located in isolated areas of San Diego County, which law enforcement officials call “the meth capital of the world.”
Officials said the majority of the arrests were made in San Diego County. Most of the suspects were brought to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego and are expected to be arraigned in U.S. District Court today.
Special Agent in Charge Charles Hill, who heads the local Drug Enforcement Administration office, and Phil Donahue Jr., special agent in charge of the state’s local Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement office, said the arrests were made without incident.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Crankcase, began June 28, 1988, when the owner of Triple Neck Scientific, a chemical company operating out of a Kearny Mesa industrial park, agreed to cooperate with undercover officers in an effort to help fight drug abuse.
Ray McKinnon, chief of DEA investigations in Washington, said the owner, whom they did not identify, became suspicious when several customers made repeated purchases of unusually large quantities of chemicals that are commonly used to manufacture methamphetamine, also known as “speed.”
The owner, who closed the business two weeks ago when agents told him that arrests were imminent, agreed to allow a state narcotics agent to work in the store.
On Sunday, authorities credited the undercover agent, described as “a biker type,” for much of the investigation’s success. Other agents said he negotiated drug deals and put up with gun-waving suspects throughout the investigation.
Officials said the owner of Triple Neck Scientific also allowed agents to install video and audio equipment inside to record hundreds of illegal transactions and purchases of chemicals that agents said were used to manufacture illegal drugs.
According to McKinnon, the owner participated in a similar, but smaller, investigation with DEA agents in Texas about three years ago. The owner is expected to testify when the cases come to trial, he said.
“We recorded approximately 1,700 incidents or transactions involving about 585 individuals. Only three of the individuals were legitimate customers. Virtually all of the recorded incidents involved criminal activity of some kind,” said McKinnon, who supervises all methamphetamine investigations for the DEA.
“This is the single biggest roundup of methamphetamine manufacturers ever in the United States,” he said.
DEA officials said they expect to shut about 1,000 labs throughout the country this year.
Names of most of the suspects will be revealed today when officials unseal a federal indictment at a noon press conference in San Diego.