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23 Drug Labs Shut in Massive San Diego Sting

Times Staff Writer

Calling it the single biggest roundup of methamphetamine manufacturers in U.S. history, federal and state drug agents ended a successful nine-month sting operation Sunday with the apprehension of about 100 suspected drug dealers and the closing of 23 meth labs in San Diego County.

About 350 officers from every law enforcement agency in the county 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. Officials said 10 or 11 suspects were arrested in Orange County, but they did not say how many were arrested in San Diego County. Most of the 100 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 incidents.

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.

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Ray McKinnon, chief of DEA investigations in Washington, said the unidentified man 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.”

Undercover Agent Credited

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 declined to identify the owner of Triple Neck Scientific, but they said that he also allowed agents to install video and audio equipment inside. McKinnon said the electronic equipment was used to record hundreds of illegal transactions and purchases of chemicals that agents said were used to manufacture illegal drugs.

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According to McKinnon, the owner participated in a similar, but smaller, investigation with DEA agents in Texas about three years ago. The man left the area when the business closed but 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.

‘Single Biggest Roundup’

He was in San Diego to oversee the arrests.

“This is the single biggest roundup of methamphetamine manufacturers ever in the United States,” McKinnon said.

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.” DEA officials said they expect to shut about 1,000 labs throughout the country this year.

In 1988, state and federal drug agents in San Diego County shut Quantum Labs and RJM Laboratories Inc., two major sources of supplies for illegal methamphetamine laboratories. Quantum also had satellite offices in San Clemente and Riverside. Now that Triple Neck Scientific has closed its doors, DEA officials said the closure will make a serious dent in the illegal methamphetamine market.

Arrests Will Have an Impact

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“Very seldom do I say that drug arrests are going to make an impact,” Agent Hill said. “But with the closing down of RJM and Quantum . . . a lot of these people were coming to Triple Neck to buy their supplies. As a result of this investigation, we think the arrests are definitely going to have an impact. But for how long, I don’t know.”

Names of most of the suspects were not released Sunday, but will be revealed today when officials unseal a federal indictment at a noon press conference. Officials are also expected to release more information about the undercover investigation. Donahue said that “every one of these guys named in the indictment are making methamphetamine in illegal labs.”

McKinnon said that at least 19 suspects named in the indictment had been arrested in the past five months and were still in custody.

Some were arrested on other charges when agents learned that they were operating especially dangerous labs in residential areas.

“We didn’t feel comfortable knowing that they were operating labs in some areas,” McKinnon said. “When we learned about these labs, we shut them down. But we shut them down using other probable cause because we didn’t want to compromise the ongoing operation.”

Customers Knew Each Other

Agents said that many of Triple Neck’s customers knew each other. “That’s why we decided to serve the arrest warrants at the same time. We didn’t want the phone lines to hum with warning calls made to other suspects,” McKinnon said.

Triple Neck Scientific, which was the name of the company before the investigation began, has a special meaning to “meth cookers,” McKinnon said, explaining that methamphetamine manufacturers commonly use a three-neck, rounded flask to make the illicit drugs.

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During the investigation, a minimum of 14 vehicles were used daily to monitor activity at the company, officials said. Agents checked out 567 vehicles used to transport the chemicals bought by the suspects. If the suspects are convicted of drug charges, most of these vehicles could be seized by the federal government under U.S. drug laws.

Wiley Milton Hicks, arrested in a Mira Mesa condominium, stands to lose two new sports cars that were retrieved by agents. Besides the vehicles, agents also took a large stack of $100 bills from the house. Agents said that six cars seized in earlier arrests have been valued at $105,000. About $107,000 in cash has also been recovered.

About 830 pounds of ephedrine, the main chemical used in producing methamphetamine, were recovered from the labs that were shut down, McKinnon said. In 1988, only 8,000 pounds of ephedrine was legally sold for medical use in the United States, DEA officials said. Photos in Part II, Page 1.


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