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‘Operation Crankcase’ : ‘Chuck’ Stood Guard in Lab Sting

Times Staff Writer

What federal, state and local officials have billed as the single largest case against methamphetamine manufacturers in U. S. history was in the hands of “Chuck,” a 50-year-old former Marine Corps sergeant with a black belt in judo and jujitsu, a passion for motorcycles and a scraggly beard and long hair that made him look more like a member of the Hells Angels than what he truly was:

An undercover cop.

“And I was never without a gun,” he said in an interview Monday. “I wouldn’t do an undercover deal without a gun.”

On Monday, Chuck came out of the shadows as authorities announced the result of his nine-month undercover operation that culminated Sunday in raids throughout San Diego and Orange counties.

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Most in Custody

A total of 91 people were indicted in U. S. District Court in San Diego, and another four were named in charges filed in San Diego Superior Court. Of those indicted, 78 were in custody by late Monday.

Most of the defendants were arrested at their homes in San Diego County, but three were arrested in Orange County, two were apprehended in Las Vegas and a third was located in Mammoth Lakes in the eastern High Sierra.

The multiple charges range from conspiracy and the manufacture, possession and distribution of methamphetamine to carrying firearms while conducting illegal drug transactions. One of the guns was specially engraved with a Nazi swastika and had 20 “hits” notched for 1989.

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Twenty-nine illegal meth laboratories were closed, more than 100 weapons were confiscated, a pipe bomb and explosives were recovered and $167,000 in cash was seized.

“This was the first operation of its kind in California history,” said state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, who joined a battery of law enforcement officials in San Diego on Monday to announce the results of the lengthy drug case.

“Indeed, it was the largest single enforcement action ever undertaken against illicit drug manufacturers in the United States,” he said. “And I must tell you it was an extraordinary, unqualified success.”

John Doane, director of the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, said “Operation Crankcase” was unique in that it melded the talents of many law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California, including the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and various local police departments.

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It began when Chuck was placed inside Triple Neck Scientific, a chemical company in a Kearny Mesa industrial park. With the owner’s cooperation, Chuck posed as the store security guard, checking customers for weapons, drugs and their reasons for wanting to purchase large quantities of chemicals commonly used to manufacture methamphetamine, also known as “speed.”

Hidden throughout the store were several audio-video cameras that recorded transactions and conversations that are the meat of the government’s case.

“For those of you who have watched ‘Candid Camera,’ I must tell you that Allen Funt would have been proud,” Van de Kamp said.

During his “employment” at the store, Chuck, a 17-year veteran of uniform police work in Southern California, met about 500 people who made more than 1,700 separate customer visits, officials said. Of those, only three customers actually were there for legitimate chemical purchases--to buy a solvent to clean stains off a driveway, for example.

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Officials said the rest of the customers passed through the doors of Triple Neck Scientific and under the cameras to buy large quantities and supplies to fuel their illegal meth labs.

Nation’s Meth Capital

San Diego County has been dubbed the “meth capital” of the nation. Figures released Monday show that 137 meth labs were seized last year, contrasted with six in 1983. Twenty-eight percent of all San Diego County felons tested positive for meth use upon their arrest, contrasted with 4% in Los Angeles and 1% in New York.

In addition, 511 patients treated in San Diego hospital emergency rooms in 1987 were found to have meth in their systems, contrasted with 85 in 1985. And the number of fatal meth overdoses in the county rose from three in 1983 to 18 in the first eight months of 1988 alone.

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“We don’t know precisely why methamphetamine cookers have found such a happy home here in San Diego,” Van de Kamp said. “But they have.”

Of the meth lab operators who visited Triple Neck Scientific, half fit the category of outlaw motorcycle gangs. But there were others, including a retired pharmacist and a registered nurse who graduated from user to seller to cooker in less than a year’s time, officials said.

They also found families involved in the drug trade. Officials said one set of parents taught their 16-year-old son to be their primary meth cooker and sent their 11-year-old daughter to pick up supplies. Another customer, officials said, brought in his 70-year-old aunt, who served as a distributor in Illinois.

Some of the other accused boasted of San Diego’s methamphetamine reputation and how it enabled them to sell their drugs in Hawaii and on the East Coast, officials said. One group even developed a lucrative two-way trade in which it swapped San Diego meth for Colombian cocaine in New England, shipping the cocaine back to the West Coast for sale at higher prices.

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Nobody to Mess With

Chuck said he checked customers for weapons, discussed their illegal ventures and even sometimes stood by as they snorted drugs in front of him and the cameras.

“My role was the security man,” he said. “And I think my demeanor and appearance kind of indicated that I was nobody to mess with.”

As he became acquainted with them--their names, their labs, their customers, their car license plates and the serial numbers on their weapons--Chuck began routinely telephoning reports in to a nearby command post, where agents catalogued details and set up surveillance.

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In the store, some of the customers gave him quizzical looks and questioned his background. But he said he always told them sharply: “I don’t ask for references, and I don’t give them.”

He drove to work in a car, sometimes telling customers his motorcycle was in the shop or that he had “too many tickets on it.” He told them he didn’t have tattoos because they served as “fingerprints” for police to track down suspects.

And, when they asked him to snort dope with him, he said, he turned them down, claiming to be a former heroin addict from the 1960s. But he always accepted drugs for his wife, he said, and then handed them over to authorities.

Touched Tape Recorder

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Once a customer patted him down and briefly touched a small tape recorder hidden inside the back of his shirt. He thought quickly, and told the man it was his gun.

“He could have said he wanted to see that gun,” said Chuck, who was wounded in the leg years ago while in uniform patrol. “And then I would have had to tell him that, if he pulled a gun on me, then he would see my gun real quick.”

Another time, he accused a client of being a “narc” or a snitch, then ordered him to prove he wasn’t carrying a badge or a hidden microphone.

“The guy took his clothes all the way off,” he said. “He was real nervous. And it scared him so bad that he left the state.”

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