O.C. Meth Lab Bust Points Up Boom in Drug

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Patrol Officer Andy Jauch saw the bottles of clear red liquid in a cramped, greasy auto repair shop here late Tuesday night, he recognized what he had stumbled upon: a fully functioning methamphetamine lab.

Within hours, federal, state and local officials descended on the low, squat building at 7545 Acacia Avenue and seized what they believe were 20 gallons of liquid ingredients and about two ounces of finished methamphetamine, which is rapidly becoming the drug of choice in Orange County.

Officials said it was the largest drug lab discovered this year in Orange County, with the value of the seizure estimated at $400,000, and it was the 15th such drug factory shut down since January by the team called in Tuesday, compared to 13 all of last year.

While marijuana and cocaine remain popular, methamphetamine--also known as speed or crank--is flooding Orange County and is now the target in 80% of drug busts in local police departments, according to a survey conducted in February by the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

And the problem is not confined to county borders. Brenda Heng, statewide coordinator of the lab enforcement team for the bureau, calls California the "capital" of methamphetamine production in the country.

In 1990, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 286 labs were seized in California. Texas had the second highest total, with 20. Last year, 457 labs were seized in California.

"It's no secret that use of methamphetamine is on the rise," said Anaheim Police Sgt. Dave Severson, who heads the major violators unit of the state bureau. "Patrol officers are seeing it more and we're involved with pretty substantial seizures more and more."

Police say the drug is set to surpass cocaine as the most popular drug in Orange County, with the potential to be more troublesome. Manufacturing involves volatile chemicals that can explode at the flip of a light switch; the waste is toxic.

And "cookers"--the people who make it--tend to be violent, police say. Tuesday night's bust revealed a sawed-off shotgun perched on a ledge above the lab table. It was loaded with a special type of buckshot that one on-scene undercover agent said is equivalent to "twelve .32-caliber slugs being shot at once."

The drug sells for $20 to $25 per quarter gram, a typical street-level purchase that contains enough for two or three hits. Snorting the stimulant, which can also be smoked, results in a rush of energy and a high that is mild compared to cocaine, but that lasts several hours longer.

In the late 1960s and '70s, the drug was popular among outlaw motorcycle gangs and others in the counterculture. The street term crank , in fact, comes from the gangs' practice of manufacturing the drug in motorcycle crank cases.

Explanations for the drug's renaissance vary.

Some officials cite the crackdown on cocaine over the past several years. Others attribute it to a recent drop in the price of speed, from a wholesale value of about $10,000 a pound a few years ago to $3,000 a pound today.

But mostly, its popularity arises from the ease of obtaining ingredients, cooking the speed and then storing the pure crystal powder.

"It's something easily manufactured and you can make it in the privacy of your own home," said Garden Grove Police Sgt. Jack Stepanovich, who heads the city's special investigations unit. "A lot of people are making it, and everybody has their own little recipe."

The ingredients are surprisingly easy to obtain. One ingredient can be extracted from common cold medicines. Another is available in the form of an acid used in swimming pools.

Like old-time moonshiners, the modern-day cookers who make the drug often use a jerry-built set of chemical apparatuses to get through the six-step process that results in purified methamphetamine.

The lab busted Tuesday, for instance, used a plastic pesticide-sprayer similar to a fire extinguisher for one stage of processing the drug, police said.

Police arrested the owner of the auto shop, Russell Joyce, 27, of Long Beach on a charge of intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He is being held without bail in Orange County Jail.

During the bust, police found 20 gallons of clear red liquid--allegedly methamphetamine "oil" that was stored in glass jars, mineral-water dispensers and plastic, one-gallon milk jugs.

"You never know what sort of stuff they make it with," said one agent Tuesday as he kicked a metal canister labeled as a solvent.

As methamphetamine cookers become increasingly sophisticated, they have become adept at evading the police. The newest trend, and one police find especially disturbing, is the "bathtub lab" set up in motel and hotel rooms.

A motel in Orange is one recent example. Police say Earnest Barnes, 33, checked into a room on May 11, carted in a small quantity of acid, and started brewing a batch of speed.

The fumes from the cooking resulted in his arrest.

"It's very simple to do that way," Heng said. "You cook, you contaminate the heck out of the room, then leave it all behind. There's no trace."

In another case, in March, police arrested an Anaheim man riding a motorcycle after he left a known drug house.

"This guy had a fully functioning lab in a backpack on a motorcycle," said Gary Hudson, head of the Orange County lab enforcement team. A lab "can be small. That's our biggest problem."

And that worries narcotics officials, who say the stimulant is unique in the waste it produces and the violence it can bring.

"We consider these labs to be especially serious," said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph P. Smith, who specializes in prosecuting narcotics cases. "The production itself is extremely dangerous. It's a volatile, explosive process."

In one case in Laguna Hills in 1991, three cookers disconnected a smoke alarm in their hotel room before they set to work. When a wire they had spliced into their double-burner stove sparked, the room was set on fire. The blaze destroyed the room and part of the hallway outside. The three fled but were later arrested and convicted.

Even if the manufacturing process is a success, problems remain in the form of toxic byproducts that are often disposed of haphazardly.

"The waste material is probably the biggest problem," said Terry Fickies, a chemist with the state Bureau of Forensic Services. "If these people burn themselves, I don't care, but they go anywhere to dump" the waste.

Waste products include strong acids, bases, flammable phosphorous compounds and solvents. Cleaning up a large lab can cost between $15,000 to $125,000. Private toxic waste contractors usually dispose of the mess.

Besides the process, the users themselves are dangerous, police say. Long-term use of the drug produces a chronic paranoia that can make addicts suspicious of all those around them.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time we find these guys with firearms, which is not common in other types of arrests," said Drug Enforcement Agency Officer Derek Duncan. "It's not uncommon to get eight to 10 firearms off one guy."

It is difficult, though, to keep the manufacturers in prison. Although sentences for a methamphetamine dealer can range up to 22 years, a sentence of 1 1/2 years is typical, according to state statistics. A user can be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

"I don't think we've put a dent" in the county's methamphetamine manufacturing, the lab enforcement team's Hudson said as he walked around the site of Tuesday's bust. Looking at the anonymous front of the gray-blue, cinder-block building, he shrugged his shoulders.

"The only thing around here is industrial businesses," he said. "This guy could come and go. And nobody would be the wiser."

Methamphetamine: A Growing Menace

Eighty percent of drug arrests in Orange County now involve methamphetamine. Tuesday night's raid at a Garden Grove lab highlights an escalating problem in the county and the state.

Street names for methamphetamine: Speed, crank, meth, crystal, ice, go-fast.

Description: White powder or brown, lumpy substance or crystallized rock. Produces feelings of joy, strength, alertness. Is illegal, addictive, less expensive than cocaine.

Side effects: Can cause severe weight loss, muscle and joint pain, hyperactivity, overconcentration on minor tasks, antisocial behavior, psychosis.

Drug Lab Seizures

DEA figures also include some California drug lab seizures and may not include some busts by agencies in other states.

Sources: World Book Encyclopedia, California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement

Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times

Dangerous Recipe

Making methamphetamine is a six-step procedure involving "cooking" highly flammable and toxic chemicals and materials. Some hazards:

* Corrosion: Improper storage, disposal can cause leakage.

* Fire: Unstable chemicals, when mixed and heated, create toxic, flammable fumes.

* Explosion: Tiny spark can cause a blast. Red phosphorus, a chemical used in cooking process, becomes yellow when heated to between 400 and 500 degrees and can ignite when exposed to air. It can burn under water, and the fire is virtually impossible to extinguish until all available oxygen is consumed.

* Byproduct: A type of nerve gas can inadvertently be created if red phosphorus becomes dry during cooking process.

Treatment Programs

Treatment of methamphetamine abuse in Orange County has steadily increased. Number of admissions to local drug treatment programs:

*

Drug Arrests

Drug-related arrests in Orange County among adults peaked in 1989 while juvenile arrests steadily decreased until 1991. Arrests for all types of illegal drugs:

1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 Adult arrests 16,777 17,781 18,436 14,881 13,798 Juvenile arrests 1,191 937 850 537 568

*

O.C. Drug Deaths 1991: 126 Sources: California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, Orange County Health Care Agency

Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°