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Remote Lake Los Angeles Taking Down Meth Labs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lake Los Angeles, a High Desert community at the northeast edge of Los Angeles County, has no lake, one traffic signal and two markets. And at least 33 illegal meth labs have been “taken down” in the almost three years since a task force of sheriff’s deputies and state narcotics agents started targeting the area.

With about 14,000 residents covering less than 150 square miles, Lake Los Angeles represents about 3% of the Antelope Valley in area and population. But it accounts for more than 17% of methamphetamine lab busts--a statistic that has saddled the town with a bad rap.

“Some have voiced concerns that publicizing this is making us look bad,” said Town Council President Bob Keys. “If people keep hearing about meth labs, you’re going to get a reputation like that. As it happens, most of these people doing labs have nothing to do with our community. They just pick the area because it’s isolated.”

The 1990s were not kind to Lake Los Angeles. The recession hit hard, property values tumbled, and the open space, isolation and affordability that lured residents also drew methamphetamine manufacturers.

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The community had for years borne the stigma of being “the boondocks.” Its very name evokes sniggers in some circles, being a good 90-minute drive from Los Angeles and built around a lake that dried up 20 years ago when its developer abandoned it.

But the “meth capital of the county” slur was a burden too heavy to bear.

“We’ve had a lot of bad publicity with all the meth labs being found here, even though most of them were 10 or 15 miles out of town,” said Pete Cordera, president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce. “I suppose once they found out how easy it was to come out here and how remote it was, they started coming here to set up their labs.”

Enter the Allied Laboratory Enforcement Response Team, or ALERT, a task force paid for and organized by the state Department of Justice’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement to target small, clandestine meth labs in Los Angeles County. The small operations--called kitchen cooks, bathtub cooks or “Beavis and Butthead” cooks--produce less than a pound of the drug.

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ALERT opened an office in the Antelope Valley in the latter half of 1998 and took down 19 labs, four of them in Lake Los Angeles. In 1999, 17 of the 58 labs found in the Antelope Valley were in Lake Los Angeles. Last year, it was 12 of 56.

“When you consider the combined population of Palmdale and Lancaster is over 330,000 and there are only about 13,000 or 14,000 people in Lake L.A., that’s a pretty significant statistic,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Holeman, an ALERT member.

Now the numbers are declining. Of the nine labs busted by the team in the first quarter of this year, none were in Lake Los Angeles.

“I’ve heard a lot of things from informants that it’s really dry out here now,” Holeman said. “CHP officers say they are finding it when they make stops on vehicles coming into the area, not going out of the area like it used to be.”

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Cordera agrees that things are improving.

“The area has done a complete 360 over the past few years,” he said. “The community is getting better and the housing market is going up.”

Ed Glamuzina, a 10-year resident, said he has noticed a change. “With the meth labs disappearing, the shady characters are disappearing,” he said. “It’s like flowers are blooming instead of what it was.”

Residents say the task force and local deputies appear to have halted the meth industry in Lake Los Angeles. In turn, law enforcement officials credit members of the community--particularly Volunteers On Patrol, which has 31 volunteers in Lake Los Angeles.

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“They really are our eyes and ears,” said Deputy Mark Round, volunteer coordinator at the Lancaster station, which polices Lake Los Angeles.

“We have a huge volunteer program out there, two people to a car patrolling at various times of the day. Areas like Lake L.A. depend greatly on them.”

Having logged 2,500 hours as a volunteer, Louise Goodrich recently tooled along a dirt road in her white Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department cruiser. Her mission: Check the area for illegal dumping. Some volunteers have found evidence of meth labs.

The white-haired grandmother patrols Lake Los Angeles at least twice a week for signs of trouble. On a recent day, she and partner Maria Olson, also a grandmother, checked the local Century 21 office for vandalism, went by a bridge to see whether it had been hit by taggers again and stopped by a house at 173rd Street East to make sure burglars had not returned.

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She and the other unarmed volunteers keep their noses to the wind for that telltale chemical smell of a methamphetamine cook. On this day, not a trace--everything’s as it should be.

“If we see or smell anything,” Olson said, “we call it in.”


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