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Meth’s Grip in Midwest Strangles Authorities

Times Staff Writer

The detectives were relaxing over fried pork rinds when they saw a car turn into the driveway of the farmhouse they had just raided.

The car rattled past the Confederate flag, past the skull and crossbones, heading for the overgrown yard where several addicts had been cranking out the illegal drug methamphetamine. The detectives exchanged glances. They ducked behind a truck.

When the car stopped and the driver got out, they rushed him.

“Randy!” Det. Darin Kerwin exclaimed in mock surprise. “I thought you were trying to clean up.”

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“Oh, man,” the driver said, sweating. “Oh, man.”

Rummaging through the back seat, Kerwin pulled out a McDonald’s bag crammed with decongestant pills -- a key ingredient for manufacturing meth.

“Oh man,” the driver said again. He banged his head on his car trunk. “I’m dead.”

In fact, he’d be released within hours -- just as he had been the last time these officers arrested him at a meth lab, and the time before that. Swamped with meth cases, the crime lab that serves Jefferson County is six months to a year behind in processing evidence. That’s not unusual.

A decade after meth took hold in the heartland, the inexpensive, highly addictive home-brewed stimulant is straining rural law enforcement resources to the breaking point.

The Polk County Jail in central Iowa is so packed with addicts that the sheriff sends the overflow out of state, at a cost of $5 million a year. Indiana’s state crime lab has such a huge backlog of meth cases that the governor has appealed for help from chemistry graduate students.

In central Missouri, nearly every case of child abuse involves meth. Social workers in Franklin County keep a log of parents under investigation and the circumstances involved; this spring, it read: Cocaine. Meth. Medical and physical neglect. Meth. Sexual abuse. Meth. Meth. Manufacturing meth.

“It becomes the only work you can do,” said Cpl. Jason Grellner of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department.

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Meth is not just a Midwestern drug. It’s popular among club-hoppers in Miami, gay men in New York City, stay-at-home moms in Omaha. It poses achallenge for law enforcement in cities such as Phoenix, Sacramento, San Jose and Honolulu, where two out of every five men arrested test positive for meth.

But it’s in the Midwest that the drug has most severely tested the justice system, in part because sheriff’s deputies, jail wardens and crime lab technicians in rural counties don’t have the resources or the experience to deal with a drug epidemic. Officers struggle to subdue addicts so high on meth that even a Taser won’t stop them. They complain of a justice system clogged with so many meth cases that it can take a year after an arrest for prosecutors to file charges.

“It’s not effective law enforcement,” said Sheriff Mark Kenneson of Greenwood County, Kan.

His deputies used to handle calls about stray cattle. Now they’re being asked to raid booby-trapped labs. In one such bust in January, Kenneson’s predecessor was fatally shot in the neck.

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Kenneson has been trying ever since to scrape up the funds for bulletproof vests with neck guards. He can’t -- not with calls coming in from every small town in his county reporting suspected meth labs. “It drains your budget,” he said.

About two-thirds of the U.S. meth supply -- including most of what’s available in big cities -- comes from superlabs run by organized crime. In the Midwest, most of the meth is homemade, a few ounces at a time, in informal labs heaped with toxic, highly flammable chemicals.

To enter an active lab, a detective must wear a hazmat suit, a respirator and a $2,500 self-contained breathing apparatus. Once the investigative work is done, deputies must guard the site until cleanup crews arrive. That can take up to 36 hours.

In a rural county with just a few deputies on duty each shift, baby-sitting a lab overnight -- much less for several nights -- can paralyze the department.

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“It just cripples my patrols,” said Sheriff Steve Frisbie of McMinn County, Tenn.

Though the White House acknowledges that meth presents “a unique problem” for law enforcement, President Bush has proposed cutting the two main grant programs for rural narcotics teams -- one by 56% and the other by 62%, according to John Horton, associate deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The administration plans to focus instead on the meth superlabs in Mexico and along the border. With a “belt-tightening budget,” that’s the most efficient way to run the war on drugs, Horton said.

Lt. Steve Dalton, who heads a drug unit in southwest Missouri, said: “If those cuts go through, they’re going to wipe us out. Meth is a totally different drug from everything we’ve seen. It’s extremely stressful on law enforcement.”

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The strain doesn’t end when a meth offender is put behind bars.

The drug is such a potent stimulant that users often can’t sleep for 10 days after a binge. Besieged by hallucinations and paranoid to the point of psychosis, addicts often holler through the night, setting other inmates on edge. Some go on destructive rampages, smashing their heads through cell windows and ripping bolts out of walls.

“We have a concrete and steel holding cell, and they still manage to tear it up,” Sheriff Wayne Youell said of the Mason County Jail in central Illinois, where thousands of dollars have been spent on repairs.

Once the offenders get to state prison, the cost skyrockets. The drug can causesuch severe damage to addicts’ organs that 30-year-olds may enter prison needing pacemakers and liver transplants. Many suffer from “meth mouth” -- their teeth rotted to the gum -- and require a complete set of dentures.

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Treating a single meth addict in prison costs taxpayers thousands -- and there are more of such inmates every day. About half of those entering the Nebraska state prison have a meth-related conviction. Minnesota counts more than 1,000 meth offenders in state facilities -- up from about 140 four years ago.

“It’s been awful, just awful. Our costs have gone through the roof,” said Kathleen Bachmeier, director of medical services at the North Dakota State Penitentiary.

Here in the farm country of eastern Missouri, Cmdr. Gary Higginbotham sometimes longs for the days when a roadside patch of marijuana was considered a major drug threat.

These days, he commands a squad of 12 detectives, including the men who raided the farmhouse in Hillsboro, about 40 miles south of St. Louis. The squad often works double or triple shifts. Last year, they shut down 313 labs.

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“I’ve never seen anything like this drug,” Higginbotham said. “I don’t want to use the word ‘overwhelming,’ but it’s nonstop.”

He pulled his Ford Explorer up next to the sagging farmhouse. Last week, his squad discovered an outdoor meth lab here, just beyond the sign warning: “Trespassers Will Be Violated and Survivors Will Be Shot.” Now they had returned to arrest the 46-year-old addict living on the farm.

They found him with his pit bull mix, Dixie, a fat stack of cash, and a few grams of meth. He didn’t bother trying to flee.

“They’re going to catch up with me anyhow,” the man said bleakly.

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Like many addicts, he had already spent a few years in prison for meth possession. More than a dozen states in recent years have passed stiffer penalties for meth-related crimes. But the drug has such a strong pull on addicts -- one hit can produce a 12-hour high -- that the tougher laws have had little effect.

With less than $600 worth of supplies (decongestants, lithium batteries, antifreeze, anhydrous ammonia), addicts can produce enough meth to keep them and their friends high for days, with a few grams left over to sell.

Meth cooks rarely aim to strike it rich; they simply hope to bring in enough cash to keep the cycle going. Often, they pay others to go out and buy the ingredients for them.

Detectives say one arrest may lead to a string of busts as each person in the supply chain turns in his contact in hopes of winning leniency.

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The farmhouse raid here was typical. Detectives got a bonus arrest when the man drove up with his McDonald’s bag full of pills. Though he denied even knowing they were in his car, officers suspected he was planning to trade them for meth.

Then the man who ran the lab agreed to wear a hidden microphone and buy cold pills from a woman who often supplied his lab. “Just being a good citizen,” he explained. (His name is being withheld at law enforcement’s request because he is working as an informant.)

Higginbotham listened from his Explorer as the woman with the pills pulled up next to the informant at a gas station.

“I got 600 here,” she said. “Don’t forget about me when you get done [cooking], all right?”

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“I won’t,” the man said. He handed her $85 in exchange for a Walgreen’s bag stuffed with cold tablets.

“Be careful,” she said.

“Be careful yourself,” he responded.

At that, five detectives swarmed in, surrounded the woman and grabbed the pills.

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Surveying the stash, Higgenbotham grinned. “Someone isn’t going to be making meth today,” he said. He thought for a moment, then amended: “At least, not with these pills.”

“We can’t catch ‘em all,” his deputy commander, Det. Derrick Blankenship, said. “All we can do is inconvenience them as much as possible.”

Sweating in the Missouri humidity, Blankenship took a swig of his sports drink and contemplated the afternoon ahead.

He and his partners would interrogate the woman they’d just arrested and track down any partners she had named. Maybe they could persuade her to cooperate in another sting.

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But they wouldn’t have much time; she would be out of custody within hours. It could be well into 2006 before prosecutors file charges against her for this afternoon’s bust.

In the meantime, Blankenship had no doubt she’d keep chasing her high. And he would keep chasing her.


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