Meth’s growth outstrips prevention efforts

Missouri’s ‘war on drugs’ expands from urban areas to abandoned farms
Tuesday, January 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:04 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

The Mid-Missouri Drug Task Force fills two rooms of the senior citizens center in the town of Fortuna, 50 miles south of Columbia. The center is in an old schoolhouse with creaking floors and dark hallways. The stalls in the bathrooms are fitted with painted wooden doors.

In the main task force office, tallies and flow charts cover the green chalkboards. Lines are drawn diagonally from J.P. who makes meth to A.R. who sells, and vertically from A.R. to T.R. and D.P. — all of whom use. Across the hall is the meeting room of the Fortuna Ladies’ Knitting Club.

The task force formed in July 2002 to help local law enforcement agencies in six rural counties surrounding Boone County combat a growing methamphetamine epidemic. Making, selling and using meth in those counties — Moniteau, Miller, Cooper, Morgan, Howard and Osage — had far eclipsed the money and manpower available to keep it under control. In Miller County alone, 60 meth arrests were made in 2002.

Missouri’s “war on drugs” has moved out of the cities and into sleepy farm towns. It has meant a staggering change for the marshals and deputies more familiar with busting bonfires and drunken drivers than drug dealers. Officers are being trained to deal with large-scale drug abuse: They learn how to identify meth labs, clean up toxic dumpsites and handle addicts who are high and often armed. A Boone County detective says one in four meth arrests involve stolen weapons.

Police say the fight is like shadow boxing. “Cooks” — the people who make meth — and users know the back roads of small-town Missouri so well that they can hide from, or outrun, the police. They move their labs from place to place, or they mask them behind a pig or chicken farm. They make the drug in small batches, sometimes in their garages or basements, and distribute within a small circle of neighbors and friends.

In 2000, Congress made meth a top priority in the domestic drug war. Congressional members were stumped about how to act on their commitment to combat states’ horrific meth problem. Missouri — dubbed the meth capital of the nation — received $10 million in federal aid for training and enforcement.

Since then, federal attention and money have been diverted to the war in Iraq and a struggling economy. Meth use has taken root and flourished — a noxious weed on which addicts, police and whole communities are choking.

Funding an antidote

The pristine hills and lakes of Missouri’s Ozarks begin in Miller County, an hour south of Columbia. Tourists come to fish on the weekends or shop at the outlet mall. County Sheriff Bill Abbott says that just as recreational drug use, like pot and ecstasy, is part of the tourist culture, meth addiction has been woven tightly into the community. He’s at a loss as to how to rip it out.

Abbott has seven deputies to patrol 960 miles of paved and gravel roads, and to protect 23,564 residents, according to the U.S. 2000 census. The county’s towns — Lake of the Ozarks and Eldon — are growing, but the area remains largely rural and, in large pockets, poor. The median income in Miller County is $26,659 — compared with $38,421 for Boone County, according to the MU Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis. The county seat, Tuscumbia, doesn’t have a paid fire or police department. Two of Miller’s larger towns, Eldon and Iberia, support their own small police forces, but still rely on sheriff’s deputies for regular patrols.

The state’s fiscal woes in 2003 cut into Abbott’s budget.

“I got cut two deputies — road deputies,” Abbott says. “It hurts. Comp time is tearing us up. We’re short handed, and I imagine other counties are the same way.”

That has made it easier for meth addicts to set up labs in the fields and ravines around the county. So in 2002 Miller joined with five other neighboring counties to create the Mid-Missouri Drug Task Force and to get drug enforcement funding from the Missouri Sheriff’s Methamphetamine Relief Team, or MoSMART, a state program created in 2001. U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R.-Mo., helped secure $3.2 million dollars in funding from the federal government — down significantly from the $10 million sent three years ago. The Mid-Missouri task force gets $250,000 from MoSMART, a federal program called the Byrne Grant and matching local funds.

Capt. Terry Everett, 60, runs the task force. He’s a former Los Angeles Narcotics Unit officer who moved to California, Mo., in Moniteau County, for retirement. He worked part time for the sheriff’s department. As the meth problem in mid-Missouri grew, many thought him the perfect guy to head up the fight against it. He agreed.

His eight officers come from each of the six counties and are dedicated solely to drug enforcement. They follow leads across the region, keep track of key players and wait for opportunities. From July 2002 to July 2003, the task force found 95 labs and made more than 450 arrests.

That’s a significant boost to the arrests other deputies and local police have made. But according to Everett, it’s barely made a difference.

“We’re probably not even getting 10 percent of them,” he says.

Meth labs in Missouri are mobile, and often are moved before police can hunt down the rumors and tips and trails of stolen ingredients leading to them. For example, Everett says, for the past few years most meth-related arrests in the six-county area could be traced back to labs in Miller County. But when drug agents stepped up patrols there, the meth cooks moved operations and more arrests traced back to labs in Moniteau County, Everett says.

“There are paper trails,” he says. “But as far as where the money goes, (with) your mom-and-pop operations, the money tends to stay right there,” Everett says.

Tracking meth’s tracesEverett and his team find remnants of drug use, such as chemical and glass waste, far more often than they find users or labs. They stumble into property crimes, child neglect and spousal abuse more often than the drug itself. Tracking meth is like following a trail of breadcrumbs left at the edge of a deep wood.

One such crumb is often damaged farm equipment. In the small town of Lone Elm in Cooper County, seven white tanks, or “wagons,” of anhydrous ammonia line the shoulder of a country road gleaming in the sun. They wouldn’t be difficult for a meth “runner” or “spider” — someone who gathers the ingredients for meth cooks — to spot. The pressurized liquid ammonia in the tanks is meant for use as a crop fertilizer. But Cooper County Sheriff Paul Milne says spiders break into the tanks, stealing enough anhydrous to make a small batch of drugs. Blue labels on the tanks explain how to transfer the product, and what to do if it comes in contact with the eyes, throat, lungs or skin. Inhaling it can freeze the lungs; touching it freezes the skin.

Eldon Kirshner, a co-op manager in Lone Elm, says meth addicts hit his tanks as often as twice a week.

“It’s not (so much) the product we’re losing,” he says. “It’s all the damage they’re doing.”

Addicts rip the locks and valves off the tanks to get to the anhydrous. Kirshner tried making locks with PVC pipe and chains to cover the valves, but to no avail. He says it costs as much as $500 each time he has to replace the valves and locks. The fertilizer itself only costs $1 a gallon. Anhydrous tanks have become a prime target for stakeouts by the drug agents. Milne and his deputies will camp in the fields near a co-op for days, waiting for spiders. A new state law makes it a felony to release anhydrous ammonia into the atmosphere; any release that results in serious injury or death can bring a prison sentence of 20 years to life. So if the cops can’t find the labs, they concentrate on catching runners in the act of stealing ingredients.

Milne says he’s spent several days on stakeouts without seeing a thing.

“Couple of weeks ago I sat (across from Lone Elm for) six nights,” he says. “The one night I wasn’t there, they got hit.”

Addicts also steal common convenience store fare to make meth: batteries, lighter fluid, nail polish remover, cold tablets. Boone County detective Ken Kreigh says runners crush boxes of cold tablets flat and shove them down their pants, fitting 10 boxes in each leg.

And rural sheriffs are now confronting violence more often, prompting some to add bulletproof vests to their standard equipment, according to William J. Renton Jr., special agent in charge of DEA at the St. Louis Division. In 2002, in southern Dent County, Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Sharon J. Barnes, 48, was shot and killed during an attempted meth raid.

The Mark Twain National Forest sprawls over a quarter of Dent County where, in 2002, the Missouri Highway Patrol reported only eight meth labs found — one of the lowest concentrations in the state. But that same year, in the county’s largest town of Salem, two cooks got into a brawl over 1.5 pounds of meth. During the fight, one of the cooks killed two people and fled. Barnes, a nine-year veteran who ran seven cattle farms with her husband, was assigned to bring him in.

Renton says he was told that several people in Salem knew the meth cook and didn’t think he was violent. Barnes and another deputy got a tip that he was at his house. When they arrived, a woman opened the front door; the meth cook was standing behind her.

“He was all tweaked up, and he shot through the door,” Renton says.

Barnes was shot in the head and torso. She died next to her car.

“There has been a virtual explosion of crime in rural America, and most of it has been attributed to methamphetamine, methamphetamine abuse and its side effects,” Renton says.

Cleaning up the chemicals

For every 10 hours Everett’s officers spend on a drug bust, he says five are spent on cleaning up an abandoned lab. Hazardous material training has become part of the law enforcement routine.

“In the past if somebody was using cocaine, the worst you might have to clean up is a needle,” he says. “Now we’ve got all these containers and materials they mixed it in.”

The Koch Crime Institute, a Kansas-based methamphetamine crime research group that partners with the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, reports that for every pound of meth made, five pounds of toxic waste are left. Despite that, Brad Harris of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources says damage to the environment hasn’t been significant in the state, because most of the labs are so small. Cooks often pour their residue down the drain, where it is flushed through wastewater treatment systems.

In Boone County, the Columbia Fire Department’s hazardous materials team performs the cleanup. But in more rural counties, like Miller, deputies don chemical suits and do the clean up themselves. They dismantle the hoses and empty what’s left in the glass jars and plastic bottles into sealed containers. The coffee filters are thrown away; the rubber gloves and lighter fluid are boxed up.

Much to the frustration of drug agents, they can spend more time cleaning up after drug addicts than catching them. In October, Kreigh had identified a lab in a home in Boone County and was ready to make a bust. But while his officers sat poised to move, he sat in his windowless office waiting for a warrant. While he waited, the cooks moved their operation.

A week later, in another part of the county, a resident was driving down a gravel road when he noticed something suspicious in the creek bed. He called police and they found a few garbage bags: lab waste and, maybe, the hint of a lab nearby. Kreigh came with three officers and a team of specialists in hazardous materials. The spot was off the highway a few miles. It was a cool October day, and the creek looked like a good place to hide a lab. But the officers found little for their troubles but leftovers: coffee filters, glass Mason jars, empty Prestone Starting Fluid cans and rubber gloves.

They bagged up the waste and tagged the glass jars as evidence. They shot the propane tank, half full of anhydrous, six times to depressurize it before the team hauled it away.

Intensified meth laws

With meth use growing so pervasive and enforcement so elusive, the General Assembly and courts have stiffened penalties against addicts and cooks, hoping to serve as a deterrent and to keep meth makers out of circulation longer. Laws went into effect last year in Missouri to target the ingredients needed to make meth: No more than three packages, or six grams, of pseudoephedrine decongestant — found in common cold pills — can be purchased at any one time, and all products that contain the drug must be kept within 10 feet of a store’s check-out register or tagged with electronic monitoring devices.

Possession of meth is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A person caught stealing ingredients used for meth can also face up to 10 years in prison. A cook caught making 30 grams or more can be sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Cooking within half a mile of a school or a home with children can bring life in prison.

But some counties are using drug courts, which sentence addicts to treatment and parole rather than prison, in the hope they’ll get clean.

Kreigh, of Boone County, says it doesn’t seem to matter how long meth users are locked up. In his experience, as soon as they are back on the streets, they are using again. Meth is that powerful.

“We’ll bust them for cocaine usage and very often they’ll shut down, slow down, go into rehab, get away from it. And we don’t see them for a while,” he says. “We’ll arrest someone for meth, and it’s not uncommon to arrest them again the next weekend for cooking. We’ve done that more than one time.”

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