GARDEN GROVE — By day, Richard Lonski managed a small apartment complex in Garden Grove. In his spare time, police said Friday, Lonski operated a methamphetamine lab in his apartment basement.
After a monthlong probe, narcotics officers raided the complex Thursday, arresting the 59-year-old manager and seizing chemicals for about 20 pounds of methamphetamine. There, police found evidence that led them to a larger lab in Garden Grove, where officers on Friday seized ingredients for drugs worth an estimated $1.8 million on the street.
The raids were the latest in a recent rash of Orange County seizures involving makeshift methamphetamine labs, where amateur chemists cook up the drug known as crank or speed.
"It usually takes between 24 to 30 hours to cook a batch, and the labs are then dismantled and moved from apartment to apartment," Garden Grove Police Lt. Kevin Raney said. Lonski was tripped up by a typical problem, police said: Someone noticed a strong odor pouring from the basement and called police.
Authorities evacuated more than 150 residents around the apartment on Adelle Street as fire and hazardous-materials crews as well as federal Department of Justice agents moved in to dismantle the lab--the same place where authorities had found a methamphetamine lab six months ago and had arrested Lonski then.
Thursday's search led to a "larger, more sophisticated" lab in the 11400 block of Presidio Way, Police Master Officer Richard Morales said. At 4 a.m. Friday, authorities seized 10 gallons of Methedrine oil, which is "one step away" from the powder form that could sell for hundreds of dollars an ounce, Morales said. Steven Ashlock, 34, of Garden Grove was arrested.
In the past few months, police in Orange County have raided several methamphetamine labs and seized drugs worth millions. And usually where there's methamphetamine, there is cash, detectives said, because dealers typically don't take their money to the bank.
Doug Smith, spokesman for the state Bureau of Forensic Services, which helps dismantle many methamphetamine labs in California, and others said Friday that the lucrative deals and the easy access to chemicals and equipment have led to an increase in labs statewide. In Orange County last year, authorities raided about 20 labs.
"The demand for it has quadrupled again and again," Morales said. "Right now, meth is the king; its price has gone up while the price of cocaine has gone down. Just like everything else, where demand goes up, production goes up."
The labs, which can be a kitchen operation for personal use or a lucrative mobile setup where "cooks" earn six figures, have become easier to set up, police said.
"It used to be where cooks had to put parts together as best they could and go out in the middle of nowhere so people couldn't smell what they were doing," Morales said. "Now they can purchase the equipment and chemicals from supply houses. That's taken a lot of the work out of the production end." Normally, what gives them away is the smell, as in Thursday's case, police said.
"People who live nearby smell it and if they smell it enough, they get headaches and start complaining," Morales said. "That's where we come in."
Lonski is being held at Orange County Jail without bail on suspicion of possession and selling methamphetamine and producing the drug. He already was on probation for the arrest six months ago.
Ashlock, who was also booked at Orange County Jail on suspicion of manufacturing methamphetamine, was being held in lieu of $25,382 bail.
Neighbors of both men said they were surprised by the commotion in their neighborhoods during the drug arrests. Residents described their streets as relatively quiet and seemingly drug-free.
Carmen Perez, who has lived with her family in the apartment complex with Lonski for four years, called Lonski a good manager who had always been pleasant and prompt with repairs to her apartment.
Phil Eyskins, who lives near Ashlock, said he was awakened about 5:30 a.m. by the police activity at Ashlock's home. Eyskins said he saw four police cars parked along his street, but didn't learn until today what they were there for. Eyskins said he did not know Ashlock.
"You never know what is going to happen anymore, do you?" said Eyskins, a 46-year-old assistant manager at a Lucky grocery store who has lived in the neighborhood three years. "It doesn't seem to matter what neighborhood you live in. You've just got to hope for the best these days."
Times staff writer Susan Marquez Owen contributed to this story.
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Speed Busts Here are the top methamphetamine seizures in Orange County, rated by street value:
Date City Amount (pounds) Street value Nov. 22, 1987 Anaheim 70 $5 million June 19, 1986 Huntington Beach 30 3 million June 2, 1995 Garden Grove 50 1.8 million Sept. 25, 1993 Santa Ana 30.5 1 million June 8, 1991 Garden Grove 20 1 million May 22, 1995 Buena Park 29 1 million May 11, 1995 Anaheim 105 735,000 Aug. 6, 1988 Buena Park 20 600,000 Dec. 31, 1994 La Habra unknown 300,000 June 1, 1995 Garden Grove 20 250,000
Source: Times reports; Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times