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Meth-Making Bandits Target Farmers' Fertilizer

Crime: N.Y. authorities are disturbed by the rise in the theft of anhydrous ammonia, a volatile chemical used on corn and soybean crops.


VENICE CENTER, N.Y. — Dale Parmley has lost count of how many times that thieves have crept onto his 1,800-acre farm to rob him. You might think that he was mining gold instead of growing corn and soybeans.

The bandits are after anhydrous ammonia, a volatile liquid fertilizer that can be used to produce methamphetamine.

"They've hit my farm as many as three, four times in one week. They just keep getting more bold," said Parmley, whose farm lies amid the Finger Lakes in southern Cayuga County, 40 miles southwest of Syracuse. "They caught one guy at my place. They put him in jail. He got bailed out. He hit one of my neighbors on the way out of town."

Cayuga County has become part of an illegal pipeline for an unorganized group of modern-day bootleggers, most of whom run the fertilizer from New York farms to meth labs in Pennsylvania.

In the last 18 months, more than 200 anhydrous ammonia thefts have been reported to Cayuga County sheriff's deputies, said Steve McLoud, chief investigator. Since July 2001, there have been 32 arrests -- three-fourths of them people from Pennsylvania, he said.

Why New York? Many north-central Pennsylvania farms use other types of fertilizers. They are also too small to risk storing ammonia, which comes as a pressurized liquid and requires storage and application equipment that can cost thousands of dollars.

"What's really disturbing to us, though, is that if we are able to apprehend that many people, how many others are out there doing the same things that we're not catching?" McLoud said.

The thefts have plagued the Midwest for years, where the use of meth has spread "like a prairie wildfire" and become rural America's No. 1 problem, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson.

According to a DEA survey, the number of people abusing the drug -- also known as speed, ice, crystal or crank -- has tripled over five years to 9.4 million in 1999.

In Oklahoma, thieves were so persistent that farmers and fertilizer dealers fought for and helped pass a law that carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence and $25,000 fine for a person caught destroying or attempting to destroy any liquid transportation tank.

The thefts in New York so far have been mostly in Cayuga County.

"[But] we have a lot of farmers around the state who grow corn," said Chris LaRoe, spokesman for the state Farm Bureau.

LaRoe said New York needs tougher laws. Usually, local authorities can charge thieves only with burglary or petit larceny, misdemeanors that often draw penalties of less than a year in jail.

Cayuga County Sheriff James Moochler said he's taking extra measures and increasing patrols.

"Like many police agencies, our resources are limited," Moochler said. "These locations are all rural. We have a big county to cover and it can be difficult. Plus, these people come late at night and early in the morning, make their grab and take off. They're not tourists. They don't spend a lot of time here."

The thefts have so overwhelmed local authorities that U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has asked the FBI to get involved in the investigation.

The economics are enticing.

Farmers buy anhydrous ammonia for less than $1 a gallon and typically store thousands of gallons for use at the beginning of the planting season. Supply wagons are parked overnight in dozens of dark, remote fields.

"Runners," as thieves are called, can get up to $250 a gallon. Using coolers, propane tanks and empty soda syrup canisters, they haul away several gallons at a time.

With one gallon, a meth cook can make a few ounces of the drug, worth about $2,000. The average homeowner would probably find most of the ingredients for cooking meth -- lithium batteries, matches, cold medication and liquid solvents -- in a kitchen junk drawer and medicine cabinet.

Anhydrous ammonia can be deadly. Federal regulations govern its use, requiring specific procedures and equipment for handling. Farmers use it as a fertilizer ingredient and know how to handle it safely. Some, like Parmley, use tens of thousands of gallons during planting season, storing it in 30,000-gallon railroad tanker cars and transporting it to the field in 1,000-gallon "wagon" tanks.

The pressurized liquid can produce more than 200 pounds of pressure per square inch. It feels like minus 160 degrees on the skin. It turns into a gas when exposed to air and, although it evaporates quickly, can cause serious skin and respiratory burns and even death if exposure is direct or prolonged.

Frequently, the chemical ends up spilled or abandoned by amateurs who are either reckless or looking to hide evidence, authorities said.

"They are dumping their waste in their backyards, along the side of the road, wherever they feel they need to," said Mark Nemier, a special agent with the DEA office in Syracuse.

Rodney Donald said it "seems like just about every week" that thieves hit the 1,300-acre farm he owns with his brother, Robert.

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