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Upscale, but Within Meth's Grasp

Recent arrests show the highly addictive drug with a rural reputation is also ravaging lives in upper-income neighborhoods.

October 12, 2003|William Lobdell and Mai Tran | Times Staff Writers

As the mother of a former crystal-meth addict, Marla Herman isn't surprised by what the drug can do.

She watched her daughter, Renee DeMontreux, a former cheerleader at Redondo Union High School, go from a college student with a full-time job to a methamphetamine addict, dealer and drug-maker in less than a year.

The change was "devastating and really quick," said Herman, 48, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident, adding with a bitter laugh: "That is the wonderful thing about meth."

For those with firsthand knowledge of the drug, it wasn't a shock that Orange County sheriff's deputies arrested 22-year-old Adriean Volz last month on suspicion of converting her parents' 5,000-square-foot home in a gated Laguna Niguel community into a meth lab capable of producing $1-million worth of the drug each year.

Though stereotyped as the drug of rural and lower-class neighborhoods, methamphetamine has become ubiquitous among drug-using teens and young adults no matter their economic or social status, say authorities and experts.

"The drug doesn't hold any boundaries," said Ed Smith, 34, a former meth addict and now a director of Narconon Southern California, an inpatient rehabilitation center based in Newport Beach. "I've sold crystal meth to junkies and to businessmen inside million-dollar homes."

Nor did it surprise meth experts that authorities said Volz and the three men arrested with her -- including a pair of parolees -- had used their profits to fund the Nazi Low Riders, a prison and street gang. Even those with affluent upbringings say that once hooked on methamphetamine, they quickly adopted "the meth lifestyle," which includes befriending a new group of people -- fellow addicts, many of whom are involved in crime.

In an interview, DeMontreux, 24, said she exchanged her well-to-do suburban friends for gang members and criminals after becoming addicted.

"My boyfriend was in jail, and my dealer -- who I helped cook the meth with -- was shot and killed," said DeMontreux, a baby-faced blond who lost 50 pounds from her 5-foot-1 frame and was arrested three times during her addiction. Twice she was convicted of misdemeanor drug offenses and both times sentenced to probation on condition of undergoing treatment.

She now helps others get off drugs and said she's been clean for nine months.

Orange County sheriff's investigators say something similar happened to Volz. On Sept. 9 they arrested her and three male friends on suspicion of building a meth lab that nearly filled the large, expensive house where Volz lived. The woman's parents, who were undergoing a divorce, lived in other family homes.

Police said the parents were unaware of the drug operation. The young woman's parents -- including father George Peterson, president of an Irvine construction and development company -- could not be reached.

The high-profile bust underscored what authorities and meth experts have known for some time: Crystal meth's popularity has spread to all neighborhoods.

"It's not only a poor person's drug," said Sgt. Chuck Chapman, an Orange County sheriff's deputy in charge of the countywide Proactive Methamphetamine Laboratory Investigative Task Force, formed in 1997.

He added that in recent years meth labs have been found in upscale Dana Point, Niguel Shores, Irvine, Laguna Beach and San Clemente.

"We don't get them often in multimillion-dollar homes," Chapman said. "It's a little unusual. You always find them in standard middle-class homes."

Mike Szyperski, detective of the narcotics unit of Newport Beach Police Department, said 80% of his division's time is spent curbing meth use.

"Everyone is doing it," Szyperski said. "It's the drug of choice."

State Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement officials seized 51 meth labs in Orange County in 2002. So far this year, they have busted 40. According to the attorney general's office, the state confiscated more than $38 million in drugs during seizures in 2002. Of that figure, $5.5 million was from meth.

In 2002, Los Angeles officials seized 163 meth labs. This year, as of Aug. 30, 82 labs have been seized.

Jerry Hunter, a special agent in charge of a Los Angeles police task force, said many labs are set up in motel rooms, where they are called "kitchen" or "stove" labs that can produce about an ounce of meth at a time.

Because methamphetamine can be produced using store-bought ingredients, the labs -- which leave behind toxic chemicals and can produce devastating explosions -- can be set up anywhere, though manufacturers usually prefer more isolated locations.

"Even if you're rich, it doesn't seal you off," Hunter said.

Crystal meth has other appeals for drug users living in the suburbs. First, it's manufactured locally and distributed to affluent communities.

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