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Meth's Grip in Midwest Strangles Authorities

June 27, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

HILLSBORO, Mo. — 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."

"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.

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.

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.

"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."

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

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