Homemade meth strains Midwest law enforcement

Federal money drying up as rural police forces, jails are being overwhelmed

July 15, 2005|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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, 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!" cried Detective Darin Kerwin in mock surprise. "I thought you were trying to clean up."

"Oh, man," the driver said, sweating. "Oh, man."

Rummaging in 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 would be released within hours - 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 asked for help from chemistry graduate students. In Franklin County, central Missouri, nearly every case of child abuse involves meth.

Meth is not just a Midwestern drug. It's popular among club-hoppers in Miami and gay men in New York City. It poses a challenge for law enforcement in cities such as Phoenix, Ariz.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Honolulu, where 40 percent of 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 lack the resources and 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.

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 comes from super-labs run by organized crime. In the Midwest, most of the meth is homemade, a few ounces at a time, in makeshift 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.

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 percent and the other by 62 percent, according to John Horton, associate deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The administration plans to focus instead on the meth super-labs 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.

Steve Dalton, who heads a drug unit in southwestern 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 behind bars.

The drug is such a potent stimulant that users often can't sleep for 10 days after a binge. Besieged by hallucinations and paranoid to the point of psychosis, addicts often yell through the night, setting other inmates on edge. Some go on destructive rampages, smashing their heads through cell windows and ripping bolts out of walls.

"We have a concrete-and-steel holding cell, and they still manage to tear it up," Sheriff Wayne Youell said of the Mason County Jail in central Illinois, where thousands of dollars have been spent on repairs.

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