Authorities see rising number of meth busts this year

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 7, 2012

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — For John Stevens, opportunity looked like a former meth house.
A long-term renter, Stevens received a workers compensation payment a few months ago and began looking for a house.
The one that attracted his eye, and was in his price range, was a brick house on Stokes Ferry Road.
The only problem was the first four words on the home’s description: “Due to meth cleanout …”
“They told me it would probably cost about $15,000 to get everything clean,” Stevens said.
With help from friends and family, he’s cut the renovation costs to about $8,000.
Stevens’ home is one of 11 residences in Rowan County listed on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Clandestine Laboratory Registry for North Carolina.
And with a record number of meth busts already this year, the number could rise.
Authorities say a change in meth-making methods has led to lower numbers of large labs, like those seen a decade ago, and turned users into makers.
The method change has led local law enforcement officials to say the drug isn’t a fad and the number of busts is expected to rise.
Smaller pots, same danger
The floor in Stevens’ home, the ceiling and air conditioning ducts had to be replaced, he said.
All appliances had already been removed and the side door still bore the imprint of a battering ram deputies used to raid the home in October 2010.
“Trust me, I weighed all the options before I bought it,” he said.
Tad Helmstetler, environmental health program specialist for the Rowan County Health Department, said the agency receives reports from the State Bureau of Investigation after raids in homes. Information about meth labs found in cars or those deemed as “dumped” is not sent to county healthy officials, he said.
The fumes from a methamphetamine lab soak into anything porous, Helmstetler said, and in a house used for a lab, everything from the carpeting to the ceiling tiles have to be removed.
The Health Department has seen fewer reports recently, he said, because the smaller “one pot” labs, also called the “shake and bake method,” have become typical in North Carolina.
But the lab is still dangerous, and a chemist from the SBI is dispatched to the scene to collect it after a bust.
Labs used to be large, and the clean-up efforts were larger.
With the “shake and bake” method, labs can ride in your cup holder on the way to work.
‘You won’t have any lungs left’
In the past, labs have typically been based on either red phosphorus or anhydrous ammonia methods.
Helmstetler called the fumes “hideous” and said many law enforcement officials and medics were severely injured because of exposure to the chemicals.
“It looks just like water,” he said, “and if you open it and stick your nose down in it and inhale, you wont have any lungs left.”
The “shake and bake” uses a chemical combination, often including drain cleaner, lithium and pseudoephedrine, to create methamphetamine.
SBI Special Agent Todd Duke, in charge of the SBI’s clandestine laboratory response unit, said the first one-pot lab in the state was found in December 2009.
Since then, they’re roughly 80 to 90 percent of the labs being discovered statewide, he said.
Program aids local budgets
Duke heads a new SBI initiative that went into affect last month. The program allows the SBI and Drug Enforcement Administration to partner and take the burden of meth lab cleanup costs off local governments.
Four containment sites have been set up across the state. The nearest one is in Davie County. Another four labs are expected to be operational later this year.
Cleaning up a meth lab could have been detrimental to a small town’s budget before the new initiative began, Duke said.
“I worked a lab, the biggest one we’ve ever had, it was in Davidson County, in Denton,” he said. “It cost $110,000 for clean up.”
The typical lab costs roughly between $1,000 and $10,000 to clean up.
The costs are lower because of “shake and bakes,” which are easier to clean.
Following a 2006 law that restricted access to pseudoephedrine and placed daily and monthly limits on the drugs, users began taking to the one-pot method.
The smaller method requires less pseudoephedrine, which is commonly found in cold medication like Claritin-D.
In March, Rowan County investigators found a meth lab in the trunk of a car parked in a parking lot near Rowan Regional Medical Center. The lab was located in a 20-ounce Dr. Pepper bottle.
Duke said the process is still dangerous because it has to be “burped” periodically as fumes build inside the bottle.
“If you start mixing them up — lithium batteries, solvents, Sudafed, bases, acids — and you mix them together, if you do anything a little bit wrong,” Duke said, “and you’re talking about drug users here doing this, people that use meth, then the potential of something going wrong is pretty high.”
‘More cooks cooking smaller pots’
When a lab is found, a chemist meets agents on the scene and processes the material to see what lab method it is.
Without mixing the chemicals, agents will neutralize the meth lab and place them into buckets for containment.
Every two to three weeks, authorities contact the DEA and a hazardous material contractor removes the containers.
In 2011, Rowan County found five meth labs. Six have been found so far this year — tying the most busts in one year in the last decade — but Sheriff Kevin Auten said there’s more to the numbers.
“I think you have more cooks cooking smaller pots,” he said. “You’re taking some street level sales away because people are learning to do it themselves.”
Auten said deputies have seen about the same amount of meth over the last few years, but the “shake and bakes” make most Rowan users also makers, as well.
Not a fad
Most drugs are cyclical, he said, often coming and going as fads change in the drug underworld.
Auten doesn’t expect meth to follow that trend.
“I don’t think this one is going to run the cycle and disappear any time soon,” he said.
Recently, deputies found a meth lab in a barn on Larin Way, off Stokes Ferry Road.
Kannapolis Police found a lab in an apartment complex on South Main Street just three days later.
Authorities evacuated the building while the lab was being processed.
A resident, who declined to give his name, said police knocked on his door about 1 a.m. Monday morning.
“They said we need to leave because someone was cooking meth,” he said.
The resident said he had seen Russell Wright, the man arrested, just a few times. He didn’t believe he lived there.
“I guess that was just his lab,” he said. “He just do what he do and he left.”
Two letters were taped to Wright’s apartment. One was a warning letter from the SBI saying a clandestine laboratory was seized. The other was an eviction notice.