CARYN ROUSSEAU, The Associated Press
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Methamphetamine manufacturers have
taken to the highways, abandoning their home-based drug labs for
mobile versions stashed in car trunks that can explode en route.
Narcotics investigators say drug producers were forced to take their
labs from homes and apartments when police started obtaining search
warrants for the residences. Now, the meth makers travel from forest
preserve to parking lot to motel room, cooking as they go and
ditching the labs when they spy police.
"We're stopping people out here on the highway who are actually
cooking the dope while they're driving around," said Major Mitch
Carolan, who coordinates the Arkansas State Police's methamphetamine
unit near Fort Smith. He's found 60 labs in vehicles so far this year.
"They'll mix everything up and cook part at one location and drive
around and find them another location to ... make meth," Carolan said.
Kim Francisco, who routinely busts the clandestine labs for the North
Little Rock Police Department, said the dealers are afraid to keep
the labs in their homes, so they move often.
On one recent bust, Francisco popped the trunk of a light blue
Chevrolet that was filled with toxic chemicals, a blow torch and a
corroded coffee pot. The back seat was strewn with syringes and a
grocery bag filled with pseudoephedrine pills. About $1,000 worth of
powdered methamphetamine was sealed in plastic bags, stuffed into
"When we opened this up it was bad," she said. "The odor just killed you."
Officers received a tip and stopped the car in a wealthy residential
neighborhood just blocks from an elementary school and crowded mall.
Francisco says it's not uncommon to find labs in well-to-do areas.
"Right across the road here, in that $250,000 or $300,000 house,
we've had a meth lab in there," she said.
Soon, state Crime Lab officers arrived and then cleanup crews. Norman
Kemper, a chemist with the unit, wore a yellow hazardous materials
suit while pulling items from two large plastic tubs that were in the
trunk. As he read off the names of chemicals, a police officer typed
each into a laptop computer.
"One more strainer with white residue," Kemper said before moving on
to a gallon-jug of iodine. Another officer pulled the collar of his
suit over his nose and mouth to block the fumes.
Many picture methamphetamine labs as chemistry sets they would find
in a high school classroom. Instead, they're tubs of hazardous
chemicals, boxes of matches and stashes of corroded glassware.
"Eighty percent of the labs I work now have absolutely nothing that
you would consider actual lab-grade glassware," Carolan said. "They
can make this stuff out of anything."
Methamphetamine is a growing problem in Arkansas, Francisco said,
with about 950 labs found statewide last year and about 700 so far
Francisco says police are frustrated because, once a lab is found,
Arkansas has no strict laws on how it will be cleaned up. She said
motel rooms, vehicles and residences that the mobile dealers
contaminate can be left for the next unsuspecting resident.
"This car, who knows what will happen to it," she said, motioning to
the blue four-door sedan, as clean-up crews worked on it. "You may be
buying it. It'll probably be sold with the contamination. Would you
want to get in and drive it? I wouldn't want my family in it."
Francisco said a maid in one local motel called police after she
started to clean one room and smelled strong fumes.
Police came and found an abandoned lab beneath the mattress.
"If she wouldn't have just cleaned it, a family would have stayed
there," Francisco said.
But a law would have forced the motel to more thoroughly clean the
room, she said.
"The motel people were kind of forcing us out, saying 'You all done
so we can rent that room back out?' We couldn't force them to clean
the carpet," she said.
Francisco said it is common for meth makers to throw the hazardous
contents of their labs into the trash or out a car window. Last year
in Jonesboro, sanitation workers were forced to dump the flaming
contents of their truck into a church parking lot after
methamphetamine materials ignited.
"It's killing the environment or some little kid who doesn't know any
better. Something's got to be done," she said.
Carolan said the public should be concerned because a routine traffic
accident could become even more deadly. "Everyone's assuming that
they're going to a car wreck, but actually they're going to a
hazardous chemical spill."
Carolan said there's little that law enforcement can do except train
officers to recognize the signs of a clandestine lab.
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"We want them to be aware (that), when they stop this guy and they
see six or eight quart jars, that doesn't mean he's going home to can
tomatoes," Carolan said. "There's a distinct possibility that under
those fruit jars he has the ingredients to make meth."