Police say robots are invaluable tool in meth busts
CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) - Methamphetamine labs pose their own unique danger because ingredients in the drug are volatile.
But lately, a new danger is being added to the mix: law enforcement officers approaching meth houses increasingly are encountering improvised explosive devices left as a gift from meth makers.
In one such instance July 1 in Franklin County, officers recruited an unlikely soldier in their campaign against meth.
Meet RMI-9WT Bomb Removal Robot, owned by St. Louis County police, which detonated the device in a nearby open field, preventing certain injury or death to police and civilians. Shrapnel flew as far as 75 yards away.
"Our officers were surprised by the size and scope of explosion," said Franklin County Detective Cpl. Jason Grellner.
"If not for the robot, our people would have hand-carried them (explosives) out. The devastation from the blast, well, I wouldn't have wanted to be around it."
St. Louis County Police Lt. Tom Grimm likened the explosive to a World War II grenade that caused $25,000 damage to the robot, which will be repaired.
The robot, which comes equipped with cameras to photograph crime scenes, was purchased last year with $103,000 in Homeland Security funds.
Grimm knows of two such robots among St. Louis area police departments. St. Louis County Police have used the robot at least once a month.
On July 1, Franklin County Sheriff's deputies went to a home to arrest a man for alleged narcotics violations.
When they got there, they could smell the strong, chemical, telltale odor of a meth lab. They also discovered two improvised explosive devices.
They called the St. Louis County Police Department's arson and explosives unit to help remove the explosive devices.
A bomb technician in a specially designed suit removed the bombs from the residence, which was too small for the robot to enter.
But once outside, RMI-9WT took over the job.
Sheriff Gary Toelke said Franklin County cannot afford its own robot. But if the bomb-making trend continues, Toelke may have to borrow the robot more often.
He said methamphetamine users are extremely paranoid, and have taken to setting up booby traps and surveillance cameras to prevent law enforcement from approaching their meth operations.
They are so paranoid, in fact, Toelke said, "We've gotten calls in the office from drug users saying they see our people hiding in the trees."
He said the police battle against meth will be helped by a new state law effective Friday.
The law prohibits most Missouri retailers from selling over-the-counter medicines with pseudoephedrine, an essential ingredient in most meth recipes.
But Toelke said determined meth makers need only travel to neighboring Illinois, which has no such law.
A bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would limit national access to cold medicines with pseudoephedrine. That, Toelke said, would hurt meth makers.
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He said one meth maker he arrested had printed every Walgreen's drug store address from here to Indiana. "They'll travel to get that stuff," he said.