Methamphetamine Manufacturers Take Labs on the Highways
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 film canisters.
"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 this year.
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.
"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."