|It's a dangerous
marriage: uneducated drug addicts making meth with chemicals that
burn to the bone, blow off limbs or produce toxic clouds of poisonous
gas. But meth making is fraught with such perils: hydriodic and hydrofluoric
acid, lye, Freon, potassium chlorate, anhydrous ammonia.
and white-hot fires that sometimes follow should come as no surprise.
Over the years, narcotics detectives have hung several nicknames
on the laboratories of these amateur chemists: "Beavis and
Butt-head labs," a reference to the moronic cartoon characters,
or "coffeepot labs" because that's what crank often is
drug cops have taken to calling them "user/dealer labs"
-- those where the meth cooks make fairly small batches of crank,
use most of it themselves, then sell portions to buy the ingredients
to make more.
called, there are lots of them. In the entire Central Valley, more
than 260 small-time labs were busted in 1999, an average of five
a week. In Stanislaus County alone, 53 such labs were taken down
in 1998. The number jumped to 70 last year, and in the first four
months of this year alone, 50 meth-manufacturing arrests were made.
standard Beavis and Butt-head lab involves three or four people
who pool money to buy supplies. They manufacture about an ounce
at a time, which costs roughly $140 to produce. Ten boxes of pseudoephedrine
pills cost $80, and 2 ounces of iodine and red phosphorus run about
$40 combined. There are several other ingredients used, such as
Coleman fuel, sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid.
mixture is cooked from four to eight hours, often in coffeepots,
though a few cooks graduate to glassware. Once it cools, other chemicals
are added to help separate the meth from toxic liquids. Red phosphorus
and iodine are filtered out, leaving an ounce of crank worth about
sheets are among items discarded at a meth dump in rural Merced
County. Because of their high thread count, Martha Stewart sheets
often are used to strain chemicals.
Bee Photographer- Craig Kohlruss
say there are common elements to many lab sites, from the preferred
brand of beer consumed by the cooks (Bud Light, followed by Corona),
to the linens of choice used to strain the meth (the Martha Stewart
line because of its high thread count and availability). But there
can be decided variations in the process, depending on how resourceful
-- or how pathetically desperate -- the meth makers are.
is called the "Nazi method" because it supposedly mirrors
a meth-making procedure followed by the Germans during World War
II. Instead of hydriodic acid, the Nazi method uses anhydrous ammonia,
a nasty substance that can produce a poisonous gas if its liquid
form is released into the air. Central Valley drug fighters say
they have taken down maybe eight of these labs in the past two years.
Five of them were traced to a man from Missouri who had moved into
a trailer park near Fresno and was teaching this method, which is
popular among small labs in the Midwest.
is more earthy. In some areas, so much meth by-product has been
dumped into the soil that cooks are excavating hundreds of cubic
yards of earth from the sites to process the dirt and extract the
chemicals to make meth. "It looks like a moonscape," says
Bill Ruzzamenti, a DEA special agent and director of a Valleywide
meth task force. "It's mining for meth."
can top that for stomach-turning absurdity: In some sites -- appropriately,
if inelegantly, dubbed "pee labs" -- agents are finding
that the ingredients include human urine.
take the urine of a speed freak, and process it , you get back about
40 percent of the meth he used because the body only absorbs so
much," he says. "So they are processing their own pee.
disbelief, however, is part of the job in hunting down small-time
surveilling this guy one night who kept coming out of the house
to smoke, so we figured he was cooking," says Stanislaus Drug
Enforcement Agency detective Steve Hoek. "The next morning
when we hit this guy, we find him upstairs. He's surrounded by about
70 or 80 open quart jars of ether and acetone he was using to separate
this meth. And he's sitting there on the floor smoking. The whole
place should have blown up. I've seen a lot of stupid s*** in this
job, but that was amazing."
of another man who hid containers of red phosphorus in the attic
over his garage. The chemical is heat sensitive, so it began to
turn to white phosphorus, which is air reactive. It started a blaze
so hot the fire department had to give up and let the house burn.
of a meth chemical dump litters a roadside by an almond orchard
east of Atwater in rural Merced County in June. The dumps typically
occur along quiet rural roads and are comprised of used materials
that would be incriminating evidence against meth cooks.
Bee Photographer- Craig Kohlruss
Some meth makers
don't reserve all their stupidity for chemical mistakes but save
some for poor geographical choices: In the past few years, four
labs have been taken down within three miles of the Stanislaus County
Sheriff's Department. One lab hidden in a bamboo field on the same
street turned out to be one of that county's largest lab busts.
in a while, I'll be standing in the [Sheriff's Department] parking lot, and I can smell
it," says Stanislaus County sheriff's Sgt. Doug Leo. "They'll
cook anywhere. Nothing is sacred anymore."
meth makers lack in smarts, however, they make up for in numbers.
On a day in late spring, narcotics detectives Mark Ottoboni and
Pat Sullivan put on white suits, old shoes and two pairs of gloves
apiece and begin sifting through the ashes of a house on Paradise
Road in west Modesto.
the burned-out frame, they stack the evidence: charred metal containers
of Coleman fuel, blackened glass flasks, a heating mantle and several
partially melted, 5-gallon buckets of white and yellow powders.
The yellow powder is crank; the white substance is something used
as a cut.
This has become
a typical day for Ottoboni and Sullivan. There are so many lab mishaps,
the detectives spend most of their time searching charred labs and
lab dump sites for evidence instead of combating manufacturers.
been working labs since I got here four years ago," Ottoboni
says. "There are so many now, it's hard to proactively work
them. When I go to a lab, it takes about two days to do the reports,
process evidence and run background checks on to see if they've
No one was
at the Paradise Road residence when firefighters arrived at 2 a.m.
the night before, the house fully engulfed in flames. Those responsible
have, more than likely, moved somewhere else to cook. Crank labs
can be moved quickly from place to place. The coffeepot and chemicals
fit into a square, plastic storage tub that easily fits into a car
trunk. Meth cooks can drive to a new location, set up shop and leave
six hours later with a fresh batch.
is largely uncooperative; he tells Ottoboni he rented the house
to someone named Guadalupe. No last name. No rental agreement.
one down, three more pop up," Ottoboni says, as he picks through
the remnants of a back bedroom. The floor is covered in blackened
soot, burned folded clothes, pots and pans, magazines and propane
bottles. He picks up a broken piece of a glass beaker, and the toxic
red sludge eats through his first layer of rubber gloves. This hadn't
happened to him before. The sludge is a mixture of red phosphorus,
iodine and pseudoephedrine.
around the house, looking for clues. He examines the mangled tin
sheeting that walled the largest room. The force of the fire, or
an explosion, sharply indented the sheeting, shooting rusty nails
across the yard. The only thing left standing is a charred gas water
heater, which probably helped start the fire.
seen it a few times the last couple years," Sullivan says.
"Gas water heaters have a flame. Acetone and denatured alcohol
are extremely flammable. The fumes are heavy and hug the ground."