Sunday, August 17, 2003

49 meth labs uncovered


Arrests stress Clermont Co. foster care, jails

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cold sufferers won't find Sudafed or Actifed on the shelves at the Eastgate Wal-Mart anymore.

Instead, the decongestants are now kept behind the pharmacy counter at the Clermont County store - out of the reach of shoplifting methamphetamine manufacturers. The medicines contain ephedrine, an ingredient used to make the illegal stimulant

"You just watched them take it. ... Everybody pretty much knows what the problem is," says supervising pharmacist Bob Dann. .

That problem, law enforcement officials say, is a growing methamphetamine-making enterprise in Clermont County.

For the second consecutive year, officials have shut down more meth-making labs - mostly mom-and-pop operations producing relatively small amounts of the drug - in Clermont County than in any other of Ohio's 88 counties.

From July 1, 2001 through June 30 this year, officials dismantled 49 labs in the county, according to a recently released report by the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

These labs with caches of dirty Mason jars, yards of plastic piping, ether, anhydrous ammonia and hundreds of Sudafed packets in basements, garages, barns and sheds accounted for nearly half the 102 labs officials seized in eight Southwest Ohio counties during the past two years.

Summit County, in northeast Ohio, was a distant second with 23 illegal labs.

The emphasis by law enforcement on identifying and shutting down the labs is beginning to affect Clermont County in other ways as well: The foster care system is brimming with children taken from unsafe living conditions; jail cells and county courtrooms are filling with users and manufacturers, and some homes have been rendered uninhabitable by the toxic by-products of the meth-cooking process.

"I would probably equate this to the first vestiges of crack cocaine usage in the early '80s," says Bill Williams, commander of the Clermont County Narcotics Unit."I believe that is what we are seeing take place - not only within our community, but also in Ohio as a whole," he adds. "If it's not addressed in its infancy, it could potentially turn out to be an epidemic."

Why Clermont County?

Some officials say the high number of meth lab seizures in Clermont County is because of law enforcement's early and organized efforts to curb illicit drug production in the county.

Others, though, point to the county's largely rural landscape - which has historically attracted meth makers in part because the cooking process emits a strong odor and can be done in relative obscurity. The county is also close to Kentucky, which has long had problems with the illegal stimulant.

Still others say makers of the drug can easily find and steal the raw materials, such as the common farm fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, from local farms.

Authorities in the county first detected meth-manufacturing operations in 2001. First discovered in the northern parts of the county, in Goshen, Wayne and Stonelick townships, the problem has spread south, with busts in Batavia, Union, Tate, and Washington townships in the past two years.

So far this year, 26 people have been indicted on charges of illegal drug manufacturing, says Tony Brock, assistant Clermont County prosecutor. From January 2001 and November 2002, 50 others were indicted on meth-related charges.

County narcotics agents confiscated about 280 grams of meth, with an estimated street value of about $28,000, from July 1, 2002 through June 30.. Most of the operations are considered addict labs, created for personal use and limited sales to others.

James Shroba, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Cincinnati office, says it's likely that authorities are finding only a fraction of the labs in Greater Cincinnati.

"If we have 61 labs (in the region) this year alone - what is the best case scenario of what we're finding? Say we have 10 percent, which means there are another 600 out there that we don't know about," he says.

"There are probably just as many in other counties."

Shroba said authorities in Clermont County are "devoted to uncovering these labs. They're out there actively seeking these labs rather than waiting for (information about) these labs to come to them."

Erin O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services agrees.

"The awareness level in Clermont County is up over other counties. They got on top of the problem long before other counties knew that a meth problem even existed in Ohio," she says. "They were just on the ball in figuring out this problem."

But they can't do it alone.

Cleanup of these sites is dangerous, costly and is primarily handled by specially trained workers. The cleanup is paid for mainly by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says Williams, of the county's narcotics unit.

The cost of cleaning up a dismantled lab site would break county coffers. Decontamination costs can run about $6,500 per 1,200 square feet, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"We spend literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars just in the Cincinnati area alone cleaning up laboratories each year," says Shroba of the DEA. "A county like Clermont would be hamstrung. ... They'd pay about $30,000 for a company to come out and clean up chemicals and do that 28 times in a year - that'd be several hundred thousand per year for Clermont alone."

Teaching others about meth

Clermont County officials are taking the lessons they've learned to others.

They were part of a July summit in Marion, where law enforcement agencies from across the state learned about the influx of meth into Ohio. Clermont officials presented workshops on recognizing paraphernalia used to cook and use meth, and on prosecuting those arrested for meth-related crimes.

Clermont's Narcotics Unit is also training county child protection workers on how to recognize meth.

"They go into these homes," says Bob Proud, president of the board of county commissioners. "They check on the welfare of children living in these conditions, and knowing what to look for is a benefit."

Since mid-May, Child Protection Services has removed 20-25 children from homes with working meth labs.

Anne Arbaugh, CPS interim deputy director, says about 15 of those children remain in foster care.The others are with relatives.

"It's very sad and very difficult. Placing that many children all at once has put a tremendous strain on our foster homes. They're full," she says.

The kids are teaching the authorities, too.

"One child described in detail how they'd make it. She actually participated in the assembly,'' Arbaugh says. "She described to our caseworker the smell when you make it and how the acid from the batteries feels when you cut one open and it gets on your hands."

E-mail mmccain@enquirer.com




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