Wednesday, December 18, 2013
A quiet tree-lined street, with pretty homes and well kept yards. Just the type of neighborhood for raising children or retiring to….
A number of vehicles pull up in front of one home and officers spill out surrounding the home. Some knock on the door.
The tranquility of Harrison Road evaporates as law enforcement arrest the home’s occupants and dismantle a working meth lab.
This scenario played out over and over Monday and Tuesday last week, as members of the Metro Narcotics Unit in Dorchester County and teams in Beaufort, Berkeley, Colleton and Charleston counties mounted a meth blitz throughout the Lowcountry.
The Dorchester County Metro Narcotics Unit is composed of officers from the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office and Summerville Police Department.
The unit collects information from either ongoing investigations or anonymous tips from the Internet website, call-ins, Crime Stoppers, neighbors or, sometimes, an angry ex, says DCSO Captain Tony Phinney, Criminal Investigations Division commander.
And every so often, he says, the unit will do a sweep. The sweeps are usually on a smaller scale.
However, last week’s sweep became a huge affair, he says, when law enforcement from a number of Lowcountry counties decided, with the assistance of SLED and the federal DEA task force in Charleston, to do a multi-county blitz.
The DEA task force is composed of representatives – task force officers – from local departments including Summerville and DCSO.
In Dorchester, the unit divided into two teams. There were 20 addresses on the list of potential meth labs. One address, on Harrison Road, was the result of an ongoing open drug investigation. To that address, the team went armed with a warrant.
To the other addresses, the teams conducted a “knock and talk” approach.
The trained team members can tell by odor, things they see, or the attempts to run out the back door, if the tips are good.
If so, they stay on scene, often after being invited inside to talk, while an investigator back at the office applies for a search warrant, gets it signed by a judge and runs it out to the address.
And then it’s all over, for those running a meth lab.
Last week, in Dorchester County alone, 13 were arrested and six labs dismantled as well as one “dump lab” – a site where the leftover chemicals and apparatus are dumped.
• At 153 Canaan Road in Ridgeville, the unit found a meth lab in an abandoned property and a meth dump site as well.
• At 264 Cheyenne Road, in Summerville, the unit found a lab and arrested a family of four individuals for the manufacturing of meth – Deborah Hardee, Marshall Hardee, Brandon Hardee and Kelsey Holladay.
• At 1010 Harrison Road in Ladson, a meth lab was found and three charged with the manufacturing of meth – Marsha Linn, Patrick Lynch and Stacey Gibson.
• At 128-A Wendy Way in Ladson a lab was found and two were arrested – David Rabon II and David Trombetta for both the manufacturing of meth and disposal of meth waste.
• At 402 Rose Lane, Summerville, John Deliesseline was charged with possession of meth. No lab found.
• At 114 Chaussee Blvd., in Summerville, a lab was found and Robert Radcliff was arrested for manufacturing and possession of meth.
• At 131 Webster Street in Summerville, a lab was discovered and two arrested for possession and manufacturing – John Childs Jr., and Melissa Highley.
“We didn’t anticipate this big a result,” said Phinney, “we caught everyone doing it [manufacturing meth].”
Usually, he explained, they anticipate on a house-to-house like this, there would be a lot of “tips” that are unfounded. This was not the case this time.
With extra manpower (outside of the unit members) in teams of five or six all wearing gear clearly marked “sheriff” or “police” the door knocking began.
Once a lab is discovered and the occupants removed, the team members suit up in protective gear. EMS is on the scene to take their vitals before and after they enter the lab. The team enters and gathers evidence and documents what they find.
Once they are finished documenting the scene a cleanup crew is called in.
The cleanup crew is a contracted company that deals with the disposal of hazardous waste.
Nevertheless, the entire operation is dangerous simply by nature of the target – a meth lab.
The manufacture of methamphetamine is hazardous on many levels.
Most meth ingredients are toxic and volatile. Law enforcement (and the neighborhood) is at risk from the first knock until the lab has been cleaned up.
At the Cheyenne address, for example, the knock on the front door resulted in an occupant running out the back door throwing a gasoline generator. Officers in the back arrested the individual and secured the generator.
In the multi-county sweep 16 labs were found and 26 arrests were made…more than 50 percent of the arrests in Dorchester County and the majority of the labs in Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
Phinney says the monthly stats kept by the DCSO tell an interesting story.
In September, the Metro Narcotics Unit and various patrol units, uncovered five labs and 42 grams of meth. In October, three labs and 40 grams. In November, four labs and 607 grams of meth.
The street value of meth seized in the three-month period is more than $86,000.
Meth, he says, depending on its form, has a street value between $100 a gram for powdered meth to $150 a gram for crystal(ized) meth.
A gram, he explains, is a tiny corner of a baggie, cut off and twisted shut. Users snort, smoke or shoot meth. A gram, for those not conversant in drug quantities, is the amount of sweetener in a packet.
Clandestine Lab Coordinator Lt. Max Dorsey, SLED Narcotics division, says statewide, so far this year, there have been 580 labs dismantled which is an increase over last year’s total of 538.
He doesn’t want to even guess how many there actually are. “it’s just so easy,” he says, “you go to your local retailer and buy all the chemicals. You can make it [using the one-pot method] at home, in your car…in a matter of two to three hours you have the finished product.”
He says he can’t stress enough how dangerous it is. “It’s potentially a firebomb,” he says, citing the Goose Creek fire last spring that killed a child and innocent neighbors. “That’s what can happen. That’s a worst case scenario.”
But even without an explosion or fire, the chemicals contaminate the air, ground and water. One of his biggest concerns is the children living with meth labs.
“In 2011, 150 children were removed from homes that were manufacturing meth. We know there are children being exposed to the manufacture of meth…it’s heartbreaking.”
In 2011, he says, South Carolina started using a program called NPLEx – National Precursor Log Exchange.
Anyone purchasing cold or allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine must show ID and sign for it and the information from all sales is entered into NPLEx. The database is free to law enforcement and enables them to track purchasing thereby knowing when an individual is buying large quantities or making frequent purchases.
Dorsey says only 10 percent of the meth labs law enforcement have discovered were found by using NPLEx. “If law enforcement used it more we could shut down more labs.”
One of the most dangerous things an officer can do, says Dorsey, is knock on the door of a meth lab. “Cops are good at tracking drug traffickers but because of the rise in meth labs, we are now turned into HazMat operators.”
“Sometimes even trash dumps [of chemicals] are as dangerous if not more, than criminal investigations.”
And then there’s the cost. Each time a meth lab is uncovered – perhaps via a car stop, welfare visit, criminal investigation, tip – not only does law enforcement show up, but so do fire and EMS and a clean up crew. All of this, he says, costs money.
“If law enforcement had the money to dedicate to meth lab enforcement, I would hate to know how many more we would have seized.”
The 580 is the highest ever seized in the state.
“It is a very serious issue, it affects children, hospitals, environment and the economy.”
SLED allocates $1 million to operate a clean up program every year. It has spent about $2.5 million in taxpayer dollars since July 2011 just to remove the gross contaminants [the apparatus and leftover chemicals].
This does not count the cost of cleaning the surrounding environment nor does it include the cost of law enforcement, fire and EMS.”
Property owners need to pay attention. Hotel/motel owners as well. “Last week,” says Dorsey, “there was a meth lab found in a Marriot property – it’s not just the fly-by-night places but all types of hotels.”
“But living in the Lowcountry you’re fortunate you have good law enforcement down there. They know what they’re doing and are fighting a good fight.”
Dorsey says last week’s blitz was a first for the area and “highly successful.” Both county and municipal law enforcement are outstanding, he says. “Dorchester County and Summerville are some of the best in the state…I love ‘em.”
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