Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Officials bust 75th Virginia meth lab

"It's not uncommon for us to take down one meth lab and find several more that week."

The number of methamphetamine labs shut down in Virginia in 2004 has more than doubled last year's total, largely due to a cluster of arrests along the Interstate 81 corridor between Tennessee and the New River Valley.

On Tuesday, investigators in Washington County found the state's 75th meth lab of the year, a marked rise from the 34 labs found in all of 2003, according to figures provided by sheriff's offices and Virginia State Police.

"It's not uncommon for us to take down one meth lab and find several more that week," said Sgt. Mike Conroy of the Virginia State Police.

Authorities say meth, a powerful and highly addictive stimulant also known as crank or speed, is the drug of choice for many counties in Southwest Virginia.

The number of labs found will likely grow during the last two months of the year, especially in Washington, Smyth, Wythe and Pulaski counties that make up the I-81 corridor.

With a combined 56 labs this year, those four counties have emerged as the battleground in the fight against meth.

Deputies with the Washington County Sheriff's Office ferreted out three meth labs in one day a week ago and another one Tuesday, bringing the county's total to 18 labs for the year, said sheriff's Detective C.L. Hazelwood.

Tuesday's bust came at the Red Carpet Inn off the interstate's Exit 10, and police evacuated the motel to allow a specially trained team to pull the lab and its chemicals out of the motel room.

Meth, a central nervous system stimulant similar to cocaine, first appeared in the mid-1980s as a drug manufactured by the Hell's Angels biker gangs on the West Coast.

By the '90s, new meth recipes emerged that "cooked" the active ingredient in cold medicine with other household chemicals.

The recipe and the drug's appeal has slowly spread across the country, rooting itself in rural areas.

"For every meth lab I take out, in my opinion, there's 10 more in its place," Hazelwood said. "That's my opinion, but we have no evidence to show that."

It's now in Virginia, and authorities point nervously down I-81 to neighboring Tennessee as an omen of what could happen in years to come.

The number of labs busted in Tennessee has risen from 145 in 1999 to 822 last year, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

As of August, the state had seized 1,188 labs this year. Tennessee accounts for 75 percent of the meth lab seizures in the Southeast, officials said.

Meth has been traveling into Washington County from both Tennessee and North Carolina, Hazelwood said. It's also attracted a number of visitors with a drug habit who want to learn how to cook it, he said.

"We're getting a lot of new faces. What they're doing is they've got the recipes and they're coming in and the local folks are teaching them how to cook it," he said.

A complete meth lab can fit on a kitchen table or in the trunk of a car.

The drug is cooked in stages, and groups of meth cooks in Washington County are banding together to complete each stage at different locations.

"You never know where they're going to be, and that makes our job harder," Hazelwood said.

But persistence has paid off in finding informants willing to work with investigators and in banding local, state and federal law enforcement officers together, he said.

"If it wasn't for us working together and monitoring together, we couldn't be doing what we're doing now," he said.

And sometimes, it just takes a little luck.

A domestic dispute that attracted neighbors' attention led Wythe County authorities to yet another meth lab Friday.

Neighbors called sheriff's deputies, who noticed drug paraphernalia in the house, said Chief Deputy Doug King of the Wythe County Sheriff's Office. Deputies got permission to go inside, found items used in cooking meth and called for backup, King said.

Investigators found a working meth lab inside the dwelling, which was home to two children, ages 1 year and 3 months, King said.

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