Local law enforcement says recent meth bust underscores growing epidemic

By Cal Colgan| jcolgan@flagler.edu
Photographs by Phillip C. Sunkel IV

Davis Shores is a neighborhood in St. Augustine’s city limits littered with the towering-two story complexes and mowed lawns of middle class suburbia. But on Feb.17, police found that some residents of this community right across the Bridge of Lions had materials to make what some say is the worst drug in the world.

That day, members of the St. Augustine Police Department and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office surrounded a two-story apartment complex on the 100-block of Gerardo Street, arresting five people from the upstairs apartment. Three of the five were arrested had marijuana charges, but Luke M. Paulsen, 25, and Amanda L. Graves, 27, were charged with manufacturing methamphetamine.

Sgt. Patrick McCaulley of the SAPD’s investigations division said his department hasn’t had much experience with meth busts. That is because, he said, although the county’s law enforcement agencies have dealt with meth users in the past, police have never before found a lab in the city limits.

That fact reflects the growing presence of the illegal drug in St. Johns County specifically, and North Florida in general.

County Increase in “Crank”

SJSO has assigned Cpl. Mike Hartsell to its special victims unit, but he is also one of the only two detectives in St. Johns County who deals with stopping meth labs. Hartsell, who was present at the Gerardo Street bust, said “crank” use was not prevalent in the county until last year. Now the Sheriff’s Office has dealt with 20 labs within the past five months.

“We’ve been told for six or seven years now that this stuff is going to hit us, and when it does, it’s going to hit us hard,” Hartsell said. “We’ve been waiting for that to happen, and since probably the end of August or September, that’s when we really started seeing the influx of it all.”

Hartsell said the hotbeds for meth use in the county vary, but that SJSO has stopped labs in Flagler Estates and Hastings. He said meth has strewn its crystallized presence across the county, even out to the beach.

“The only places we haven’t seen an influx at this point is probably the Fruit Cove and Ponte Vedra area, but that’s because we really haven’t had the manpower or the equipment to really go after the stuff,” said Hartsell. “It’s probably there, we just haven’t found it yet.”

Other counties in Florida have experienced a similar growth in meth busts last year. The Gainseville Sun reported that from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2010, law enforcement officers shut down 343 labs in the Sunshine State.

The Recent Bust

Flagler College junior Kylnn Pelkey lives under the apartment that became the scene for the county’s most recent meth bust. Pelkey said one of her roommates would frequently complain about the crowded back alley where he parks his truck and the steady flow of people when he would get home from his bartending job at 3 a.m. One day, another roommate was in the laundry room beneath the stairs to the top apartment when an apparently drunk woman holding Four Loco malt liquor cans walked up to her.

The woman told Pelkey’s roommate there was a meth lab upstairs.

“We didn’t know at that point if she was kind of joking, if it was the truth or a lie,” Pelkey said. “We knew how bad meth houses are, and we knew it was pretty serious, but we let it go for a few days. We didn’t want to cause a huge ruckus if it had been nothing.”

Eventually, Pelkey and her roommates talked to their landlord, who went straight to the police.

“When the police busted the place, they were serious,” she said. “I woke up, I put my hand out the window, and there was a cop coming down a ladder off the roof, holding a huge, machine-gun-looking gun.”

Days after the bust, Pelkey said two of the upstairs neighbors with pot charges were out of jail, and they came downstairs to apologize to Pelkey and her roommates. They told the Flagler student that they never meant to put her at risk, but they also said their friends did not have a meth lab upstairs.

McCaulley said although there had not been a meth lab in operation the morning the police entered the apartment, there was enough evidence to tell that the tenants of the Gerardo Street house were cooking the drug.

“Try to keep in mind that a lab can be anything from elaborate tubes and all kinds of stuff to a Gatorade bottle with fertilizer and Coleman’s fuel in it,” he said.

A Growing Trade

Apart from the ingenuity of its users, meth is also noteworthy for the expansion of its statewide distribution. Jeff Beasley, special agent supervisor with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said there are two main sources for Florida’s meth supply.

“You have the supply of methamphetamine which comes from either Mexico directly, or from super labs out on the West Coast or the western part of the United States,” he said. Beasley said the second source is in-state production, but that such domestic manufacturing does not account for most of the meth distribution in Florida.

And from Atlanta, the meth is shipped to Florida.

“Atlanta has become the primary hub for must drug distribution in the Southeast,” Beasley said. He said that while law enforcement in North Florida might not arrest many meth traffickers, “I can assure you that quite a bit of methamphetamine is moving down the [Interstate] 95 corridor, to supply other parts of the state.”

Hartsell said most meth use around the St. Augustine area is from individual users who only do minimal trading, but he said the growth of meth across the county could cause local law enforcement to see more traffickers.

“Once these guys realize how easy it is to make the meth, then it’s going to increase, and there’s going to be more selling and more trading of it,” Hartsell said.

Beasley said that meth is not used in Florida as commonly as is cocaine, but the demand for “crank” or “crystal” in the Sunshine State is still high.

“I think one of the reasons that criminal agencies may encounter meth users as much or more than they do other drug users at times is the effects of methamphetamine on the user,” the FDLE agent said.

And meth is known for it’s noticeable health effects on habitual users.

Health Risks for Heavy Users

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s research report on methamphetamine abuse and addiction, meth is “white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder” that can be smoked, snorted, injected or eaten. Both methamphetamine and cocaine are stimulants that increase the brain’s levels of dopamine — the neurotransmitter that controls things like movement, emotion and feelings of pleasure — but meth increases the actual release of the chemical. This causes higher concentrations of the neurotransmitter in the brain’s synapse, which can severely damage its nerves.

The report states that even in small doses, meth use can cause various cardiovascular problems like irregular heart rate and increased blood pressure, and can even result in hypothermia and convulsions that can lead to death. Long-term use of the drug results in addiction, and the NIDA reports that chronic users can show symptoms including anxiety, confusion, mood disturbances and violent behavior. Prolonged meth use can also lead to psychotic behavior, such as the common delusion amongst meth addicts that bugs are crawling under their skin.

“They will start to pick at or literally tear away at their flesh to try to make that itch or nagging or aggravation go away,” Beasley said.

From his experience with arresting meth addicts, the physical side effects of the drug can show up after just a few months of chronic use.

“Very quickly, there’s dramatic weight loss, there’s dramatic hair loss,” he said. “Meth essentially eats the teeth right out of your head, so you’ll start to see teeth breaking off. You’ll start to see rapid tooth decay, gum disease, sunken eyes.”

It’s for health reasons like this that Pelkey doesn’t understand why people choose to use meth. She said she has been exposed to people from her Montana hometown whose lives have been harmed by the drug, but she thinks meth is worse than even heroin or crack cocaine because of the household ingredients — like fertilizer and ammonia — that meth cooks use to make the drug.

“I don’t know how people could put that into themselves,” she said.

McCaulley said what attracts people to meth is the prolonged high, which is far longer than even other hard drugs like crack cocaine.

“A crack cocaine high lasts somewhere around 15 minutes, where methamphetamine seems to wire people for days,” the SAPD sergeant said. “Methamphetamine seems to be a whole different animal.”

Because of its highly addictive nature, Beasley said law enforcement officials do not typically find meth use amongst the upper-middle class or wealthy. Although the special agent stressed he is not an authority on the economic demographics of meth users, he said that from his experience, the middle class, the lower-middle class and the poor are the groups most likely to use meth.

“The nickname for a number of years was ‘the poor man’s cocaine,'” he said.

Dangers to the Public & the Environment

But Beasley said the biggest issue for law enforcement is the danger meth labs pose to public health. He said meth cooks typically aren’t very knowledgeable about chemistry, so lab explosions and chemical burns are common.

“Truthfully, that’s how law enforcement unfortunately comes in contact with a lot of [labs], is through fire.”

And St. Johns County has seen the effects of these people who Beasley calls “bathtub chemists.”

The Florida Times-Union reported that last September, a man from Flagler Estates was arrested for having chemicals to make meth after a woman was burned from the chemicals the man tossed in his garbage can. As she was taking a walk around Turpin Avenue, the woman thought she saw the makings of meth in the trashcan in front of the man’s house. When she flicked her lighter to look inside, the chemicals exploded, causing minor burns to her face.

Beasley said that meth labs can also harm the environment because they generate hazardous material waste, making it expensive to remove the labs from the scene. But he acknowledged that law enforcement doesn’t always locate the portable labs, which are often disposed in trashcans like the one that exploded at Flagler Estates.

If they don’t explode, the chemical waste from the labs could find its way into the water supply, Beasley said.

The wastes and gases that meth can emit was the reason why Pelkey and her roommates considered leaving their apartment. Pelkey said they were worried that the gases would seep into their ventilation and drainage systems, but when she called the police department for answers, the police told Pelkey that a hazardous materials response team (HAZMAT) had already inspected and cleaned the upstairs apartment.

While neighbors like Pelkey might take issue with the disposal process, Beasley said recent federal and state legislation can help to stop meth users before the fumes ever get dispersed.

The Legal Crackdown on Crank

For years, the agent said, meth addicts or cooks were stealing the common cold medicines that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine — necessary ingredients for meth — from pharmacies and drug stores. The federal law then required these medications to be moved behind the counter, and for the customer to be at least 18 years old and have a state-issued identification card. Beasley said both the federal law and state law prevent customers from purchasing more than 3.6 grams of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine products at a time, and also prohibits people from buying more than nine grams in a 30-calendar-day period.

Last year, the Florida legislature passed a law creating an electronic database for purchasing products with ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The logbook records the customer’s ID as well as his or her name, date of birth and physical address. Beasley said the information must be stored in the database for two years, and is available to law enforcement working criminal investigation.

“This is actually a system that theoretically prevents the crime from ever occurring, because without those products, you really cannot make methamphetamine,” he said.

Back in Davis Shores, Pelkey said she and her roommates have chosen not to end their lease, but she said the incident shows that people are not aware that meth is readily available everywhere.

“I’m not going to say I’m not surprised, but I think it’s much more under everybody’s nose than we all choose to believe,” she said.

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