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The 'meth monster'

By MICHELLE BRADFORD AND PAMELA HILL

This article was published June 6, 1999 at 12:04 a.m.

— Parole officer Ricky Hogg joined the undercover drug agents as they prepared to descend on a Springdale home.

Officers suspected one of Hogg's parolees was there, and he wanted to be in on the raid.

Entering the house, he saw hundreds of asthma inhalers, which contain a key ingredient used in the illegal production of methamphetamine, scattered on the floor.

"When we entered that residence, pans were on the stove where they'd been cooking [meth]," Hogg said. "There were half a dozen people there and all over the floor -- in the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms -- were these inhaler containers. Hundreds of them just all over the floor. In the bathroom was my parolee, trying to shoot up. He wasn't trying to flush it or get rid of it. All he wanted to do was to just get that last fix before he was arrested."

Hogg, who handles 141 parole cases in Washington and Madison counties, said many of those parolees have links to methamphetamine, an illicit, synthetic stimulant of the central nervous system that has snaked its way from the West Coast and Mexico and into Arkansas to saturate a market already served by local meth makers.

"It's the most devastating drug we have out there because it's so easy to obtain," Hogg said.

Meth is no longer just the backwoods "upper" reserved for biker-gang devotees. Court dockets and arrest sheets expose a full range of trades, professions and ages who partake of methamphetamine. Statistics show the drug has edged closer to the mainstream in recent years, and its effects have rippled through the region.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration's top methamphetamine agent identified Arkansas as one of the top three methamphetamine-producing states in the nation, based on per-capita figures.

In Northwest Arkansas, police are draining their budgets, working overtime and crossing jurisdictional boundaries to fight methamphetamine. Use of the drug has grown so much that law enforcement agents say it has become their chief criminal problem in the 1990s.

"We see it almost to the exclusion of all other drugs. It is so far in excess of everything else, there's nothing to compare it to," said Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones, whose 4th Judicial District covers Washington and Madison counties.

Crimes motivated by methamphetamine -- burglaries, thefts and even murder -- are taxing police and their resources. The 1997 murder investigation of crank user and seller Ernest Michael Younkin, for example, drew in six law enforcement agencies before drug dealer Johnny Lee "Snakeman" Beard and his girlfriend, Lora Diann Bostwick, were convicted in November 1997.

"We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on that case," said Washington County sheriff's Capt. Chuck Rexford. "The players were all wound up in different methamphetamine circles. It was slow going. It robbed us of giving attention to other cases, other duties. It was an economic burden."

The stimulant, cooked in makeshift labs anywhere its makers can hide their volatile chemistry sets, lures its users with the promise of high energy, weight loss and an induced feeling of invincibility. The promise for some is enough to ignore the down side that inevitably comes: paranoia, depression, physical deterioration. For some, stroke or death is the drug's legacy.

"Manufacturing is so simple it's done in the back seats of cars, in pickup trucks, hotel rooms," said Bill Hardin, Arkansas' drug director. "Ten years ago it was truly a lab, where you had to have glassware and a tightly held formula. It took longer. Now with the proliferation of new techniques, it's frightening how addictive this drug is and the veritable ease with which it can be obtained."

Jones estimates at least 50 percent of all arrests made in Washington and Madison counties are related to methamphetamine. Some people are charged for methamphetamine possession, delivery or "manufacture," as Arkansas law describes the process of making it. Others are charged in crimes committed while they were taking meth or trying to obtain it.

About 70 percent of Benton County's felony court docket is directly or indirectly related to methamphetamine, Prosecuting Attorney Brad Butler said.

Police are looking for innovative ways to get the message out to the community about meth's dangers and how residents can help.

"The goal is to create as many pairs of public eyes as we can," said Benton County sheriff's Deputy Tom Brewster, who oversees the agency's Methbusters program. "It's hard. We're trying to handle the increase in methamphetamine with the same amount of resources we've always had. We need the public's help."

Police say methamphetamine is a problem, but so are the crimes that stem from its use. Burglaries, robberies and even murder have been traced to origins in meth.

Drug agents in Benton County stumbled on a bounty of stolen merchandise during a raid last year at the home of a suspected methamphetamine dealer. Police found merchandise still in packages and said the dealer's customers had been shoplifting, then trading him the merchandise as payment for the drug.

"You get people in here doing burglaries, forgeries, other things; if they've got any kind of a drug problem, it's meth," 4th Judicial District Drug Task Force Sgt. Kenny Yates said. "Not cocaine or marijuana. It's meth."

"Accidental" meth arrests are common in Fayetteville and other cities in the region. Almost daily, and sometimes more than once a day, Fayetteville patrol officers arrest one or more people on methamphetamine charges whom they may have initially approached or stopped for something else such as speeding, loitering or a disturbance call.

A sampling of recent arrests from routine daily patrols include:

A 47-year-old self-employed professional man caught using meth in a city park at 8:30 a.m.

A 39-year-old hairdresser selling to an informant.

A 29-year-old construction worker stopped for no headlight and found with syringes and meth.

A 24-year-old cable employee, later determined to be high on meth, questioned for loitering in a nightclub parking lot.

An 18-year-old girl, employed at a Northwest Arkansas Mall clothing store, was stopped for swerving in the road. Officers found several open liquor bottles, meth and straws to snort it in her purse. She and her female passenger, also 18, were arrested.

Hardin called methamphetamine abuse a "massive problem," particularly in Northwest Arkansas.

"In Northwest Arkansas, meth is the biggest problem," he said. "In Little Rock, North Little Rock, crack is still a major issue, in Pine Bluff, too. But meth is spreading like wildfire.

"It's doing statewide what crack cocaine did six years ago, except meth is more widespread and intense," Hardin said. "No place is escaping this, I can tell you. No one is escaping the meth monster."

METH MARCHES EAST

Methamphetamine is not a new drug, but its prevalence in the nation's heartland is a recent development.

U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., saw firsthand the early stages of methamphetamine's rise in popularity in Northwest Arkansas. He was U.S. attorney for the region from 1982 to 1985, when he said motorcycle gangs from outside Arkansas were the best-known source of the drug.

Labs became more prevalent in Arkansas as Texas clamped down on rural meth labs in the mid-1980s, prompting some meth producers to flee to the Ozarks, Hutchinson said. The rural, sparsely populated mountains were coveted as good cover for meth labs that then emitted putrid odors.

"Even though we had problems in the '80s, it was minuscule compared to the dramatic problems we have now," Hutchinson said.

The drug has since made its presence known throughout Arkansas, gauging from clandestine meth lab seizures in the 1990s. Central Arkansas' heavily populated areas have posted high numbers, but the drug makers appear to have started their march through the north part of the state in Northwest Arkansas.

More recently, northeast Arkansas began feeling meth's sting, posting high lab seizure numbers in the past three years. More funding has gone to law-enforcement agencies in northeast Arkansas this year than to many other areas because agencies there are typically smaller and have been ill-equipped to handle the influx of meth, Hardin said.

Two or three years ago, the focus of local drug agents in Northwest Arkansas was finding and cleaning up small labs in the region where meth was produced. Small labs still crop up in camper trailers, backyard sheds and motel rooms, but the focus has shifted.

"We're handling meth on two fronts now. Several years ago, it was limited," said Rich Daniels, agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Fayetteville. "Three to four years ago, we saw a proliferation of labs, then Mexican meth began moving in. We're dealing in quantities of meth we've never seen before."

User demand outpaced what "mom-and-pop" drug labs could produce. Seizing opportunity, suppliers from California and Mexico now mail it, ship it, drive it and fly it in by the pounds.

"It would scare you to death to know how many pounds are brought into Northwest Arkansas in a week," Fayetteville Police Lt. Greg Tabor said. "And we don't see any indication it's on the decrease."

One of the latest seizures occurred Feb. 24 when a California Highway Patrol trooper stopped a Fayetteville man on Interstate 40 in southern California near Needles. The man, whom the trooper stopped for following other vehicles too closely, was shaking so badly the trooper asked him if he was on medication or using drugs.

After a narcotics dog indicated the presence of drugs, police found six packages of methamphetamine totaling 28.38 pounds in the man's luggage. There was also 1.25 gallons of methamphetamine oil, the drug in one of its final stages of production.

The man, Jose Trinidad Chavez, who was working for a Northwest Arkansas trucking firm when he was arrested, is being held without bond in San Bernardino County, Calif., pending formal indictment.

Other major methamphetamine arrests have their origins in the West:

August 1998 -- Police arrest 45 people and seized 11 pounds of meth in Benton County and Springdale during the first phase of the investigation that became known as Operation Daycare. Twenty-one other people would be identified as drug suspects and many of those were arrested in January. Investigators traced most of the methamphetamine involved in Operation Daycare to California suppliers.

June 1998 -- Tulsa agents stop two women with 12 pounds of meth at the city's airport. The women were to meet two men outside the Tulsa airport who would drive them to a Springdale delivery. Through cooperation from the women and men, police arrested two Springdale men after a delivery time and site was arranged. The shipment originated in California, police think.

April 1998 -- Drug agents seize 7.2 pounds of meth from a 17-year-old Californian who flew into Fayetteville's Drake Field. Also arrested were two Springdale men who met him at the airport. Southern California agents tipped officers in Fayetteville of his impending arrival after he left the Orange County airport.

December 1996 -- Police seize 3 pounds of uncut meth from an Anaheim, Calif., woman who landed at Drake Field and a Fayetteville man waiting for her.

October 1996 -- A package-delivery company employee in Springdale reports an odd-smelling package from California to police. Inside, officers found a pound of methamphetamine and other drugs. Three Fayetteville men were arrested.

September 1996 -- Police arrest a California man at Drake Field with 2 pounds of meth after Los Angeles International Airport interdiction officers tipped them of his impending arrival.

It's illegal in the United States to have more than a small amount of some chemicals used to make methamphetamine, but not in Mexico and other countries. Drug traffickers either make the meth in large labs in Mexico, then ship it to California, Daniels said, or they sneak the chemicals into the country and cooks in California make the dope.

"This is basically the hub. Most of it gets shipped out from here," said Drug Enforcement Administration agent Sharon Carter of Los Angeles.

Daniels' office in Fayetteville devotes 80 percent of its resources to methamphetamine interdiction, mainly shutting down laboratories and intercepting multipound imports.

"It just never stops," Daniels said. "Obviously, there's a great demand or they wouldn't be bringing it in."

LOOKING FOR HELP

The changing face of the meth market forces local police to rely on state and federal agencies for resources, manpower and money.

The shift has made it harder for local police to track meth-related activities. Drug agents say methamphetamine dealers have evolved far beyond the "local crankster" who cooks methamphetamine for himself and friends. Agents are now matching wits with an elusive breed of dealer, one who is smart enough not to cloud his thoughts by using the drug he peddles, drug agents say.

Northwest Arkansas' most expansive and likely most expensive undercover methamphetamine investigation began two years ago as rather routine.

Agents from the 19th Judicial District Drug Task Force covering Benton and Carroll counties used confidential informants to make covert methamphetamine buys.

Police rely heavily on former meth users who have "turned snitch" or work as paid confidential informants to make undercover meth buys. Informants, who get paid in proportion to the amount they buy but must be "clean" themselves, tout their connections to methamphetamine, offering their services because they know the drug is the hot target of local drug agencies.

When the undercover operation began, the officers' goal was to gain the trust of the secondary dealers through repeat purchases and gradually zero in on the main suppliers. As agents and informants climbed the methamphetamine ladder, they realized the drug wasn't being made locally.

"As the investigation began to broaden and deepen we realized the methamphetamine was coming from southern California and southern Texas," said Tim Keck, task force coordinator and Rogers' police chief.

Operation Daycare, as it became known, started out regional, initiated by the task force of local police departments, but turned federal as it grew beyond the borders of Northwest Arkansas. More than a dozen other agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, joined in.

The operation culminated in January when more than 30 people were arrested on state and federal drug charges during raids across Benton County and in Springdale. Many were Hispanics with questionable residency statuses.

Carter and area drug agents said Mexican meth dealers try to assimilate into the existing Mexican population of an area, often by finding a relative or a friend of a friend from California. Sources are made and distributors found, agents said.

"There's a large population of law-abiding Hispanic citizens. Then there's a small criminal element that's inserting itself into the legitimate Mexican community," Daniels said.

Operation Daycare shut down a major artery of methamphetamine coming from California to Northwest Arkansas, officials say.

"We wanted to make it known that police in Northwest Arkansas have the resources to reach across six states to get to the supplier," Keck said.

TIME AND MONEY

That reach took time and money. The suppliers are likely still operating in California, although their ability to get the meth to Northwest Arkansas was, at least temporarily, damaged.

"We cut off the source of the supplier that was coming in to Northwest Arkansas," said P.K. Holmes III, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith. "But as far as identifying the supplier, we're not at that point yet in the investigation."

The task force devoted all of its six undercover agents to the operation. Three agents are from the Rogers Police Department and one each is from the Bentonville and Siloam Springs departments and the Benton County sheriff's office.

The 4th Judicial District Drug Task Force in Washington and Madison counties assigned one of its five agents solely to the two-year operation. The Arkansas State Police joined in, assigning a full-time trooper to live and work undercover in Northwest Arkansas. His job was to work his way into the Mexican methamphetamine ring, which was tight and clannish. It took nine months before informants were able to introduce the agent to the targeted dealers.

"They were really keeping their risks down," said Lance King, narcotics investigator for the Arkansas State Police, describing the targeted dealers. "They checked our undercover guy out so thoroughly -- through identification, his insurance information -- that he found it unnerving."

Through the operation, drug agents encountered smuggling distinctions they had not seen before in Northwest Arkansas. Dealers screened themselves behind their children, bringing them along on dope deals in city parks and on street corners on the notion that police would assume drug activity would be more covert.

Some dealers sold undercover agents packages of methamphetamine that they hid in their babies' diapers. That's how Operation Daycare gained its name.

Many of the dealers were convicted felons with drug trafficking experience. They didn't use methamphetamine themselves. They only sold it. They used caller identification. They had their own countersurveillance.

"These people had their own guys driving around watching our surveillance," Keck said. "They knew how to shake tails. They'd drive 20 miles to go five. What used to be two-car surveillance, turned into seven-car surveillance with them."

And the dealers were greedy. As they dealt with the undercover investigators, they insisted the amount of methamphetamine purchased increased over time.

MONEY DRAIN

"It was a financial challenge to hang with these people," King said. "They really pushed the undercover guy to buy more each time. We'd buy 1 pound, and they'd say next time you have to buy 6. It was a situation we hadn't been in before."

The Rogers Police Department's 1998 drug fund for undercover purchases, totaling $20,000, was gobbled up in the first few months of the year through Operation Daycare. The investigation was just gaining speed.

The task force turned to the Arkansas State Police to fund the rest of the methamphetamine buys. It did, to the tune of an extra $80,000, Keck and state police officials said.

State police spokesman Bill Sadler said the agency has $250,000 allocated each year from general appropriations for covert drug purchases. Sadler said state police think the $80,000 the agency devoted to Operation Daycare was worth it to get to the upper tiers of methamphetamine suppliers in Northwest Arkansas.

The task force also relied heavily on the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for its expertise and resources, primarily in telephone wiretapping. The methamphetamine was coming from the West Coast mostly by car. Dealers were coordinating shipments over the phones, often in Spanish.

The federal agency used wiretaps to trace and record the dealers' phone conversations, all monitored by bilingual agents in New Orleans. It was the first time federal wiretapping was used in a Northwest Arkansas drug investigation.

Holmes, whose office brought federal indictments in Operation Daycare, said the Drug Enforcement Agency mutually relied on local police and their confidential drug informants to infiltrate the meth circles and identify the major players.

Since Operation Daycare, the availability of methamphetamine in Benton County has not dried up, drug agents say. Local meth makers are back at the helm as the out-of-state traffickers lay low and regroup in the wake of the January arrests.

Rexford, the investigator in the Younkin murder case, remains skeptical that local authorities can put much of a dent in the methamphetamine trade.

"The economics of it are too great," Rexford said. "The demand won't go away."

Some meth producers in Northwest Arkansas are shifting their methods again, creating mobile labs that are harder for agents to track. Volatile ingredients and glassware can be easily boxed up and moved to wherever the next heating source happens to be.

Rogers police arrested two brothers in January as they traveled in a car along West Walnut Street. Drug agents said Ryan Wilkey was pouring ephedrine tablets, a key ingredient of meth, into a jug of denatured alcohol as Shawn Wilkey drove.

"That's the first step of making methamphetamine, breaking down the ephedrine," one agent said.

Police reported finding other chemicals in the Wilkeys' car, such as lighter fluid and red phosphorus. They also reported discovering Pyrex cookware, flasks and bottles of liquid in different stages of methamphetamine production. They also said they found the finished product.

The Wilkeys are charged in Benton County Circuit Court with possessing and manufacturing methamphetamine.

Sulphur Springs police arrested a man at the city park in March with a methamphetamine lab in his car, Police Chief Randy Vickers said.

"He had all the stuff needed for a rolling lab," Vickers said. "Everything from chemicals, match strips to the finished product."

Matchbook strips are popular sources of red phosphorus. Many farm supply merchants are reporting to police the names of people who buy inordinate amounts of it and iodine, Vickers said.

IN THE LAB

In Benton and Washington counties, drug agents say they get at least one tip a week about a possible new methamphetamine lab. During one week in April, they seized five in Northwest Arkansas.

Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Guy Hargreaves is coordinator for the agency's methamphetamine program based out of the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters. Hargreaves said Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa have been particularly inundated with small labs.

"Everybody wants to know who's the worst in the country. California has the most labs, by far, and big labs -- superlabs. But the thing is, if you look at it based on the percentage of people, Missouri, Arkansas and Nevada are the worst in the country," Hargreaves said.

While "cooks" in Northwest Arkansas use coffee filters to strain the methamphetamine flakes from the fluid, those at "superlabs" in California and Mexico use bedsheets. In Northwest Arkansas, they're producing a few grams or ounces, but out West they're making a hundred pounds at a time.

When they say lab, it's not the clean, test-tube environment the word might conjure in one's mind. Meth labs are makeshift combinations of whatever equipment the "cooker" can get to mix up his concoction of possibly lethal chemicals.

It's risky and expensive business to shut them down and clean them up.

Making methamphetamine is precarious enough. Many of the ingredients are chemicals that are toxic. Some are strong acids that can eat through concrete.

Combining these chemicals emits poisonous vapors that can scorch the skin and lungs. Add heat to the mixture, and life gets precarious. National statistics show that 20 percent of the methamphetamine labs police detect are found because they explode or catch fire.

Those who make methamphetamine tend to be indiscriminate about spilling chemicals or dumping them down sinks or toilets. Floors, walls, furniture, vents and even chimney flues can become contaminated by spills and from vapors created during the cooking.

Police have also discovered some labs are booby-trapped, sometimes with wires attached to guns that are designed to trigger a shot whenever they're disturbed.

Such hazards prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration to implement its Clandestine Drug Laboratory Safety Certification Program in 1988.

Through the program, federal agents learn how to raid, assess and contain methamphetamine labs. Agents learn how to test levels of oxygen and other chemicals in the air before they enter a lab site, how to reduce the risk of fire or explosion and how to determine whether chemicals and leftover waste is hazardous.

If a meth lab site is hazardous, the Drug Enforcement Administration sends in a private waste disposal company to clean it up. Local police and drug task force agencies can't afford the cost of cleanup, which can run several thousand dollars a lab.

In 1998, $567,000 was spent on clandestine lab cleanups associated with federal agency cases in Arkansas, $122,000 through Fayetteville's office. Five years earlier, in 1993, $71,000 was spent on lab cleanups in Arkansas -- none was spent in Fayetteville.

Five years ago, drug investigators in Northwest Arkansas were calling on the agency to assist on all methamphetamine lab seizures. Local drug task forces didn't have the expertise or equipment to safely take down the labs. When they came upon one, they often simply backed out and called in the drug agency.

As the number of methamphetamine lab seizures in Arkansas climbed, local police relying solely on the Drug Enforcement Administration to seize the labs wasn't practical anymore.

"We responded to all these labs," Daniels said. "It meant we could do nothing else."

Arkansas State Police were involved in only six methamphetamine labs seizures statewide in 1994. The number jumped to 24 in 1995, 95 the next year, then rocketed to 242 in 1997. In 1998, the number shot to 434 labs. And so far this year, 112 labs have been found.

Now, through grants that are part of the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program, the drug agency is paying to train local drug task force agents in how to seize meth labs. It's happening on a grand scale in Northwest Arkansas, Daniels said.

"We're reaching out to train all the agents on the local drug squads," Daniels said. "Almost every member of the 4th and 19th [Judicial District] Task Forces has been certified in the last 18 months, as well as those agents up along the Missouri border."

The grants also help pay the $7,000 to $9,000 it costs to outfit drug agents with protective equipment, such as a self-contained breathing apparatus, fireproof and chemical-resistant clothing and gauges that measure the level of chemicals in the air.

Hargreaves said a meth lab can be the most dangerous activity law enforcement officers can get involved in.

"There are a lot of aspects of meth that make it different from other narcotics investigations," Hargreaves said. "Narcotics agents are not trained as firefighters. They're not trained as chemists. They're not trained as chemical-waste handlers or booby-trap detectors."

Other states have seen officers, dealers and users killed in labs, either caught in an explosion or poisoned by an invisible phosphene gas released during the cooking process. Children, sometimes present when their parents are cooking meth, have died from drinking meth oil their parents have stored in drink jars or soft-drink bottles, Hargreaves said.

"I have three pages just detailing injuries throughout the country from meth labs," Hargreaves said. "Even people who are liberal about drugs are frequently against meth because it's a public-safety hazard. It's not a victimless crime."

ON THE JOB

Benton County's Methbusters program takes a public education approach, helping employers and residents to recognize the signs of methamphetamine production and use.

"Businesses need to know that there can be mobile labs in their parking lots," said Brewster, the deputy who runs the program. "We've seen them."

The Benton County sheriff's and prosecuting attorney's offices started their Methbusters program in 1997 to raise awareness in neighborhoods and workplaces about methamphetamine.

Sometimes Brewster hauls a dummy meth lab-in-a-box to businesses, targeting those where a large number of employees work in shifts. He tries to educate employers about the dynamics of methamphetamine use: the inclination for some workers to use it for stamina to pull extra shifts, the worker's initial sense that the drug is making him more productive, and the eventual bane of depression, paranoia and disinterest in everything but the drug.

"The employees are a microcosm of the community," Brewster said. "And methamphetamine is part of our community. Employers need to know if it's in the community, it's in their workplace."

Dr. Gary Moffett, an occupational medicine specialist at Occupational Health Services in Lowell, cares for employees of 600 Northwest Arkansas companies, including major employers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., J.B. Hunt Trucking, the University of Arkansas and some area hospitals.

Part of his job is giving pre- and post-employment drug tests for the companies. Of about 650 tests a month, about 5 percent show the presence of some illegal drug, he said.

"That may not sound like a lot, but if you do the math, that's 30-plus a month," Moffett said. "And they often know they're going to be drug-tested. A lot of them clean up for that."

About 80 percent of the workers or job seekers that test positive have marijuana in their systems. About 20 percent show evidence of recent methamphetamine use. All other drugs account for only a handful of positive tests, Moffett said.

"That's definitely underestimating how much methamphetamine use there is," Moffett said. Marijuana lingers in a person's system much longer than methamphetamine.

Drug tests also don't reflect the full extent of the work force drug use, Moffett said. Many drug users know which companies do drug tests. They seek employment at the ones that don't, he said.

Studies show drug use in the workplace increases absenteeism and accidents while decreasing productivity, Moffett said. Methamphetamine use in the workplace is especially troubling to him.

"People who use it, their perception of reality is altered. They may think they're following safety protocols but their judgment is impaired. They have altered mental functioning and it can affect safety," he said.

Moffett said he sometimes suspects methamphetamine use before testing a worker's urine because of symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, pacing, sweating more than normal or talking more rapidly than normal.

"Most we see are still gainfully employed," he said, noting that occasionally a heavy meth user comes through. "They're spending all their money on meth. Not health care. They don't eat. They're just so wrapped up in their drug, the rest of life just goes by them."

Rarely does anyone ask Moffett for help with an addiction. When they do, they've usually reached a breaking point.

"Their lives are in shambles by then. They're bankrupt. They've lost their job or are about to lose their job," Moffett said. "They've lost their families."

Yates, the 4th Judicial District Drug Task Force supervisor, said his officers deal with many meth users who are in a lower socio-economic class, but he used to express surprise that people from all kinds of backgrounds get involved in meth.

"I don't say that anymore," Yates said. "The meth deal is so unpredictable. There's such a large variance of people who use, in their age, class."

As for neighborhoods, Brewster says people need to know meth production happens there, too. He tells residents to look for excessive trash, such as antifreeze containers, red-stained coffee filters, lantern fuel cans, drain cleaner and duct tape. Neighbors who have their windows blacked out, who have lots of traffic at their homes or who have groups of people smoking outside their home may be operating a meth lab inside, he said.

Methamphetamine production puts off a pungent smell similar to cat urine, he said.

Farm supply merchants are also helping. Store clerks are taking down license plate numbers and the descriptions of customers who buy inordinate amounts of chemicals like iodine solution, used to clean deep wounds in farm animals but also to make methamphetamine.

Farmer's Exchange store in Bentonville participates in Methbusters, an employee who asked to remain anonymous recently said.

"We do, but I don't want to say much more," he said. "I don't want to put our employees on the spot. But we've got people coming in here two and three times a week buying iodine. We're keeping track of it."

Bentonville police said they've yet to solve a burglary at Farmer's Exchange on Sept. 27, when someone threw a rock through the glass front door at night and carried off nine bottles of 7 percent iodine solution, the kind best for meth production.

A store clerk told police a man on a bike stopped in and asked to buy iodine crystals about a week earlier. The clerk told the man the store didn't carry the crystals because of their possible use in drug-making.

So, the man bought four bottles of 7 percent iodine. The man had asked for a 1 gallon jug of iodine but balked when Howard said he'd have to order it.

"I can use this stuff," the man said, leaving with his bottles of iodine. "It's just more messy."

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