Seasoned real estate investor John Wood was the original owner of the two-story home at 3355 Newbury Road, one property in a collection of five homes he’d bought on the unassuming Norcross street, an offshoot of Beaver Ruin Road.

Back in the mid-1980s, the area was ripe with young families, turnover was low and the renters-versus-owners equation was tilted heavily toward the latter, Wood said.

From a property manager’s standpoint, Newbury Road was ideal.

“Everything in that area was pretty doggone nice,” said Wood, who sold the property in 2006. “Then we started to have a little change in composition.”

What never dawned on Wood in 1986 is that the home’s proximity to Interstate 85, a selling point for commuters, would lure more subversive and clandestine tenants two decades later, those who authorities said used 3355 Newbury Road as a front for the largest domestic meth lab ever dismantled.

Federal authorities classify a “super lab” as one capable of producing 10 pounds of meth. Wood’s former investment qualified as a super lab — times 100. Its contents were worth an estimated $44 million to drug cartels, authorities said.

“Looking back over my shoulder, I simply didn’t think in these terms,” said Wood. “That was just stunning. These cartel folks are flat-out scary.”

Police agencies throughout Gwinnett have been uncovering and confiscating meth labs since the 1980s, the sort of addiction-fueled operations reliant on household chemicals. But over the last several years, Gwinnett has morphed into a key destination for Mexican cartels and other traffickers attracted by the area’s highway system, growing immigrant population, and a supply of plentiful — and some would argue, distressed — housing.

“(Interstate) 85 is attractive to business and the drug trade,” reasoned two-term Gwinnett County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau.

Authorities at local, state and federal levels point to a ballooning population of immigrants — both documented and not — who have acted, however inadvertently, as a beacon for cartels looking to springboard drug shipments to East Coast markets.

“(Cartels) were able to identify communities where they saw the hyper-growth of the Hispanic population,” said DEA special agent Rodney Benson, who heads Atlanta drug efforts. “They then moved in, and they could basically hide their illegal drug trade in plain sight.”

Gwinnett’s population of more than 808,000, among the most diverse in the Southeast, was 67.3 percent white in 2000, when Hispanic residents numbered about 64,000, according to Census Bureau estimates.

A rise in Hispanic births and new immigrant arrivals has fueled a shift in demographics. Minorities edged whites in 2010 to become a population majority.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett’s Hispanic population has more than doubled to 129,000 in the last decade, and more than half those residents (70,900) are Mexican, the origin country for cartels linked to recent Gwinnett drug seizures and violence.

The percentage of Gwinnett residents who are Hispanic (18) outweighs the make-up of Georgia as a whole (8.3), Census figures from 2009 show, again allowing the cartels to blend in.

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said a steadily growing crop of foreclosures and rental properties has acted as another lure for cartels.

In-house statistics at the Daily Post, the county’s legal organ, show foreclosure notice filings have skied from 3,594 in 2002 to 27,702 last year, an increase of 670 percent.

As a focal point of this series, the Daily Post attempted to interview property owners of homes declared “super labs” in recent months in hopes of gaining insight as to how they were approached by tenants. None cooperated.

Tax commissioner records show Atlanta investor Travis Bailey holds the mortgage at 3355 Newbury Road and keeps current with taxes. Bailey did not return e-mails or calls.

Records show Socorro Sepulveda Campos is the deed holder at 1197 Spring Mill Drive, where three children suffered fatal injuries in a reported meth lab fire last month. He, too, is current on tax payments, which are billed directly to the property.

Neighbors said the man they know as “Mr. Campos” left the state about three years ago, possibly for California, and a cycle of surreptitious renters moved in. Campos could not be reached in California.

Asked by the Daily Post what had attracted the alleged meth cartel operatives to the Lilburn home, Samuel Harrison, attorney for the dead children’s mother, echoed the camouflage theory.

“It’s the sort of house that blends in,” Harrison said. “You could drive down the street a hundred times and not notice it.”

Immigrant roots

Evidence that points to the majority of traffickers as being illegal immigrants is anecdotal. Gwinnett prosecutors say the percentage of drug defendants that require Spanish interpreters has increased “very dramatically” in the last decade, but no data is kept regarding immigration status.

Officials have said players in the meth fire in Lilburn brandished a trifecta of legal statuses: One suspect was born in Chicago; Neibi Brito, the children’s mother, holds a green card; and the at-large suspect, Ivan Gonzalez, reportedly fudged driver’s license information to stay put in the United States.

Data from Gwinnett’s fast-track deportation program, 287(g), activated locally in late 2009, show that 3,800 detainers have been placed to date, keeping inmates incarcerated until federal authorities can deport them. Those suspects face a collective 315 felony drug charges.

Sheriff’s Department officials credit the program with a significant drop in foreign-born bookings in 2010, the first decrease in a decade.

One of metro Atlanta’s most audible 287(g) detractors, Jerry Gonzalez, director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said public perception toward immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere has been “disproportionately skewed.”

He cautions residents to not stereotype all immigrants as criminals.

“I must be very clear about this … (we) want to ensure that anyone committing serious crimes, like drug-trafficking, should be dealt with the full force of our law, and should be deported if they are here illegally,” Gonzalez said. “But the overwhelming data indicates that immigrants are less likely to engage in criminal activity than native-born populations.”

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