CATAWBA COUNTY – She had it all.
She made straight-As in high school, played varsity soccer, and went to the state championships with her swim team.
“I had everything going for me and screwed everything up,” she said.
On a trip to the beach with her soccer team during her sophomore year of high school, she had her first experience with methamphetamine. “I didn’t really know what it was. I just figured everybody else was doing it, and it was one time. But of course it didn’t turn into one time.”
She spoke with The Record under the condition that her name not be printed. Now almost 28 years old, she spent about 10 years addicted to meth. She is in an intensive treatment program and has been clean for 11 months. “It ruined my life” she said. “I don’t have my children because of it. I’ve been to jail multiple times.”
In 2012, 26 meth labs were busted in Catawba County. That’s the third-highest number of meth busts for any of the state’s 100 counties, according to information from the State Bureau of Investigation. Only Wilkes and Wayne counties had higher numbers of meth busts, at 59 and 27, respectively.
In the first half of this year, 17 meth labs were busted in Catawba County.
Agents with North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation examine and log chemicals from a meth lab located at 1275 22nd Street, NE in Hickory in January. An agent (right), investigates a bottle officer believe was used as a shake and bake or one-pot lab.
Guns and drugs seized in a March raid based on a search warrant in Hudson
What is the problem?
Methamphetamine is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that is taken by mouth, snorted, injected by a needle or smoked.
According to the web site DrugFacts, methamphetamine increases the release of dopamine, which is common for most drugs that are abused. Dopamine is involved in reward, motivation, the pleasure experience, and motor function. Meth’s ability to release dopamine rapidly in reward portions of the brain produces the intense euphoria, “rush” or “flash.” The rush lasts only a few minutes and is described as extremely pleasurable.
Chronic meth abuse significantly changes how the brain functions. It reduces motor skills and impairs verbal learning. It affects areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory. Repeated meth use is characterized by compulsively seeking the drug and some of these changes persist long after the use of the drug is stopped.
“It’s popping up like wild mushrooms,” said Sgt. J.K. Roberts with the Long View Police Department. He has been head of the department’s narcotics division for the past seven years and has witnessed the rise of the shake and bake meth lab.
Making meth in a shake and bake lab, also known as a one-pot lab, allows a manufacturer to make a couple grams of powdered meth within about two hours. Most of the ingredients and equipment required can be purchased at any hardware store, items including drain opener, lye, lithium batteries, camp fuel, cold compress packs, plastic tubing and coffee filters.
The key ingredient needed by meth cooks is ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Commonly found in cold medicines like Sudafed, it is available over-the-counter at drug stores, but state and federal laws limit the amount of the drug individuals can purchase.
Meth made in shake and bake labs sells for between $40 and $75 per gram, Roberts said, and is more powerful than the crystal meth that enters the United States from large, clandestine labs in Mexico. Crystal meth sells for between $80 and $120 per gram.
Imported crystal meth is usually only about 80 percent pure by the time it has been cut with added ingredients and reaches the American user, while the homemade shake and bake meth is about 96 percent pure, Roberts said.
Given the lower price and higher potency of shake and bake meth, local meth manufacturers are tapping in to a growing market for their product.
“It takes a very strong-willed person to put this evil drug down and walk away and say, ‘I’m done,’ without professional help. It’s like it gets its claws in you and won’t let go,” Roberts said.
Aside from ingredients being readily available, members of law enforcement think specific conditions in Catawba County are driving the rise of meth’s use and production here.
Lt. Jason Beebe with the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office oversees narcotics investigations. He said that the recession and high unemployment may be causing users to become manufacturers, because someone short on cash can go out and buy the precursors to make their own meth. “They’re selling it to make a small profit, to maybe manage their habit, maybe pay a power bill or something like that. They’re not driving around in $50,000 sport cars.”
“You and I can’t just go make cocaine, but you and I can go make methamphetamine,” Beebe said, “and then methamphetamine, at its cost, is a pretty good profit.”
The meth in the area comes not only from local manufacturers of powder meth, but also from super labs that produce crystal meth on a large scale, often in Mexico.
“It comes into Atlanta and places in Texas up to here. I think this is a good drop of point and there’s a high demand for it in this area. We’re seeing more fluctuation in meth than we are crack cocaine. When I started in narcotics seven years ago, it was crack cocaine. I never saw meth in Long View that much. Now I’ve got case files,” Roberts said, pointing toward a tall stack of manila folders, “where these guys are stopping people and getting meth. We’re hardly ever getting crack cocaine or cocaine anymore. The meth has actually out-ridden the pills.”
Sgt. Patrick Clark has led the narcotics and vice division at the Hickory Police Department since 2009. He said that the simple fact of a larger population in Catawba County is another point to consider. The county’s population is significantly larger than any of the surrounding counties except Iredell, and given a relatively larger number of people, there is a relatively larger number of meth users and manufacturers.
Impact on the community
Josie Jackson will not be spending her fourth birthday with her family. She is in the custody of a foster family appointed by the Department of Social Services.
On June 11, her parents, Dustin and Sarah Jackson, were arrested on methamphetamine charges at their home in Maiden. Josie lost everything that day, including all of her toys and clothes that were contaminated by the active meth lab in her home.
Rob Koliha’s girlfriend of eight years, Laura Burchette, is Sarah Jackson’s sister and Josie’s aunt. Koliha and Burchette have been working since the Jacksons were arrested to have Burchette appointed as Josie’s guardian.
Josie had already been placed in Burchette and Koliha’s care for a week in April after an order was issued for Dustin Jackson’s arrest and DSS received reports about Josie’s care at home, Koliha said, but after that week, DSS determined it was safe to return Josie to her parents.
When Josie was removed from her home on June 11, she was again placed in Burchette’s care. Burchette and Koliha hoped to keep Josie until her parents’ issues had been resolved, but the following day she was taken by DSS and put into foster care.
Koliha said he and Burchette were deemed unacceptable guardians for Josie due to an encounter with DSS over seven years ago. In that incident, Koliha said his son was hit by Burchette’s son with a curtain rod on the ear, causing some minor scrapes. When the boy went to school, he was mad at Burchette and told school staff that Burchette had bitten his ear.
The school contacted DSS.
Koliha said he and Burchette were cooperative with DSS and maintain they did nothing wrong, but the old case has become a stumbling block now that are seeking custody of Josie.
Dustin Jackson remains in jail, but Sarah Jackson has been released on bond and was granted brief visits with Josie, who turns 4 on Monday.
Koliha said their next court date is on Monday, and they plan to make a motion for a home study that will allow them to gain custody and reunite Josie with her extended family. “Hopefully the home study won’t take long and we can go ahead and bring her home,” he said.
Koliha and Burchette started a GoFundMe website called “Save Josie” in hopes of raising awareness about Josie’s plight and to raise money to cover their legal fees. Koliha said they have already spent thousands of dollars fighting for Josie.
Roberts said children have been associated with nearly every meth lab busted in Long View. One suspect even admitted to making meth while his kids were sitting beside him. “He said he did it because he was high and didn’t know any better,” Roberts said.
“It’s like a fantasy world until they come down and realize that they’re in trouble and they’re sitting in jail,” Roberts said of the meth users he has arrested. “These guys, I lock them up and they look like death warmed over. I go back in 30 days or so to interview them through their attorney if they want to talk, and they look like a totally different person. They look healthy. They have color to them. They gain 15 or 20 pounds. It’s just unreal what this stuff does to you.”
An unsuspected danger
Meth not only affects users, manufacturers and their families. Meth labs can pose serious health risks to people uninvolved with meth and can lead to environmental damage.
When a meth lab is discovered, usually by an officer who is called to a residence and sees precursors or evidence of production, specially-trained investigators go to the scene for an assessment, said Investigator Wes Gardin with the Hickory Police Department.
Investigators determine whether there is an active lab at a site or whether there are only precursors. The SBI sends cleanup teams and site safety coordinators to oversee the operations. After evidence is collected, the SBI transports hazardous materials to containers at different locations throughout the state. Once a container is filled with the meth lab waste, a private contractor picks up the materials and destroys them.
But even if the site of a former meth lab appears clean, the remnants of meth production can remain.
Beebe said guidelines from the EPA and the federal and state governments indicate that sheetrock, insulation, carpet, furniture and fixtures at a meth lab are hazardously contaminated. The chemicals used to make meth and the vapors they generate seep into any porous surface.
“You may not see it, you may not smell it, but any extended period of time of exposure to it, and you may end up contracting something that can cause you health risks,” Beebe said. Sometimes the owners of older mobile homes that were rented to people who manufactured meth decide to dispose of the mobile home because the cost of a proper cleanup is greater than the value of the mobile home itself.
Roberts said some meth manufacturers have discovered that they can more easily get away with their activities by cooking meth in motel rooms. “It’s a whole lot harder for us to get into a motel room than it is a regular house,” he said.
Manufacturers can fit all the precursors needed to make a few grams of meth into a regular-sized backpack, check in to a motel room, cook their meth, and then check out without management or law enforcement having any idea what happened in the room.
When people make meth at home, they have to dispose of the chemical waste that results from meth production.
“A lot of these guys burn this stuff in their back yard to get rid of evidence and you’ve got the smoke traveling over to your neighbor’s house,” Roberts said. “They’re pouring the liquids out in their yard which kills vegetation. It soaks through the ground and pollutes the water system, septic tanks and everything else.”
What is being done?
In 2006, North Carolina limited access to methamphetamine precursors, specifically pseudoephedrine. Non-prescription drugs containing pseudoephedrine must be kept behind the counter at drug stores, and when a person makes a purchase their name and address must be recorded. Purchases of more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine per day or nine grams per month are banned.
A national database called NPLEx allows law enforcement to monitor purchases of pseudoephedrine in real time.
“We have very good communication between pharmacies and law enforcement,” Beebe said. “If we end up having a target, we can research those individuals to see if they’re purchasing and how much they’re purchasing.”
Depending on the skill of a manufacturer, Roberts said, roughly six grams of meth can be made using nine grams of pseudoephedrine. The 2006 law made it more difficult for individuals to manufacture large quantities of meth on their own, but it hasn’t necessarily slowed down manufacturing due to an activity known as smurfing.
A smurf makes a purchase of pseudoephedrine for a manufacturer. If the smurf is a user, the manufacturer may give the smurf a small amount of meth in exchange for the pseudoephedrine. If the smurf is a non-user, the manufacturer pays the smurf for obtaining the pseudoephedrine.
“They’re learning how to combine their efforts and make more meth because the pseudoephedrine is so limited,” Roberts said. “Just like Harley mechanics know each other, these guys that shake and bake meth, they’re all acquainted somehow … It’s weird how these people are all linked together, and that’s why we’re able to build good conspiracy cases and continuing criminal enterprise (cases).”
Roberts said he thinks the coming months will see fewer numbers of individual meth arrests and greater numbers of group arrests as law enforcement connects people involved in the production of meth to one another.
“It seems the structured sentencing for these guys is making it difficult for the cooks especially to get out of jail. When they are sentencing them, they are giving them good, decent time. I think the state is behind law enforcement on prosecuting people and then actually sending them to jail,” Beebe said. “Methamphetamine production is one of the things that this state has actually handled fairly well. Could they make the fines and the punishments stiffer? Yes, they always could. But they’ve already started that headstrong with methamphetamine.”
Roberts mentioned one man arrested for possession of methamphetamine precursors. The man was not in possession of any meth, but he admitted to having made it a few times. Although the worst thing on his criminal record was driving while license revoked, he was sentenced to a minimum of 48 months in prison.
“That shows you how serious this stuff is,” Roberts said. “The way the court system works, we’ve got three heinous crimes: you’ve got murder, you’ve got rape and then you’ve got making meth. Meth is a class C felony. You’re going to do time if you’re found guilty.”
What are the solutions?
Debbie Haynes, program director for Safe Harbor Rescue Mission in Hickory, works with women recovering from drug addiction every day.
She said first-time users of meth often don’t realize how entangled the drug can become in their lives. “It’s not like pot,” she said. “It’s a whole lot more addictive and it’s really very scary to see how quickly it can get a stronghold on you.”
Haynes said peer pressure is part of the reason people start using drugs, but she also cited lack of good communication between parents and their children. “I think there’s also a lot of brokenness. Families are split up. There’s just a lot of emotional stress on kids that their didn’t used to be … There has never been a time that I’ve had a woman come in that didn’t have a story that included some kind of brokenness or trauma in their younger years, and so they try whatever they can to avoid that pain,” she said.
Broken homes are here to stay, she said, “but even in those broken homes, parents can connect with their children and interact with them and let them know that they’re loved and they’re important and they’re safe.”
Haynes encouraged parents to talk with their children to find out what is going on in their lives, what they’re doing online and who they’re hanging out with. “It just takes time and we live in a culture that’s very fast-paced. People are busy and they want to believe that their kids are OK, but you just can’t afford to trust what you see on the surface,” she said.
Just as Haynes urged parents to be aware of what their children are up to, members of law enforcement said the public’s vigilance can help quash meth’s proliferation.
Clark said citizens who monitor their own neighborhood are an asset to law enforcement. “They know their neighborhood. They know what’s going on. We could ride in their neighborhood and not know if that’s normal or if that’s abnormal. They know what’s going on in their neighborhood and they know if something starts up that’s not right,” he said.
Signs to look for include heavy traffic in and out of a residence, residents who stay awake all night and sleep all day, strong chemical smells in the air and frequent burning of trash. If you see a soda bottle with a binary liquid in it, copper beads, small white rocks, white residue, or tubes coming from the top, call police.
Clark stressed that reports to law enforcement can be made anonymously and should always be made if someone suspects a child is in danger.
“We get phone calls all the time, and if we get the phone call, we will follow right up on it and go see what we can do,” Beebe said. “Sometimes we’re really successful, and sometimes we just end up with a big goose egg.”
After his department busts a lab at a residence, Roberts said neighbors often say they suspected something illegal was going on. “My question is, ‘Why didn’t you call?’” he said. “Usually when you suspect something is happening, it’s happening.”
Why is meth so bad? Go to http://www.methproject.org to find out.