LAKE COUNTY — Four individuals arrested by Washington authorities on Friday were suspected of ramming a stolen airport courtesy car through Westland Seed at around 5 a.m. on Jan. 21, stealing guns from the establishment, attempting to steal guns from Ronan Sports and Western earlier that same day, and thieving a Porsche.
Lake County Undersheriff Dan Yonkin could not release the identities of the individuals or the town they were arrested in as of press time. Authorities say the brazen crimes are just the latest in a string of gun thefts, burglaries, and other high profile incidents that are related to a resurgence of methamphetamine demand in the area.
“It seems like guns are the new money for drugs,” Tribal Police Chief Craige Couture said. Thieves target guns because they are easily transported across state lines and difficult to track because people often don’t keep records of the serial numbers, Couture said. Thieves have grown bold in recent months in their quest to take firearms to pay drug debts.
On Dec. 12, 2013, burglars struck the home of Ronan resident Thom Chisholm in broad daylight and took 18 firearms and 28 other valuables. Chisholm said the crime was almost identical to another theft where firearms were taken around the same time. The victim of that burglary was not available for comment.
The burglary at Chisholm’s residence took place just two days after 24-year-old Luis Denobrega, of Spokane, crashed his car into a snowy ditch on North Crow Road after leading authorities on a chase where he exceeded speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. Denobrega almost hit at least a dozen vehicles, court documents allege. The crashed vehicle contained a black hatchet, red hooded sweatshirt, a 12-gauge shotgun, two rifles in a backpack and a 20-gauge shotgun. Denobrega told officers that he was a gang member of the Bloods called the Native Lynch Mob. He admitted to perpetrating a drive-by shooting at a house containing five adults, one small child, and an infant on Dec. 7, 2013. Denobrega told law enforcement he was “higher than s—” the day of the shooting, had abused methamphetamine for 13 years, and that he was consuming methamphetamine every day at the time of the event.
Tribal and county authorities said they did not have any indication the guns Denobrega used in the shooting were stolen or that there was any kind of gang problem in Lake County.
More than one month later, a break-in was reported at the Ronan airport on Jan. 16. Thieves stole a Porsche and tools from a hangar, according to Yonkin. Police increased patrols in the area, but thieves were still able to access the airport on the morning of Jan. 21.
At around 4:30 a.m. would-be thieves used a sledgehammer in an attempt to break the door to Ronan Sports and Western. Store management said the shatter-proof glass door was cracked, but did not break. Little more than an hour later the Ronan airport’s courtesy car was stolen and driven through the front door of Westland Seed. In eight minutes, a thief stole between eight and 10 guns, including a .50 caliber high-powered rifle. The car was left running and in gear at the scene of the crime.
Two days after the break-in, Washington authorities called the Lake County Sheriff’s office. They caught four individuals they believed were linked to the Westland Seed burglary and the theft of the Porsche at the airport.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen big city crime like this in Ronan,” Westland Seed CEO and President David Sagmiller said.
The root of the problem
The influx in crime is directly tied to a drug route where methamphetamine is pouring in from Washington state, authorities said. A more pure and potent form of the drug is trafficked from Mexico, northward into California and Washington, and on into Montana.
Mexican cartels have targeted Indian reservations for years, according to a 2006 document released by the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress of American Indians.
“Mexican drug cartels have been purposefully targeting rural Native American reservations, both for sale of meth and as distribution hubs,” the paper reads. “Native Americans now experience the highest meth usage rates of any ethnic group in the nation. Some of the reasons drug cartels have targeted Native communities are the complex nature of criminal jurisdiction on Indian reservations, and because Tribal governmental police forces have been historically under-funded and understaffed.”
In recent years a decline in funding has made it more difficult for local agencies to staff positions focused solely on drugs, Couture said.
“When we were busy in 1999 to 2004, we had a drug team,” Couture said. “With cutbacks we don’t have as many officers out there investigating drugs.”
A few other factors compound the problem. Drug dealers, manufacturers, and users that were sentenced to 10 or 15 years in prison for their crimes at the height of Lake County’s war on meth are now being released.
“A lot of people we sent to prison on drug charges are getting out,” Couture said.
The released prisoners who return to Lake County find a drug landscape where a simple change in the supply chain makes it much easier for criminals to continue their meth habit with fewer risks.
In the past decade, Montana legislators cracked down on activities that fueled locally-made methamphetamine. Laws were passed that made it more difficult to access cold medicines used to manufacture the drugs and imposed a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for manufacture charges. Prosecutors can try to sentence manufacturers to life in prison.
The number of meth labs in Lake County dropped dramatically as the risks of manufacturing the drug grew. In the early 2000s authorities busted an average of 11 labs per year, with 22 busts occurring in one year.
“Now we find maybe one each year,” Couture said.
The sentences tied to trafficking the drug are much less stringent, with a 2-year minimum and 20-year maximum sentence.
“It used to be meth labs, but now it is just methamphetamine,” Couture said. “If people have that demand, they will supply it.”
Undercover drug agents in Washington often pose as customers from Montana.
“They know Montanans will pay,” Couture said.
Attacking the roots
In 2005, a multi-million dollar advertising campaign called the Montana Meth Project was bankrolled by software billionaire Tom Siebel’s foundation.
The organization became the state’s largest advertiser and launched a stringent offensive with graphic, gritty depictions of the worst side effects of the drug. The campaign gained national media coverage for the grisly advertisements.
Then in 2008 and 2010, separate reports from the University of Western Australia and the University of Montana claimed the advertising had no impact on the overall decline in meth usage in the state. The project disputed those claims.
Montanans may have noticed the bombardment of television advertisements dropping off, but it isn’t because the project isn’t still in full swing. Just as authorities had to adjust to changes in supply of the drug, the Montana Meth Project had to alter the way it reaches its target audience of teenagers.
“We’ve shifted our advertising model from the traditional ways people were used to seeing us on television, radio, billboard and print,” said Amy Rue, executive director of the project. “It’s an online experience where teens are consuming their lion’s share of media these days.”
Instead of paying for costly advertisements scattered on billboards throughout a geographically vast state with low population density or broadcasting across airwaves where an 80-year-old gets the message instead of a 12-year-old, the project began using data mined from online gaming, social media, and other websites to orient its campaign. Beginning in 2011, the project revamped its website to include 350 pieces of interactive content so teens could converse about meth in cyber space. Now advertisements are sent directly to the phones and web browsers of Montana teenagers.
“We were able to improve saturation rates while still being highly effective and conscious of the cost,” Rue said.
The group also launched an online resource for schoolteachers with pre-made lesson plans meant to educate children early about the dangers of meth.
“We want to maintain a consistent conversation with them about reinforcing that message of ‘not even once’ (trying meth),” Rue said.
For those that do get hooked on the drug, the state’s method of preventing relapse has also changed.
In 2007, the state legislature opened Nexus, an 80-bed meth treatment facility for men and Elkhorn, a 36-bed facility for women in Boulder.
Representatives of the facility did not return calls for comment by press time, but statistics from the Montana Department of Corrections show the program has been successful.
In 2010, the recidivism rate for the facilities was almost zero. Of the 299 offenders who completed nine-months of treatment, none had been convicted of a drug-related offense since release.
The programs cost between $4 million and $5 million each year, according to legislative budget reports. Those who enter the facility are often repeat offenders. According to a 2013 Department of Corrections report, men who entered Nexus facility had been arrested more than 19 times on average. The group’s average number of felony convictions was four and the average number of misdemeanor convictions was 15. The numbers for the Elkhorn facility weren’t as high. Women enrolled had been arrested an average of three times for felonies, eight times for misdemeanors, and 12 times overall.
But the 116 beds in the facilities are nowhere near the number of drug charges reported by the Western Montana region in 2012. More than 1,200 offenses occurred. The state does not release the number of individual meth charges.
Treating the symptoms
Recent burglaries are merely a symptom of the larger drug problem in Lake County, but local authorities have tips to help prevent against subsequent crimes.
“A lot of people don’t lock their cars as they should,” Couture said. “They don’t lock their houses as they should.”
Simple precautionary measures like barking dogs, motion detection floodlights, and locks can be big deterrents for burglars, he added.
People should report suspicious activity to authorities.
“Every time I read another burglary report it seems like somebody saw something, maybe the mailman or somebody else, who saw something suspicious at the time, but they didn’t report it,” Yonkin said.
If someone is hit by burglars, actions taken before the crime can help determine the outcome of an investigation.
For law enforcement to properly identify property, especially firearms, serial numbers and a list of distinguishing marks is crucial. Most people don’t keep a log of this information because it is tedious, but smartphones have simplified the process.
Couture recommends that people take inventory of their personal belongings by taking photos with smart phones and storing those digital files.
“It’s so much easier,” Couture said.