Police found the remnants of 22 plastic bottles used to make methamphetamine in a filth-strewn house on Jacksonville’s Westside where toilets were clogged with human waste and the only bathtub was filled with a black, rancid liquid.
“It was like a condemned house,” said Chip Moore, narcotics detective with the Sheriff’s Office, of the raid two years ago.
There was evidence children lived there at least some of the time.
Methamphetamine — made by mixing an explosive cocktail of fuels, drain cleaner, lithium and cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine — can crush lives with addiction and cause tens of thousands of dollars in property damage.
While the number of cases in Northeast Florida fluctuates, lab seizures and meth-related charges have climbed statewide in recent years even as fears exist that new trends will draw more users.
Moore said a shed at the back of the house on Herta Road was a wasteland of jugs used for what is known as the “one-pot” process to illegally make the stimulant. The chemical reactions involved when meth is cooked are so volatile that explosions and fire can occur.
Of the 22 jugs Moore found at the house, 15 had burst, he said.
“At some point, these vessels ruptured,” he said.
The man and woman living there were arrested and later sentenced to prison on convictions related to the drugs and charges that children were present.
TOXIC MESS LEFT BEHIND
Meth lab discoveries can result in properties being condemned and abandoned.
After police and hazardous-materials teams remove dangerous substances from what are often mobile homes or empty houses, owners can face cleanup costs higher than what the properties are worth.
“Most of the homeowners just leave them,” Moore said.
In Ponte Vedra Beach, a patio home in the Sawgrass golf community was so saturated with drug residue that its $40,000 cleanup ranked as the second-most expensive among St. Johns County cases, detective Shawn Ferris said.
Two people were arrested in the January case.
“When you put all that stuff in the bottle and start cooking, it starts giving off gas,” Ferris said. “They must have been doing a lot for a long time.”
Resins from the gases stick to walls, air-conditioning ducts and other surfaces. The mixing pots are thrown out once the drug is made and their contents sometimes dumped.
Earlier this month, a woman arrested in the bust was sentenced to five years’ probation and drug rehabilitation. A man arrested with her pleaded guilty to four drug-related charges and will be sentenced in December, according to court records.
The most expensive St. Johns property cleanup would have run about $80,000, Ferris said. Instead, the house south of St. Augustine was bulldozed.
Still, before a new house was built there, eight inches of topsoil had to be removed to ensure the toxins were gone, Ferris said.
In Jacksonville and St. Johns, properties where drug contamination is found must be certified as clean before they can be occupied again. The process includes an evaluation by contractors vetted for their expertise, then more testing after the homeowner has had the cleanup completed.
Local communities have had to take that initiative, Ferris said.
“There are no set guidelines federally that says this is dirty and this is cleaned up,” he said.
Palatka recently passed a similar cleanup ordinance requiring homeowners to get the work done.
‘FLYING UNDER THE RADAR’
While specific guidelines for addressing methamphetamine cleanups vary in Northeast Florida, a key issue remains finding the labs, which are primarily the compact and quick-acting one-pot style. Users and meth producers are often squatters who move from place to place and are difficult to locate.
Police only know of a small fraction of the meth lab activity occurring in communities, said Dawn Turner, who started methlabhomes.com, a resource providing information about the topic. Her son and daughter-in-law bought a Tennessee mobile home in 2004 that turned out to be contaminated. Difficulties the family faced after the discovery, including diagnosis of autism in the couple’s two sons, prompted Turner to launch the site.
“Former meth houses are still flying under the radar, due to the clandestine nature of manufacturing meth and the fact that meth testing is not required of homes that are sold or rented,” she said.
Tight budgets for local government and police agencies also can mean methamphetamine cases are a lower priority, she said. The Drug Enforcement Administration has a program to help police agencies with some of their costs removing spent meth labs, but other measures such as a $6 million Department of Justice grant for 2014 won’t have a deep impact, she said.
“Only 10 states are receiving money,” she said. The money will be used to make some police hires, buy some gear and pay for some cleanup, she said.
Moore said the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office investigates any complaint it gets about methamphetamine. Twenty-five percent to half of his time is dealing with those cases, he said.
“We get about 20 complaints a month,” he said. “I keep a kind of tally the best I can and we were up around 300 complaints with only 15 labs. Every one of them gets investigated. Not all of them turn out.”
Methamphetamine users, he said, are transient and tend toward paranoia.
Nationally, investigators have run into explosives and other booby traps.
Moore said Jacksonville police have had two such encounters, including one in which an acid would spill into a container of salt when a door was opened. The combination created a toxic gas.
The other involved a Samurai sword dangled above a door and positioned to drop down blade-first when the door opened.
“It was designed to hit you in the head,” Moore said. “You just don’t go opening stuff.”
‘HIJACKS THE BRAIN’
The effects of methamphetamine addiction can be dramatic. Users will stay awake for days and lab busts often include weapons, Turner noted.
In Clay County, a trial opened Monday in the shooting death of sheriff’s detective David White, who died in a February 2012 meth lab raid.
Ryan Christopher Wilder is the first of four to be tried in the case. He and the others were in the house in Middleburg when White and fellow officers came to the door. White was killed and detective Matthew Hanlin was wounded by Ted Tilley, a fifth person in the house who was shot and killed by police.
Investigators were later told Tilley, who was the meth cook, always carried a gun.
Paranoia can lead to addicts dismantling electronic devices out of fear of surveillance. Terms “meth bugs” and “meth mouth” commonly are used to describe someone digging at the skin because users believe they are infested with bugs and teeth that are ruined from smoking the drug.
“It hijacks the brain’s reward system,” said Joe Spillane, a clinical toxicologist and drug abuse epidemiologist at UF Health Jacksonville who studies drug trends.
Methamphetamine causes the release of dopamine, which according to Psychology Today is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
“You take these drugs and you get 10 times that release of dopamine,” Spillane said. “And pretty soon you don’t care about eating or drinking or having sex. Finally, you’ve got to take the thing just to feel normal.”
Methamphetamine rewires the brain, making it difficult to reason a way out of abusing the drug, he said.
“It can physically damage the brain to the point that you don’t have that same ability to reason the way you had before you got into the problem,” he said.
An intellectual balance in the user’s brain goes out of whack, he said.
Drug abuse also has a generational aspect, Spillane said. As time passes and a drug fades from use, it is then rediscovered by a new generation or used in a new way.
“A lot of times what feels like the hot new thing is just a new route,” he said. “It might be the same drug, but it’s a new route of administration.”
Spillane said he is concerned methamphetamine could be converted to a liquid that would then be vaporized and inhaled using electronic cigarettes now designed for nicotine. There are already concerns by law enforcement officials that vaporizing of synthetic marijuana could become a problem.
“Can it be far behind if it is not happening already?” Spillane questioned.
Otherwise, the production of meth is increasing in Mexico, where cartels manufacture large quantities and ship to places such as Atlanta.
Law enforcement officers in Northeast Florida said users in the region stick to the one-pot method. Only about 1 percent of the meth they seize is from outside traffickers.
However, federal authorities have made at least two cases involving quantities of methamphetamine brought from other areas.
The Department of Justice said in July ounces of methamphetamine were being distributed from an apartment in Macclenny. Five people from Baker and Nassau counties and Alma, Ga., were charged.
In September, federal authorities made three arrests in Putnam County and Texas linked to about eight pounds of the drug.
DEA special agent Mia Ro said the region has been targeted by traffickers.
“A majority of what we are seeing is in North Florida and Central Florida,” she said.