On the street with the most aggressive drug hunters in Ohio

Methbusters 

On the street with the most aggressive drug hunters in Ohio

Meth lab or cat piss? the nose wonders. Litter box or burning chemicals?

Akron cop Chris Crockett stands in the middle of the cramped living room, sniffing at the midnight air. He's not pulling in lungfuls, just breathing normally as he talks with the 24-year-old woman he's dropped in on. But by the time Crockett swings the conversation around to his reason for visiting, he has already sifted through the various scents spiking the house. And he's found what he wants.

Three additional cops are drifting around the rooms of the blue Cape Cod northeast of downtown Akron, peering through doorways in search of other houseguests. The guy who had answered the door moments before — bleary eyed, tattoos climbing both arms, pasty gut rolling over his jeans — now nervously leans on a wall papered with brightly crayoned drawings and posters of wide-eyed Pixar princesses. Outside, the dead-end street is quiet, the plentiful shadows bandaging the neighborhood's wear and tear.

The woman is collapsed on the couch, her arms and legs poking from a T-shirt and jeans like tent-poles under a tarp. Though the color has been chased from her pretty face, she doesn't seem alarmed as Crockett patiently explains why he's here: An anonymous call had come in about a female cooking meth at this address, he says. The caller said the resident's two-year-old daughter was there too.

"Oh," the woman answers, her forehead ridged with concentration, as if she's trying to tune Crockett in through heavy radio static.

"Is anybody making meth?" he asks.

"No."

"What I would like to do — since your daughter does stay here? She's just not here tonight? — is make sure there's no meth lab."

With the woman's blessing, Crockett and the others begin searching the rooms, each one clogged with the heady bouquet of feline hair and filthy carpet. In the bedroom, they find a video camera, sex toys, and other clues suggesting the couple had just been capturing their gymnastics on film. But while the others gawk, Crockett roams the house, cycling through his mental list of potential hiding spots. Occasionally he tosses the woman questions; she dribbles back clipped answers or shrugs.

"When was the last time you used?"

"A while ago."

"You use that hot plate down here?"

"I don't know why that's there."

After 10 minutes, Crockett finds his target. Under the kitchen sink sits a roller suitcase; when he inches open the lid, out peeks tubing, coffee filters, and a bottle crusted with white powder — innocuous home items that are the common tools of a meth lab. For all Crockett knows, there could be bottles cooking inside the case, and one wrong shake might spew lithium flames across the kitchen at 1600 degrees.

A member of Akron's Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team (CLET), Crockett logs endless hours mingling with meth heads and poking around for their hazardous home chemistry projects. These days, you can find meth just about anywhere. And Akron Police find it like nobody else.

***

From behind the bifocals of your average chemistry nerd, the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine is all about a single stubborn oxygen molecule.

Unknown to most cooks risking jail time and injury, the various methods of home production all aim to coax that tiny molecule from the atomic framework of pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in sniffle medicine like Sudafed.

When meth first became popular about two decades back, the prominent recipe was known as the "Nazi method," a term coined by the motorcycle gangs who organized early production into a steady business. It called for anhydrous ammonia, a compound found almost exclusively in fertilizer. For that reason, meth was manufactured mostly in rural areas, where the nose-tingling fumes from the process could rise up undetected amid all that empty farmland.

Meth didn't trickle into Northeast Ohio till the rise of the "Red P" recipe, which leans on red phosphorus to get the chemical reactions moving. The substance, found on the striker plates of matches and road flares, was mixed with crystal iodine and pseudoephedrine, then cooked on a hot plate, in the process casting off odorless but highly toxic fumes.

Besides the dangerous chemicals, these older methods exposed meth cooks to risks that played right into the hands of law enforcement. The shopping list for a normal batch — usually about 200 grams of meth — was conspicuous; it's hard to walk out of Wal-Mart hauling cases of road flares without raising an eyebrow or two. The labs themselves were made up of elaborate systems of buckets and pipes, so if police knocked on the door and saw the rec room had been jerry-rigged to look like Bill Nye's lab, it was slam-dunk felony manufacturing. The actual process of meth-making was also long, requiring anywhere from 4 to 16 hours.

These earlier forms of meth peaked in the mid-2000s; soon after, production was choked off due to a push by law enforcement, including mandatory prison sentences for manufacturing and the removal of certain chemical ingredients, like crystal iodine, from the general market.

But meth's revival comes thanks to an innovation that hit the streets about four years ago. Gone are big labs and long cooking times; instead, the "one pot" or "shake and bake" method makes the drug in a single container — usually a two-liter pop bottle that can be easily concealed. By mixing ammonium nitrate fertilizer, lithium stripped from batteries, lye, and Coleman fuel with the pills inside a pressurized container, a modern cook can produce a batch of meth oil in under an hour; the substance can then easily be "salted out" into solid form to be smoked, snorted, or shot directly into veins to jump-start a high that often lasts more than a day. Some experts suspect the new method results in a purer drug or — thanks to the lithium — packs an extra psychotropic kick.

But it's the new economics, not the potency, that's likely contributed to meth's boom. Each two-liter bottle produces about five grams of meth for less than $100. On the street, a single gram — about the amount in a sugar packet — goes for about $100 to $125. If a cook gets multiple bottles going at once, a stockpile of meth can be churned out with little overhead. The math has not only brought new users into manufacturing; it's brought back old cooks collared a few years ago, who are just now getting out of prison and finding the new method hard to pass up.

"We're statewide starting to see the same numbers [we saw] in 2005, when things were kind of out of hand," says Dave Posten, an agent of Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Investigation who until recently worked on a meth team stationed in Summit County.

"It's definitely a statewide issue."

***

In a paint-by-numbers portrait of Ohio's meth use, Akron is as dark as a kicked shin. Since 2000, the Drug Enforcement Agency has kept a loose database on the number of meth labs across the country based on arrest records. Whereas Cuyahoga and Lake County authorities have discovered only a handful of labs each, more than a third of all labs across the state are found in Summit County, with 256 locations falling within Akron's city limits.

Over the last 12 years, the city's CLET unit estimates that it has taken down 600 labs, including 77 last year alone. In only four months this year, they've already hit 70 — a pace that would more than triple their previous high. Last year, by comparison, Cleveland Police took down all of four labs. This year, they've added another four.

"If you don't think it's in your community, you're dead wrong," Crockett says one March morning in an office at the department's downtown headquarters. "It's that they're not looking for it, or they don't have the time."

Rather than flagging a new epidemic, Akron's cops believe their number of busts points to the increased attention they've devoted to the problem. For more than a decade, the city has trained cops in meth tracking and cleanup. As labs continued to surface, additional officers volunteered to undergo required training with the DEA or BCI.

Today, Akron's meth unit has 11 officers trained for two-pronged duty: They sniff out labs, then suit up in protective gear to clean out the hazardous materials they find.

"We love doing this," says Lieutenant Brian Simcox from across the room. "People don't want to be in Akron and do this, because they know we'll be looking for them."

Bulky and bald, Simcox is an overstuffed encyclopedia when it comes to meth, prone to busting out info on the drug and its production, and evangelizing on its ills. He's also a vocal counterpoint to Crockett, a stocky, dark-haired cop who talks about the job in an understated voice that shrugged off any sense of surprise long ago.

Together, they're the high-profile pair that fronts the crew. Meth makers know their names — even their work schedules, sometimes timing cooking sessions for when the officers are off the clock.

Like a coach boasting about the cleanup hitter in his lineup, Simcox isn't shy about singing the praises of Crockett, whom he calls the best meth cop in the state. "If somebody gets popped with meth, they want to know where Crockett is."

Meth cooks in Akron's Kenmore neighborhood have even printed up T-shirts that read "Don't Let Crockett in Your Pocket."

"They fear him," says Simcox, "but they also respect him."

Both cops' street reputation is a testament to their dedication — especially given the practical handicaps that go with the work. For one thing, there aren't any Armani-suited dons doing Tony Montana nose-dives into mountains of meth in the ballroom of their beachfront spread.

Since there are no kingpins, there is little practical incentive to pour resources into investigations and no stockpile of assets that can be sold off to fund later efforts — the bottom line of the drug war. Akron's cops thrive anyway.

The meth unit isn't a full-time detail, but a patchwork of specialists from across the department. Simcox and Crockett work regular patrols — standard police work from day to day, with lab hunts when time allows; at their current clip, they snag a few each week. Like a SWAT assignment, the work eats up their personal time, with officers logging extra hours whenever a lab needs cleaning. Both have been on duty for nearly all 70 of this year's calls.

Simcox and Crockett attribute the increase in lab busts to the advent of the one-pot method, but also the tanked economy, which they believe has driven more people to drug use. They also say that Akron's meth lab count doesn't indicate the city has a standout problem — only that they've made it a point to spread the word on how to spot the meth scene better than others have. Monthly presentations alerting community groups and council wards to suspicious activity have resulted in a steady stream of tips.

The unit also has an open dialogue with children's services — an unfortunately steady source of information. A lot of meth is cooked in the presence of children; Crockett and Simcox, both family men, prioritize calls involving kids — a fact grimly highlighted by the previous night's work.

Although the unit is officially lockjawed on details, it will later be revealed that members had been up late the previous night cleaning up a lab at a house in a run-down neighborhood. The cook was discovered after EMS responded to a call about a dead 17-month-old boy. Police found a lab in the basement space where the child had been living; the mother, 20-year-old Heather Lerch, and three friends were charged with murder after the coroner determined the baby died from inhaling meth fumes.

***

Rolling through a shabby residential street in east Akron, Chris Crockett has one hand guiding the wheel, the other holding up his iPhone on speaker as it pipes in an obnoxious nu-metal ringtone. "Okay, that's driving me nuts," he says before the voicemail kicks in. "Dude, answer your phone and change your ring tone."

Crockett is dialing up a source for specifics on an address a couple blocks over. The guy's horse-trading meth lab clues in exchange for leniency on a recent bath salt bust. As the cruiser approaches the weather-bruised two-story brick duplex, Crockett drops the car into a slow glide, trying to spot blackened windows, fans, or surveillance cameras — the usual giveaways that a cook is under way inside.

"Sometimes they're going to know that we're watching, and they'll sit and wait and hide their stuff," he says while panning a spotlight over the lot. "But they won't get rid of it, the meth oil. They've been working so hard to get it made."

Swinging back on the next street over, Crockett begins tapping on the cruiser's computer, looking to see which patrol cars are available in the area. A lot of meth cooks keep an ear pressed to the police channels through a smartphone app, so Crockett arranges for backup without his radio, shooting over computer messages or calling officers' cell phones instead. He never Lone Rangers an approach on a potential lab; you can't be sure how many people are inside, or how much a meth binge has singed their common sense.

Meth investigations aren't like regular narcotics work, where police try to climb the rungs of the distribution ladder to the top. The modern cook has decentralized production; instead of organized dealers, they make the drug for their own fix with a small group of friends, then sell off the extra. The whole scene is a self-contained ecosystem. Everyone knows each other; they share recipes, invite each other over to cook, or "smurf" for one another — street shorthand for when a cook pays someone $40 to go buy a $7 box of pills in order to duck the state-mandated system that tracks purchases.

Tug on the loose threads from one meth lab, and you'll probably find yourself in the middle of another one. That's how Crockett originally got into the work. While on patrol in 2002, he uncovered a lab in an apartment on a house call. He didn't even know what he had at the time, but watched with interest as trained officers cleaned the site. Almost without even trying, he was given the scoop on a related lab. The next one led to more, and Crockett joined CLET soon after.

Today, each bust shakes loose more tips, mainly because Crockett chooses to deal with each suspect as a person, not just a perp. "I don't just arrest them and send them off on their way and consider them a piece of shit," he says. "I interview them and I get information, or I help them out."

Usually, those facing charges will gift-wrap info for him. Cuffed in the backseat of the cruiser, they'll cough up half-remembered street names. When he's at a gas station for coffee, someone will randomly stop him with an address. People phone the station with hazy past associations — a patchwork of out-of-focus data Crockett stitches into a roadmap of the local meth scene.

And though officers and users alike know his name and his reputation, Crockett steadily bats off any praise. "It's not about that for me."

Behind the wheel of the cruiser, Crockett is still rounding up officers when the radio squawks in a call about a new lab on the other side of town.

"This is just funny," he says, steering toward the second address. "It just never stops."

***

When it's time to pay a call on a suspected meth house, Crockett doesn't shout or kick in doors. He simply knocks. Members of the CLET unit arrive without warrants, so if the homeowner boots them off the porch, they're gone.

But usually, after Crockett politely explains why he's there, he'll get permission to search. Even if the cracked door emits waves of fresh chemical fumes, or Crockett finds himself talking to an obvious user — bleached skin, nerves chewed from lack of sleep, mouth constantly spitting out disjointed talk through ragged teeth — he usually gets the green light. Only a step or two into the doorway, his nose picks up the traces of a cook.

One of the oddest — and saddest, any way you cut it — aspects of meth use is how often their knocks are answered by familiar faces. Like hamsters who can't jump from the wheel, meth users keep at it. Although the drug itself is neck and neck with heroin as the most physically addictive street substance, many cooks are just as fixated on manufacturing it.

"We've had cooks tell us they get as high making it as using it," Simcox says. They've seen the process backfire on cooks, the flames requiring skin grafs and rehab, only to later find them back at it again. In April, they arrested a man for the third time in three months; each time he was released on bond to await trial, and each time he went back to cooking.

"They take pride with it," Simcox says. "'Look what I made, look what I did. I've got the best dope in town.'"

For all the hopeless cases the CLET unit sees, its members focus on mitigating the collateral damage.

"My big thing is there are innocent family members who get caught up in all this, whether it's the children or someone's mom and dad," Crockett explains. "I try and rescue who I can rescue; if it's a meth cook who can be saved, I'll try. I will. But after they come out and do it again and again, we know they're not going to stop."

***

Once the Cape Cod has been cleared, and the woman and her boyfriend are packed off for the city jail, Crockett shoots out a call to three other team members. They had torn down a larger lab not 24 hours ago, and many are heading back to handle the next one without any sleep. Mainlining large cups of gas-station black, they crawl inside black fire-resistant Nomax suits, and search the property.

As a rule, the team combs contaminated houses in pairs, in case someone's consciousness slips from inhaling fumes. But their main concern is in finding active bottles cooking meth. With older methods of production, inhalation was the primary danger; nowadays, those concerns have been elbowed aside by possible explosions.

"When the Alfred P. Murrah Building [in Oklahoma City] was blown up, they used ammonium nitrate, or fertilizer, mixed with rocket fuel," Simcox says. "The one-pot meth labs are ammonium nitrate mixed with Coleman's fuel. They're mini bombs. And what makes it more dangerous to law enforcement and anybody else in the house is lithium hates water. If you put lithium and water together, it will catch fire and burn immediately."

As they emerge from the house, the CLET members lay out the cooking materials they've found — tubing, bottles, store-bought lye, crumpled tin foil — in the driveway and prepare for the last and critical part of the cleanup: neutralization.

For many years, the hefty price tag attached to safely hauling off hazardous meth lab chemicals was footed by the Drug Enforcement Agency. After the local unit would collect the nasty chemicals and meth oil, a hazardous-materials company would take it to a disposal site at a cost of $1,000 to $3,000 a pop. Thanks to the shipwrecked economy, that federal cash flow was choked off in February 2011. If Akron wanted to keep busting meth labs, it would have to tap its own budget.

"It got to be very cost prohibitive," Simcox says. "We don't want to say we slowed our efforts, but we prioritized."

They also found an innovative new technique that dramatically reduced overhead. The city paid for Simcox, Crockett, and other members of the unit to learn how to neutralize meth oil and other harsh chemicals themselves at the site of the bust, using a process right out of an AP Chemistry lab. Once cooked, meth oil is a strong basic solution. Using buffer acids, often just vinegar, the team chemically nudges the leftovers down the pH scale to neutral, at which point they solidify the substance with kitty litter and safely dispose of it. The cost: 50 bucks, tops.

***

With summer closing in, Simcox predicts a drop-off in lab busts, but not from any slowdown in use. It's just that regular police calls pick up in warmer months, leaving leave less time for meth work. Once autumn rolls around, they'll resume their crackdown at a higher clip.

If the money to fund their efforts isn't plentiful, support from the community clearly is. Working with Akron City Council, the team helped craft legislation this year that will stick homeowners with the bill for cleanup of their meth labs — a move aimed in part at making landlords more conscious of what their tenants are up to. The same legislation handed over $10,000 for a meth-awareness campaign in the city's public schools.

In the meantime, the work continues at a rapid rate. Just last week, the CLET unit had its busiest day ever. In the course of one 24-hour run, Crockett and Simcox busted four meth labs, resulting in 11 arrests and six kids turned over to protective custody.

"It was a good day," says Simcox.

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