Merchants called on to help stamp out meth labs

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Retail store employees have been asked to watch for persons buying frequent or large quantities of common household chemicals, diet supplements, cold medications and various solvents used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
   According to the Southeast Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force based in Chattanooga and the 1st Judicial District Drug Task Force which helps make up the state task force, the clandestine manufacture of this highly addictive drug has reached epidemic proportions and is eating away at communities from southeast to northeast Tennessee.
   The increase in meth labs has been accompanied by a related rise in crimes such as burglary, auto theft, domestic violence and assault. The number of methamphetamine violators carrying firearms, resisting arrest and attempting to flee from officers also has risen, according to the Southeast task force.
   Large purchases of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, acetone, rubbing alcohol, engine starter, drain cleaner, coffee filters, iodine, lithium batteries, propane tanks, lye, matches, dishes and muriatic acid could be an indication of methamphetamine manufacturing.
   "Most of it's legal stuff. It's not against the law to go in and buy pseudoephedrine," said Kenneth Phillips, director of the 1st DTF. "But it does arouse suspicions when they buy too much."
   Phillips said purchases of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine are supposed to be limited to two packs at a time under federal law. Unfortunately, many manufacturers get around the limit by shopping store to store.
   1st DTF has broken up around 15 meth labs in just a little over a year in Carter, Johnson, Washington and Unicoi counties, according to Phillips. "The first ones we saw were in Washington County; then we started seeing them in Carter, and the last ones we've been getting, the biggest ones of them have been in Johnson County," he said.
   One was found about a month ago in Washington County and two recently in Johnson County.
   One thing Phillips advised retail stores to watch for is persons buying large amounts of matches. "They actually don't use the match itself. They use the striker off of the match cover. It contains red phosphorous."
   Manufacturers also use gas line antifreeze such as HEET to obtain ether. Coleman fuel is another favorite. "If somebody comes and buys a lot of Coleman fuel in the summer, they're either camping a lot or they're cooking meth," Phillips said.
   Anhydrous ammonia, another product used in the making of meth, generally is purchased through a farm supply store. It's also more difficult to obtain, according to Phillips. "Usually what they do is steal it."
   Anhydrous ammonia is of utmost concern of agents when they hit a lab "because if they're actually cooking, you do have a chance of a fire, explosion or dangerous gases," he said. "It will burn your skin and burn your lungs."
   Two men died recently during a meth lab explosion at a mobile home in rural Hawkins County and a third was hospitalized in critical condition after being overcome by toxic fumes.
   If a meth lab is discovered inside a mobile home, or a rolling lab found inside a van, the entire home or vehicle are considered contaminated. Phillips said the 1st DTF calls in Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration to assist in the investigation when a meth lab is found.
   "One reason we call in DEA is because if we call them in, they're federal authorities and the federal government gets involved, then they'll pay for the cleanup. If not, we have to pay for it. The average cleanup is like $7,500. The company that's used around this area is HEPACO out of Piney Flats," Phillips said.
   The Southeast task force has asked merchants to review their sales of potential meth products and "determine if these products are necessary for the continued operation and profitability of your business." Retail store personnel are asked to report all suspicious purchases of pseudoephedrine and other necessary chemicals to local law enforcement officials and to post signs inside their businesses that alert customers that suspicious purchases of the substances and suspicious behavior will be reported.
   Store owners also are cautioned against the consequences associated with knowing involvement in methamphetamine manufacturing activity.
   In July 2001, Harry Javaherpour, a Coffee County store owner, was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture meth and two counts of distributing pseudoephedrine after evidence showed that he had sold large quantities of the product while knowing that it would be used to manufacture meth. The store owner also sold other items used in the process, including matches and gas line anti-freeze. He was sentenced to 151 months in federal prison followed by three years' supervised release. He also forfeited $204,494 in proceeds from the sale of his business, which was seized.
   The Southeast task force was responsible for seizing 154 meth laboratories in 2000; 352 laboratories in 2001, and approximately 178 laboratories to date in 2002, along with 140 weapons. A total of 517 persons were charged by either federal or state authorities for illegally manufacturing or distributing meth from January 2001 through February 2002.