DA ups ante on meth producers under anti-terrorism law

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

   Members of the 1st Judicial District Drug Task Force have broken up nearly 30 methamphetamine laboratories since the beginning of this year, including 10 in the month of May alone, according to DTF Director Kenneth Phillips.
   Across the mountain in Boone, N.C., Watauga County law enforcement officials have dismantled 24 meth labs since January. Watauga County District Attorney Jerry Wilson is not very happy with that number, especially since meth labs are not one of the sights tourists flock to see in the High Country.
   In an effort to send a message to the manufacturers of methamphetamine, Wilson has begun charging meth lab operators under North Carolina's Article 36B, Section 14-288.21, the state anti-terrorism law which was passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
   The statute governs nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons of mass destruction, including "any weapon, device or method that is designed or has the capability to cause death or serious injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of radiation or radioactivity, a disease organism, or toxic or poisonous chemicals or their immediate precursors."
   Wilson believes the toxic nature of the chemicals used to manufacture meth, and the toxic gases created as a byproduct of the cooking process, make the North Carolina statute applicable to the crime.
   District Attorney General Joe Crumley and DTF Director Phillips are watching the North Carolina cases closely to see whether such a law might have merit in Tennessee.
   Persons found guilty of violating the North Carolina anti-terrorism law are guilty of a Class B1 felony, which carries a minimum 12-year sentence up to life in prison, depending on prior criminal history.
   Most of the meth manufacturing cases still are making their way through the court system in both states, therefore, it is too early to tell what kind of punishment the perpetrators will receive if found guilty. Or whether North Carolina's anti-terrorism meth cases will hold up in court before a judge and jury.
   But with the increasing number of meth labs being found, Wilson said, "It became obvious that our law, as it existed, was insufficient to deal with the problem. It's a brand new problem for North Carolina. We were arresting people, bringing them in, and they were bonding out and going right back to the same thing. We ended up arresting people two and three times before they even went to trial on these charges."
   North Carolina's statutes before the anti-terrorism law took effect "were not something that obviously concerned these folks," he said. "So what we did was up the ante."
   Methamphetamine is different from other drugs, according to Wilson, in that once it's manufactured, "you have the problem that is inherent with any drug -- it affects society, it affects the user. But at the same time, methamphetamine is different in that the process of manufacturing it also produces large amounts of extremely dangerous chemicals which are left behind long after the manufacture is finished.
   "And it is that part of the crime that we are going after with the chemical weapons statute," Wilson said.
   There are three chemicals common to all meth labs, he said. "The three that we're going after are phosphine gas, iodine crystals, and hydrochloric gas."
   Wilson said that in the red phosphorus method of producing meth, the phosphorous strike plates on matchbook covers are torn off and soaked in an alcohol solution. "By doing that, the alcohol, in effect, breaks down the glue that holds the phosphorus. In these places you'll find hundreds and thousands of matchbooks.
   "It takes a long time to do it. If you just let it sit there, it makes phosphine gas -- but not a lot. But what they do to speed it up is heat it. And when you heat it, that's when the phosphine gas pours out."
   Crews who specialize in cleanup of hazardous wastes must be called out to clean up meth labs. In North Carolina, "You're talking, at the very minimum, $1,500 to clean it up; and it normally runs $5,000 to $10,000," Wilson said.
   In Tennessee, Phillips said the cost is usually between $5,000 and $8,000.
   "One pound of meth produces five to six pounds of these toxic chemicals," Wilson said. "What they're doing while they're cooking is these folks take precautions to protect themselves. But then after they're through with it, they throw it out in the yard, flush it down the commode, pour it down the sink, throw it in the rivers.
   "We found one that had been thrown in the green box behind the cancer center here at the hospital. I don't know if the air induction system could pull that in or not, but I don't want to take a chance, especially in a place like that," he said.
   "We've got meth labs everywhere. We've got them in houses, we've got a few trailers, motel rooms, back seats of cars. You name it, we've had a meth lab there.
   "I don't know what kind of ecological damage it's going to have, but certainly it can't be good. And certainly it's being left in places that innocent people can be exposed to it. In a motel room, you move in behind them to take the kids to Tweetsie and suddenly you're breathing phosphine gas and don't even know it," Wilson said.
   According to Phillips, 1st DTF law enforcement officers have found meth labs in cars, but, so far, none in motel rooms.
   An incident in Watauga County this past spring illustrates some of the dangers associated with the labs, according to Wilson. Six firefighters were injured after they responded to a fire call at what turned out to be a meth lab inside a house.
   "The phosphine gas fell to the floor, and when they went in looking for hot spots, one fireman was severely, severely injured. He's a young man that's now lost 85 percent of his lung capacity," Wilson said.
   His office is working in cooperation with the Department of Social Services to take children out of homes where meth labs are found. "We, along with DSS, have set up a group trying to work with the children. We've got at least eight in DSS custody who have been taken out of these houses," Wilson said.
   Meth labs also are having an impact on housing in the High Country.
   "Watauga County land prices are just astronomical. Affordable housing here is a real problem. As of two weeks ago, the health department has now set at least eight houses that they cannot let people occupy because of the labs that were located in them. They can't get anybody to certify them safe for occupation," Wilson said.
   "Our county depends so much on tourism and on bringing people in to see the area. That is not a welcome thing to have this sort of activity going on in the county, not for anybody," he said.