July 28, 2012
Meth: Concealed problem
As smoke cleared its way out of 95 Maple Ave., Cortland firefighters saw unusual items in the living room.
They found a coffee pot, filters, some lithium batteries, wire cutters, a glass pipe and other medical and chemical agents. Inside a microwave in that living room was a plastic bag with toilet bowl cleaner.
And next to a chair in the same room, firefighters found a box of batteries and a container of a bright blue crystal-like substance.
Firefighters say they train regularly to know the signs of methamphetamine production — a certain number and combination of ingredients.
What they found in the Maple Avenue house July 20, added up to just that, fire officials said. A week earlier, authorities busted an alleged meth lab a block away, at 76 Lincoln Ave.
Police and fire officials could not recall the last time a meth lab was found in the city of Cortland.
“It’s a surprise to have two meth labs in two weeks — it’s definitely alarming,” Assistant Cortland Fire Chief Wayne Friedman said this week. “It did boost our awareness to be more prepared to deal with this.”
Meth is not a stranger to Cortland County, according to local law enforcement. But the highly addictive chemical stimulant has somehow managed to keep a lower profile than other drugs like cocaine or marijuana.
Police can only speculate as to why.
Meth can be attractive for rural drug abusers because it can be produced locally at a cost of roughly $12 for a $100 street value of the product, according to authorities.
The Cortland County Drug Task Force, composed of local police agencies working in between other cases, works to maintain an active role in fighting illegal drugs in the community, said county Sheriff’s Department Capt. Mark Helms.
Police say limited manpower means a tougher time keeping up with local drug problems in general.
“It’s a full-time problem, but right now, we can’t afford to do that — we don’t have the personnel,” Helms said
Both meth labs busted earlier this month in the city of Cortland managed to fly below law enforcement’s radar, until a neighbor reported a suspicious odor from the Lincoln Avenue address July 13.
The second meth lab was busted more conventionally. Firefighters and police responded July 20 to the Maple Avenue house for a possible fire. There was no fire, but smoke filled the house due to some kind of reaction in the meth ingredients, Friedman said.
Cortland residents — John Rosen, 43, and Renee Perfetti, 44 — were arrested in the Lincoln Avenue meth bust. Damien Grant, 22, and Katelynne Thomas, 21, were charged in the Maple Avenue bust. Police could not say how long meth was being cooked up in either house. All four suspects admitted being regular meth users, court papers said. The suspects face felony and misdemeanor counts of manufacturing meth and drug possession.
More charges were filed this week related to evidence collected at the houses during the raids. The cases are being handled in Cortland City Court.
Both meth operations were indirectly related, court papers indicate. Grant occasionally bought meth from Rosen, court papers allege.
When police came to Rosen’s house July 13, they found a bottle he allegedly used to produce meth stashed in a garbage can on the front porch, court papers said.
Investigators are exploring the possibility of other meth labs in the community, as the result of the busts on Lincoln and Maple avenues. Court papers filed as part of those cases indicate other meth operations in the community.
‘They’re not that complicated’
In Cortland County, meth has managed to keep a lower profile than other drugs like cocaine — a drug that investigators say is often supplied by dealers from city areas like Syracuse.
Local police have encountered meth sporadically over recent years, but never in substantial amounts, said Cortland Police Lt. Richard Troyer.
“It was never a growing trend, where you could see that we’ve got a meth problem,” Troyer said this week. “They’re not that complicated (meth labs), you can buy all the chemicals in the store legally.”
Unlike cocaine, meth is a drug that can be cooked up virtually anywhere and by almost anyone, Helms said.
Meth is largely available because of clandestine labs that often take medication including ephedrine or pseudoephredine, and use a “shake and bake” method, according to Cortland Prevention Resources, an organization that educates about substance abuse issues.
The “shake and bake” method mixes those medications with other chemical ingredients, cooking them until they are left with the final product.
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency says 50 meth labs were busted statewide in 2004. The number of meth labs declined for several years, until 2011, when 43 were busted in the state. The DEA listed no meth lab busts in Cortland County, though some were listed in its neighboring counties.
The state police said Thursday that the number of times police have investigated possible meth labs in Cortland County is small: one in 2002, two in 2005, one in 2011. That does not include the city of Cortland. In contrast, Madison County went from four incidents in 2011 to 28 this year as of June 30.
DEA officials said meth production is growing because of refined techniques in recent years that allow meth to be produced in smaller batches.
These “shake and bake” operations, similar to the recent ones in the city of Cortland, have allowed meth to become more commonplace statewide, according to the DEA.
Meth production can involve combustible materials, and many are discovered by fires, explosions or the noxious odor produced by ingredients.
County police busted a mobile meth lab in June 2010, when a Homer man was found passed out behind the steering wheel of his pickup truck off Route 41A. The back of his truck was full of chemicals and items that were common ingredients for meth, police said. A year later, that defendant, Richard Smith, pleaded guilty to felony unlawful manufacture of meth and received probation.
Unlike Cortland, other counties like Madison, Oneida and Oswego are reporting many meth-related cases in recent years.
“There’s no doubt it’s in this community, though we haven’t run across it as much as other counties,” Helms said. “But I don’t think we have any less of it than they do.”
The effects of meth use seemed apparent on some of the defendants facing charges in the Lincoln and Maple avenue meth busts.
In a statement to Cortland police, Grant said he was “clean for the most part for a couple of years” until recently, when he started working again. He listed himself as unemployed. Before he knew it, he was smoking meth, he told police.
“Sometimes I have been bingeing and staying up for like six or seven days straight,” Grant told police. “I am not a meth dealer, I am a meth user.”
Grant started using meth in his late teenage years, stopped, then started using it again several months ago, according to court papers.
“I have never done a full blown (meth) cook,” Grant told police. “I take scraps and bits from what others have cooked and do some things to try to get whatever little bit of product is left in it.”
The effects of meth last on average of six to eight hours.
According to the DEA, even small amounts of meth can over-stimulate body functions — from rapid breathing and heart rate, to increased blood pressure, even severe dental problems known as “meth mouth.” High doses can be fatal, the DEA says.
Meth addiction is treatable through various substance abuse rehab programs, according to Cortland Prevention Resources. The agency’s treatment providers have not reported any recent increases in local referrals for meth addiction, said Kimberly McRae Friedman, the group’s executive director.
Cortland County police say they continue following leads as part of their efforts to curb local drug problems. Meanwhile, some residents around the Lincoln and Maple avenue neighborhoods have voiced their concerns about the dangers posed by recently discovered meth labs in their community.
Police are reluctant to speculate just how much meth could be in the county, but admit it crops up every so often.
Rural counties like Cortland can make meth labs easy to conceal, Helms said.
“When most people think of a meth lab, they tend to think of a big operation like you see on TV, but it can be done in the passenger side of a car,” Helms said. “As little amount as it can look, it’s still as volatile as you can find.”
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