Hazardous chemicals are hauled out of quiet neighborhoods. Drug deals go down in grocery store parking lots. Children play near parents cooking drugs. This is the stark world narcotics detectives in San Luis Obispo County see almost daily. "I'll go into locations and in this area are the kids' toys on the ground where I'm working as a hazardous materials handler," said Mike Kennedy, investigator for the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office.
On other occasions, he said, meth is hidden with the eggs in the lower shelf of the refrigerator, within easy reach of children. "You ask a 4-year-old kid to draw a picture and they draw a meth pipe," he added.
For Kennedy -- who was also the 2006 California Narcotic Officers' Association president --and others in law enforcement, the meth epidemic is real. Consider these statistics:
* Sheriff's officials seized nearly 13 pounds of meth last year, compared with about 10 pounds in 2005 and about three pounds in 2004. The average person can get high for about 11 hours on two-tenths of a gram, according to sheriff's narcotics investigators. One pound of meth would keep about 4,540 people high for about 10 hours.* County officials seized 13 meth labs last year, compared with two the previous year.
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Meth use is spreading so fast that even with five narcotics detectives, the Sheriff's Department doesn't have enough people to combat it. The department, which focuses on cases in the county's unincorporated areas, will soon add three deputies to its team to work full time on meth cases.
In addition, eight investigators and five employees at the Narcotics Task Force, which tackles drug investigations in the county's seven cities, devote most of their time to meth.
And federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration are active, too. From an office in Ventura County, they're always working at least one case here.
Meth is funneled into the county in multipound quantities and then dispersed within a few days, said DEA agent Mike Quinn. "We know for the most part they're coming up from L.A. or down from San Jose."
To illustrate what is happening, The Tribune watched undercover detectives buy meth from a local dealer, investigate a suspected meth lab and serve a search warrant on a man allegedly using meth. Here are those stories.
Setting up a sale
During any month, San Luis Obispo County Narcotics Task Force investigators work about 10 cases that involve watching drug sales, orchestrating undercover deals and gathering information on how drugs flow in and out of the county.
On Tuesday, Sept. 19, investigators arranged to buy an ounce of crystal meth from a suspected mid-level dealer at a grocery store parking lot in San Luis Obispo.
The dealer was considered midlevel because he was selling meth in ounces, not grams. By comparison, big dealers sell multiple pounds -- each pound worth about $9,000, narcotics investigators say.
This particular dealer had sold meth to officers before. They suspected he was also dealing guns, and they planned to buy at least one during a separate deal.
Narcotics investigators had selected the location of the drug deal, so they could arrive before the dealer and blend their surveillance vehicles and personnel in with shoppers, said Rodney John, commander of the Narcotics Task Force.
As the man drove to the store, undercover detectives followed him in unmarked cars and trucks.
After the dealer parked next to the grocery store, he sold an ounce of meth to the undercover officer for $800, unaware that other officers were watching him from inside cars and trucks parked nearby.
The deal went smoothly. And as the man left, he unknowingly set the surveillance crew back in motion.
He snaked through San Luis Obispo, stopping at a home and a park as an undercover officer called out second-by-second updates to about 14 other undercover and uniformed officers. Investigators could only speculate as to what he was doing on those stops.
They tracked him as he drove through town, hoping he'd return to a "stash house" -- an empty residence where drugs are kept --a storage locker or a supplier's house to restock.
The dealer headed home, though, to a moderately priced apartment in San Luis Obispo. He lives there with his wife and two children, less than a block from narcotics investigators' offices.
On Nov. 6, he was arrested, and he is in County Jail on suspicion of transporting, possessing and selling drugs and cruelty to a child. He is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail.
Bust of a suspected lab
Narcotics investigators suspected a San Luis Obispo man was manufacturing meth after they had found the drug and equipment used to make it during a probation search. It was inside a storage shed at the mobile home where he lived.
The next day, on Tuesday, Aug. 29, they returned to the trailer park off Orcutt Road with a search warrant, busted the alleged lab and arrested a man and woman. It was the sixth bust of the year.
Inside the home and in the storage shed outside they found meth ingredients and a handful of crystal meth in plastic packets --each containing one-sixteenth of an ounce.
The homespun setup, commonly referred to as a mom-and-pop or "Beavis and Butthead" lab because it does not require much skill to run, was typical of what the Narcotics Task Force detectives discover countywide.
A narcotics detective wearing a white decontamination suit gingerly carried a purple crystalline substance outside the mobile home. He placed it on a plastic sheet in a driveway beside other meth ingredients.
As detectives cordoned off the home with yellow tape and carried out the bust, a neighbor stood nearby, rocking a baby in her arms. She said she was surprised a suspected lab was located next door.
Mom-and-pop labs are pulled together from household items found in garages, kitchens or drugstores. The chemicals and the cooking process can be highly explosive and produce hazardous chemicals that contaminate the air.
So the detectives wore white decontamination suits and breathed through respirators strapped to their backs. They had even wrapped duct tape around the seams of their suits to ensure an airtight fit.
The detectives numbered each item for evidence -- coffee filters, hot plates, rubber tubing, cans of acetone, alcohol solvent, an airpurifying respirator and other equipment.
Search and arrest
After sheriff's investigators received a tip that they would find drugs inside a house near the Paso Robles airport, they watched the property carefully. Then before sunrise on Friday, Sept. 22, they drove there with a search warrant.
Campers, sports cars, pickups, commercial trucks and a boat littered the property. A neighbor said conditions at the fortress-like home had deteriorated within the last year as heaps of clutter increased.
A screen door reinforced with metal bars armed the front entrance, and an electric gate at the end of the driveway locked by a bolt provided additional security.
Sheriff's detectives pointed to the suspected meth dealer's bedroom, where they said he could flip a switch and scan the neighborhood through a network of cameras.
As Sgt. Brian Hascall stood on a dirt road in front of the house, he noted that extreme security measures and paranoia are often signs of meth use. Plus, he said, dealers go to great lengths to hide what they're selling.
Shortly after 6 a.m., SWAT members equipped with full protective gear and a search warrant cut the bolt on the gate and drove an armored vehicle onto the driveway.
More than 20 deputies scoured the property, some chasing two people who ran through the house before being arrested.
With help from a drug-sniffing black Labrador retriever, about oneeighth of an ounce of meth was found, along with marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms. Authorities said they had been conducting surveillance for about a month and suspected drugs were being sold from the house.