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Tide slowly turning in Indiana's war against meth

Saturday, March 1, 2014 - 12:01 am

ANDERSON — A fire truck pulled up to a small, decrepit, one-story house on Hendricks Street, northeast of downtown Anderson.

Before long, three police cars blocked the front yard on the same lot. Several minutes later, police led five people in handcuffs out of the house. Even with a January arctic chill in the air, neighbors and curious passers-by gathered, trying to catch a glimpse of the commotion.

They already knew what had happened.

Another meth house had been raided.

As statistics in Madison County indicate, the impact of the illicit drug methamphetamine has devastated the community. In 2012, the county was labeled with a dubious distinction: No. 1 in the state for meth labs discovered and No. 2 in the country. Those numbers dropped in 2013, but the county still remained in the top seven in Indiana.

The numbers reflect a meth epidemic, as well as a commitment by prosecutors and law enforcement to battle the drug.

Houses like the one raided Jan. 28 on Hendricks Street epitomize neighborhoods where rundown or abandoned houses invite transient tenants to run illicit drug rings and produce dangerous substances like meth.

Because of the explosive probabilities that accompany cooking meth, property owners and insurance companies have no choice but to account for the dangers. Housing values fall, while insurance rates rise.

Madison County Drug Task Force officers estimate meth-related cases account for about 75 percent of their time on the job. Between Madison and Delaware counties, the Indiana State Police's Meth Suppression Team battles two of the most meth-active counties in the country, The Herald Bulletin reported (http://bit.ly/1k5JIBu ).

County courts are tied up with meth-related charges, mostly manufacturing, possession of meth and possession of ingredients. Judges are left to decide whether to punish offenders or give them a chance in problem-solving drug court.

Meanwhile, a segment of the population dealing with addiction and legal issues creates an economic drain on a county already depressed for decades since the exodus of General Motors.

Local police and prosecutors believe they're making a difference, and meth arrest numbers have dipped in recent months. After leading the state in lab seizures in 2012, Madison County's number of lab busts dropped 36 percent in 2013.

But for many, namely children who grow up around meth-corrupted guardians, the damage has been done. It will stick with them the rest of their lives.

"It's crazy. You hear people who talk about state pride in some places. We're No. 1 in meth," Joseph Wasson said. "That's not exactly something you can be proud of."

Wasson, who lives in the Hendricks Street block where the Jan. 28 raid took place, exaggerates, but he's not too far off the mark.

According to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration statistics, Indiana was No. 3, behind only Missouri and Tennessee in labs seized in 2012. While not every state has released 2013 numbers, Indiana figures to be near the top again, having more than 1,800 dismantled labs. The number has gone up every year since 2006, even as national meth arrest numbers have trended down.

Wasson held the hand of his 4-year-old son as he and neighbors watched the Jan. 28 bust unfold. He lives down the street with his brother and another son, a 10-year-old.

"They've got people coming in and out of there all the time," Wasson said of the home that police searched.

"Two times this summer, there were explosions, once while I was driving by here with my kids. It was loud as hell, and shook the ground. Everyone came outside to find out what happened."

Brian Smith, who lives next door with his wife and a 2-month-old, said his home could be a prime target for errant explosions caused by a meth accident.

"If his house blows up, that half of my house will be on fire, and that's my kid's room. It's ridiculous," Smith said. "At least something is getting done about it now. Hopefully."

Travis Colcord, the man who rented the home, was one of the five arrested. He faces charges of dealing and possession of meth, possession of precursors and maintaining a common nuisance, all standard charges for a case like this. Erica Hooten and Todd Witcher face charges of visiting a common nuisance. Two others who were detained by police have not been charged.

But neighbors said they saw other people coming to and leaving the house regularly. And they said they could smell meth cooking, from blocks away, when the house's windows were open.

"It's aggravating. Like a revolving door. And you know what's happening," said Janice Hewitt, who also lives on the block. "He'll let anyone stay with him as long as they have 10 bucks."

Inside the Hendricks Street home in the aftermath of the police raid, belongings were strewn on the floor. A lamp cast scant light on a dreary living room and dilapidated furniture. A faint, lingering chemical odor wafted in the air and burned at the nostrils.

On the floor, plastic soda bottles harbored a purple substance. Outside, broken blister packs of batteries and pseudoephedrine pills filled trashcans.

"This is actually pretty clean," Indiana State Police meth team officer Nate Raney said. "Compared to what we've seen, this isn't too bad."

Police were tipped off about the lab earlier in the day, when employees at a store saw the suspects trying to steal batteries. They had apparently also purchased lantern fuel, salt, drain cleaner and pseudoephedrine — all substances used to cook meth.

It wasn't hard to guess what they were up to.

"They're not all that stupid, unfortunately," Drug Task Force Captain Frank Sigler said.

To find these labs, police officers rely heavily on tips from citizens and businesses. But thanks to legislation passed in the last decade, police have also benefited from a much-needed high-tech assist.

In 2011, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a bill requiring the state to participate in an e-tracking program for pseudoephedrine, typically used for the common cold. The law limited individual purchases of pseudoephedrine to 3.6 grams a day and 7.2 grams every 30 days.

If someone tries to purchase more than the designated amount, the sale is blocked, and at many stores, will be reported to the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx. Officers can access NPLEX's website and see who has had purchases blocked. This often leads to the discovery of meth labs.

In March 2013, DTF detectives noticed two Alexandria men, James V. Beane and Mark A. Douglas, had been blocked from purchasing pseudoephedrine. Beane had made 21 purchases and had been blocked seven times since 2012. Douglas had made 15 purchases and had been blocked three times.

Detectives smelled the odor of solvent nearly a block away from Beane's home, where they found the two men running a lab.

The system isn't perfect. There are ways to make meth without using pseudoephedrine. But detectives say the tracking system has helped.

Devoting so many resources to one problem is costly, preventing law enforcement from tackling other issues. Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings conservatively estimates that local court costs of meth cases amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Additionally, there's the cost of cleaning up a home lab. A DTF detective estimated the average cleanup cost at $1,500 a lab. Sixty-one labs were seized in Madison County in 2013, which would calculate to about $92,000, solely in cleanup costs.

Nicole Crawford, commander of the state police's meth team, said the special equipment — breathing apparatus, chemical suits and other items — required to dismantle meth labs costs the state about $400,000 a year.

"And ultimately, that's paid by the taxpayers," Crawford said. "There's also property owners, and whatever inspections and other repairs they might want to pay for to make the place safe."

RCS Holdings in Carmel owns the home on Hendricks Street. David Paris, a representative for RCS, said he heard about the arrests and was immediately frustrated. He had inspected the house a week earlier.

"I had heard complaints from neighbors, and I take that seriously," Paris said. "I was there, and it looked clean. It wasn't in the best condition, but there certainly wasn't a meth lab there.

"You know, you hear the words 'meth lab' and you think of something a little more permanent. I didn't realize how easily and quickly they can be made."

Sigler, of the local drug task force, said resources are spread thin for a problem that's all over the state. He said the east side Hendricks Street neighborhood was particularly rife with labs.

"I bet I could throw a stone and hit about a dozen of them," he noted.

In February 2013, 28-year-old Ashley Sanders and her uncle, Jason M. Leslie, were arrested at Leslie's home on Chase Street in Anderson.

ISP meth team detectives had suspected the two and were tracking their pseudoephedrine purchases. Neighbors had also called in several tips. When police entered the home, they found Sanders' 3-year-old child playing on the floor, next to chemicals used to cook meth.

A few months later, Sanders pleaded guilty to charges for helping maintain the lab. Because it was one of Sanders' first offenses, Madison Circuit Court 3 Judge Thomas Newman suspended her 10-year sentence, meaning she could serve probation outside of prison and stay with her child.

By June, Sanders was arrested again, this time for smoking marijuana. Having violated her probation, she was sent to prison, effectively voiding her custody of her young child. The earliest she can be paroled is 2017.

ISP meth team detective Rich Clay, who worked the case, said a child's underdeveloped lungs are more susceptible to toxic meth-making materials. Chemical burns in the lungs can lead to scar tissue and possible medical complications later in life.

Those are just the physical effects.

County and state officials said that, more than anything, children of meth-using parents or guardians face acute neglect, with psychological implications.

"(Meth) is pervasive here," said Beth Dickerson, case manager supervisor of Madison County's Department of Child Services. "We see it primarily in Anderson and Elwood, and the areas surrounding those two towns, and it has a huge effect on families."

Dickerson said meth takes precedence over everything else in a user's life. Children of abusers might go days without proper supervision, living in the world of toxic meth labs and the litany of medical problems they can cause.

Additionally, one of the common side-effects of meth use is heightened sexual drive, which creates an increased possibility of sexual abuse of children, perpetrated by family, friends or complete strangers. Exposure to such a drug culture can lead to problems at school, as well as generational mental health issues.

"It's a traumatic experience, too, when children have to be removed from one of these labs," Dickerson said. "If it's been manufactured in the home, there's almost always contamination on the walls.

"In these cases, the child is immediately taken from their parents, transported to the hospital by ambulance, blood tested and showered at the hospital.

"They can't take anything with them because the house is toxic. So if they have a favorite stuffed animal or their Playstation, if it's a teen, they have to leave it behind."

Dickerson is one of seven county Department of Child Services supervisors who coordinate five to seven caseworkers each. All told, Madison County has 41 DCS case managers. It might seem like a lot, but between methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse, each worker performs 25 to 30 assessments every month.

Madison County, for its population, has a disproportionate number of children made wards of the state. With almost 400 children outside of the care of their parent or primary guardian (many because of drug cases), Madison County has almost three times as many wards as neighboring Hamilton County, despite possessing about a third of the population.

Madison County authorities have seized 157 labs in the past two years. Next door, in wealthy Hamilton County, three labs have been dismantled over the same period.

"Obviously, there are a lot of factors there, not just meth. There's also a large poverty issue here that Hamilton County doesn't have," Dickerson said.

ISP meth team detective Nate Raney remembers working a case several years ago in Putnam County and finding meth in a child's crib. Another time, in 2013, he helped dismantle a lab in a house where a woman in her 80s used an oxygen tank.

"All of us on the meth team have kids, and I think that's one of the reasons they wanted us," Raney said. "Does it make us mad? Yes.

"But I think you could ask any of these parents, they don't want their kids there. But the power of the drug is so strong, they can't say no. It's like meth takes your soul."

Despite such disheartening anecdotes, authorities believe the tide may be changing in the war on meth. Raney credits media coverage for an increase in awareness about the dangers of the drug. Business owners, store employees and neighbors are fed up with the meth scourge, and many are determined to do something about it.

"The best resources we have are other people's eyes and their willingness. I can check the databases all day, but we're pretty powerless without the public's help," Raney said.

"It's not like other drugs. Like marijuana, people might say, 'So what?' It's different with meth. Unless you're involved with it, nobody wants it around. They want it gone."