Jackie Smith stood on the front porch of a trailer in Cottonwood in 2003, and watched flames shoot from the roof.
Seven years later, Smith vividly remembered the details of the fire, which he said was the result of a meth lab explosion.
“He was in the middle of a cook, we could see in the window of the mobile home, and he had started a fire in the bathroom,” Smith said. ”It went up like a candle. We didn’t have time to do anything but get out of the way.”
No one was seriously injured, but several deputies were checked out on the scene.
Smith, who now serves as sergeant and narcotics supervisor for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies arrested 41-year-old Palmer Carl Cox Jr., and charged him with two counts of attempted murder and arson. Cox was later convicted of the arson, but acquitted of the attempted murder charges.
Smith said he’s seen the methamphetamine problem for the Houston County area evolve in a variety of different ways after what he believes was Houston County’s first such case in 1996. He described two basic types of meth -- its purest form called “ice”, most often imported into Houston County from Mexico, and the home-cooked method.
Every County’s Problem
In the next county up, Dale County Sheriff’s Investigator Gerald Ganous straps on a bullet-proof vest and his weapons before driving to another shot in the dark.
Ten years ago, he could have pulled surveillance video from a pharmacy showing people purchasing excessive amounts of pseudoephedrine and figured out who was either a methamphetamine cook or a user.
Today, however, a more purified substance called “ice” from drug trafficking organizations out of Mexico, Texas and Atlanta, coupled with increased regulations on who can buy pseudoephedrine, are making the meth drug trade and use an even trickier war to fight.
As a result, Ganous works with other Wiregrass Violent Crime and Drug Task Force investigators with what they have: tips from informants, law enforcement agencies and even some users looking for a break on their time in jail if they “flip” on those who keep them furnished with drugs.
"Really the bulk of our job relies on what we hear from the community. The game changes, we try to change. You go from a local lab to getting it pure. It changes again, we do too. You just keep going," Ganous said.
Task Force Commander Jimmy “J.C.” Culbreath said investigators sometimes work general patrol shifts and monitor areas in which they receive tips of drug abuse or sales.
Sometimes they focus on the bigger investigations. On a good day, they net arrests like those of two residents for misdemeanor possession of a controlled substances who then flipped on their supplier, who investigators arrested for trafficking less than an hour later.
On other days, investigators get nothing.
“It’s a lot of manpower and a lot of work involved. Unfortunately, the more funds we do get, the larger our jobs become. We try to stay a step ahead of the dealer. We definitely have placed a dent in the game here. We want to do more,” Culbreath said.
Dale County Sheriff’s Investigator Marlos Walker said some recent meth arrests have come after domestic violence calls. In addition to those calls, there are often arrests for reckless endangerment because children are in the home.
Possibly the largest change over the years has been the labs themselves as more meth users are producing their own supply, Walker said.
The discoveries of meth labs and dumpsites more than doubled in 2008 from 2007, according to the DEA.
"It used to be people would go out and buy the ingredients and cook it at home, but what you see a lot of now is people supporting their own habit. They go get someone to buy the ingredients for them, then they make just enough for themselves and to pay the person back for the pills and then they just create biohazards all over the place because they don’t know how to properly dispose the chemicals," Walker said.
Poor man’s cocaine
According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s website and the FBI, the typical street terms for methamphetamine are meth, poor man's cocaine, crystal meth, ice and speed. The DEA called meth the number one drug threat in Alabama for the second year in a row.
Michael Bulgrin, the resident agent in charge of the DEA office in Montgomery, said the meth problem has progressively moved east over the past couple of decades.
“That could be because of a number of reasons,” Bulgrin said. “Law enforcement is more aware of it, and people in the community are more aware of what’s going on.”
The DEA website also said meth production in Alabama has dropped as a result of restricting pseudoephedrine sales.
The way people could obtain meth’s key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, became more limited after former President George W. Bush singed the Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005.
The law required people who buy specific cold medication like Sudafed, which contains those chemicals, to sign for each purchase, and it also limited how much each customer could buy. The law also required the pharmacies selling drugs that contain the chemical to keep the product away from direct access to customers.
Smith said there was a slight drop in meth lab activity in the Houston County area after the law was passed. Before the law changed he said deputies were busting labs on a weekly basis.
“We’ve worked a lot of meth cases over the years, but the labs in number aren’t what they used to be, largely because the ephedrine law slowed it down,” Smith said. “It didn’t stop it, but it slowed it down. But we have started to see more labs again, mostly the ‘shake and bake’.”
Smith said the home-made cook methods have also evolved over the past 10 to 15 years. In earlier meth discoveries he recalled how they primarily saw what he referred to as the Red P cook style, which he said included more cooking steps than the more modern shake and bake method. The Red P cook gets its name from the red phosphorus used in the cook, acquired from the strike plate on a match book.
Smith said cook styles evolved from a larger meth lab to a more quick cook through the “shake and bake” process, often completed in a 20 ounce soda bottle or other type of plastic bottle. Smith called the shake and bake method the most dangerous method.
When caught, meth users face a variety of criminal charges, from unlawful possession of a controlled substance, to possession of precursor, manufacturing meth and trafficking meth.
District Attorney Doug Valeska cited the William Scott Lindsay Jr. case out of Henry County as an example of how involvement with meth can land the user behind bars. He referred to Lindsay as one of the biggest meth dealers in Henry County at the conclusion of his criminal trial earlier this year. Judge Butch Binford gave Lindsay, 50, more than 100 years in prison for the seven meth distribution charges the jury returned guilty verdicts on.
But Valeska said he plans to expand his crime and drug prevention in area schools to not only include marijuana and cocaine, but meth too as part of the McGruff Crime Prevention program.
Valeska also said his office works with an ongoing program called Zero Meth that centers around moving the meth cases through the court system more quickly. As part of the program he plans to put up billboards across the county publishing the consequences and punishment of meth usage.
“Meth has been on the increase. It’s run a cycle, and I don’t believe we have the type of meth cases that other rural counties have,” Valeska said. “It’s so addictive, and easily manufactured. Meth is like a cancer, it destroys the family. They’re going to steal once they get hooked on it, and they’ll do anything for it. Meth is just a recipe for destruction.”