Pubdate: Sun, 26 Nov 2000
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2000 Omaha World-Herald Company.
Author: Dave Morantz


Clay Center, Neb. - Loren Jensen's aluminum irrigation pipes disappeared six
months ago from his farm near Edgar.

Down the road in Fairfield, a 22-year-old man on a methamphetamine high,
thinking he'd seen little people coming from his pickup truck, pumped 17
shotgun rounds into the truck and his garage.

And in Clay Center, the county seat, the manager of the Twin Oaks Motel
walked in on the makings of a meth lab while changing towels in one of her
seven rooms.

From Scottsbluff to Springfield, Nebraskans are discovering they can't
ignore meth. State and federal statistics, as well as interviews with more
than 30 law enforcement officials, suggest that people living in much of
rural Nebraska are more likely than city or suburban dwellers to encounter
the illegal drug in some way.

"It's bombarding us," Clay County Sheriff Jeff Franklin said. "When it hits
Harvard, population 900, you know it's a problem."

Methamphetamine is not strictly a rural drug. But unlike cocaine, heroin and
crack, it is a drug ideally suited - in its distribution and use - to small
towns and rural areas.

And that's bad news for Nebraska. Because a county sheriff or a small-town
police chief is ill-equipped to deal with meth and its consequences.
Officials in Iowa and Kansas, hit much harder by meth, know this well.

"This is one battle," Franklin said, "I don't see us winning unless
something major happens."

Meth has changed the landscape of crime and crime fighting in rural areas.

"We certainly don't condone drug use, but I miss the potheads," Franklin
said. "Potheads used to just laugh while you'd write them a ticket. Then
they'd be on their way. But it's a lot more violent with meth."

He should know. Last week, half the jail's 12 inmates were there on meth
charges or related ones. That's normal, Franklin said. And meth cases make
up half of his caseload, up from a fifth or less three years ago.

Rural drug arrests have jumped 140 percent since 1990, compared with 132
percent for the state. More disturbing, however, is the increase in
juveniles arrested in connection with drugs in the'90s. That number jumped
587 percent in rural areas compared with 364 percent in Douglas, Lancaster
and Sarpy Counties.

Law enforcement officials blame meth. Most of the 38 meth labs busted in
Nebraska last year were outside the state's three biggest counties.

Adding to the rural burden is that any small town with grocery and hardware
stores probably has ready makings for methamphetamine. Ingredients to
manufacture the drug - such as phosphorus, certain cold medications, lithium
batteries, drain cleaner and lye - are easy to buy locally.

Meth labs are extremely volatile and expensive to clean up, because meth's
ingredients are flammable and toxic. Cleanup costs for a lab in Harvard
exceeded $55,000, Franklin said, although the federal Drug Enforcement
Administration paid for it.

Some ingredients, such as the fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, are stolen from
tanks in farm fields and at co-ops. In May, a co-op employee in Hubbell, in
Thayer County on the Kansas border, noticed a garden hose duct-taped to an
anhydrous spigot.

"It's amazing they can do that," said Mark Stenson, operations manager at
the Aurora Co-Op there. "That stuff is so toxic. It stinks. It burns their

Horror stories about labs abound among law enforcement agents - toddlers
whose palms and soles get burned after playing on a carpet soaked with
ether, agents entering a house so filled with flammable gas that a static
shock from the carpet could ignite the room. A severed telephone cable and
receiver sit on Sheriff Franklin's desk. They're from the jail's pay phone,
broken by a strung-out meth user.

Such violence is typical of meth users. The drug is cheaper than cocaine and
gives a quicker, longer high. It is a megastimulant that releases high
amounts of dopamine in the brain, producing feelings of pleasure. Long-term
abuse, however, can cause anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, hallucinations, mood
swings and delusions. Chronic users often have poor hygiene and are pale and

"You take a person that's normally Ward Cleaver, and you turn them into
Charles Manson," Franklin said.

That's what happened to Brad Hampton, a solidly built 22-year-old who as a
toddler lived next door to Franklin in Harvard. This year, he has spent time
in Franklin's jail following troubles related to meth.

Both of Hampton's arms bear countless needle tracks. A cut lies under his
right eye. Hampton, in a meth-induced fit of paranoia, thought he injected
some cotton while shooting up. The "cotton mite," alive only in his mind,
crawled up his arm and into his cheek, where he tried to dig it out with his

His introduction to meth three years ago was similar to that of many rural
teens. After dabbling with softer drugs, he tried meth when someone
suggested it. And he was hooked.

Hampton fits the profile of a typical meth user. According to the Nebraska
Health and Human Services System, meth users admitted to treatment centers
are overwhelmingly white, unemployed and male. Statistics also indicate that
more rural residents seek treatment for addiction than urban residents do.
And according to a profile of meth users in Washington state, three-quarters
of them are between the ages of 21 and 40.

"You could work hard, play hard, always had time to party," Hampton said.
"It just made everything more comfortable. I felt like I fit in my skin

But the drug had negative consequences. Hampton lost his job and turned to
theft to support his habit. He took credit cards from his mother and checks
from his father. He swiped motors off farm equipment. He stole guns and
antiques from farmhouses and ended up in jail after an arrest on suspicion
of drunken driving and a positive drug test for meth and heroin.

His first night in jail, Hampton tore up a cell while coming down. One day
in August, speaking in the jail, he expressed worry about returning to meth
following his Sept. 6 release. So did Sheriff Franklin.

Loren Jensen's speech quickens when he talks about "the dopers." As he
surveys rows of corn on his land just south of Edgar, the retired farmer and
landowner says he first thought a drought-desperate farmer might have stolen
his irrigation pipes, valued at $2,000.

But farmers around here wouldn't risk getting caught, he said. Jensen and
Nuckolls County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Scott Stemper suspect someone stole
the pipes for meth money.

"I bet you 50 percent of the people in this area think that if you don't
talk about it, it's not happening," said Jensen, an Edgar resident. "But, by
God, it's time they wake up to this, because it is happening. It might scare
the hell out of them, how close it is to their home."

Meth users also hit Kima Kissinger, who bought the End Zone in Edgar two
years ago. Thieves sacked the bar three times in the first six months she
owned it. The final time, the one incident that police know was related to
meth, Kissinger lost about $400 in cash and cigarettes.

Thieves busted through her back door. They took cash from the register,
broke into video games, the jukebox and the pickle-card machine, and grabbed
beef jerky.

"It's hard enough for a small business to make ends meet," Kissinger said
while making meatloaf and mashed potatoes for the lunch crowd. "But then
they take enough to hurt but not enough to claim on insurance, it's even

The thieves who struck the End Zone came from Hastings. Police say they also
hit a bar and a grocery store in Lawrence, just south of Clay County, and in
Deweese, a town of 74 people.

Along with the grain elevator and the post office, the Horse Shoe Inn is the
only business on Deweese's main street. Owner Al Cook collects antique cans
and bottles, proudly displaying a rare, squat, brown 7-Up bottle. The
thieves stole it and bragged to friends after also taking about $300 in
cash, cigarettes, lighters and full bottles of Crown Royal and Jack

A few tables away from where the thieves entered, Orvis and Norma Peshek
joined Gloria and Lynn Ridgway recently for the day's lunch special: polish
sausage, sauerkraut, green beans and mashed potatoes.

"Nobody really talks about it, but deep in my mind I know it's here," Orvis
Peshek said about meth. "I know it's gotta be here. It's all over."

A few miles to the north, in Hamilton County, Giltner High School was hit by
thieves twice - on Sept. 6 this year and Sept. 6, 1999. In the later
break-in, the thieves took a CD player, a computer, a television, two VCRs,
stamps and cash, worth about $3,000 total.

Hamilton County Sheriff Kirk Handrup said there are no suspects. But the
items stolen are typical of meth-related crimes, he said.

That doesn't surprise Doug Bandemer, principal of the 97-student school.

"I'd be a fool to tell you there's not any meth here in Giltner," he said.
"If you take that attitude, you've got your head in the sand."

Nor would it surprise Frances Busboom in Clay Center. She lives in a tidy
house three blocks from the Sheriff's Office. Two years ago, authorities
raided a small rental home next door, arresting four people who faced meth
and firearm charges. The case led to five more arrests.

"You just don't think about it being right here," she said. At his
county-owned house on the town square, Sheriff Franklin, his wife and their
two children sleep just yards away from meth inmates.

The 1920s-era house once contained the sheriff's living quarters, the office
and jail cells. Now the office and most cells are in a adjoining building.
All that separates them from the Franklin home are two doors, one steel and
one wood.

Since taking office in 1995, Franklin has seen his budget go up about 22
percent when adjusted for inflation. Felonies have increased nearly 50

Meanwhile, the manpower available to fight crime has shrunk. Since the
mid-1980s, when he was police chief in Harvard, Franklin has seen the number
of law enforcement officers in the county drop from 10 full-time and 11
part-time officers and deputies to seven full time and one part time.
Cutbacks at police departments in Clay Center, Sutton, Fairfield and Glenvil
are behind the decrease.

A staunch Republican, Franklin rarely praises Democrats. But he's quick to
credit U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey with drawing attention to the problem a few
years ago.

Since 1996, more than $1.1million per year has poured into anti-meth
initiatives in Nebraska from the Office of National Drug-Control Policy. The
U.S. Justice Department gives about $4 million annually to the state to
fight drugs, with the majority going to multiagency drug task forces.

Franklin would like to have some of that federal money to fight meth crime
in Clay County. But he gets little. He won't renew his membership in the
Rural Apprehension Program, or RAP, a task force paid for by participating
jurisdictions. The 12 counties it covers are too vast for its manpower, said
Franklin, frustrated that cases in his county have received little

Franklin said most of his meth-related crime follows an informal drug
pipeline to and from Hastings. Or, he said, it comes from criminals hoping
to go unnoticed by small-town law enforcement.

Clay County is not one of the 12 Nebraska counties in the Midwest High
Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, formed in 1996 specifically to combat meth.
The federally funded effort pays for anti-meth initiatives in Dakota,
Dawson, Douglas, Hall, Lancaster, Sarpy, Madison, Dodge, Gage, Jefferson,
Platte and Scotts Bluff Counties.

Executive Director David Barton said the area's anti-meth initiatives can
cross county and state lines and are not limited to designated
jurisdictions. "We're about practicality, not bureaucracy," he said.

Still, Franklin said he feels like he's on an island. And Glenn Kemp, one
HIDTA investigator who works in Hastings, Kearney and Grand Island,
understands why.

"He's running thin over there," Kemp said. "There are communities that have
no law enforcement except for the Sheriff's Office."

Kemp's partner is the son of the Clay Center police chief. And Kemp talks
with Franklin a lot. All would like to see more formal cooperation in meth

"Sometimes it's almost like there's a fence at the Adams and Clay County
line," Kemp said. Nebraska's meth problem and its response pale in
comparison to what's going on in Iowa and Kansas.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Omaha, which administers the
HIDTA program, Nebraska law enforcement agencies busted 38 labs last year,
up from two in 1997. Iowa reported 500 lab busts in 1999, up from 85 in
1997. Kansas had 492 labs last year, up from 99 in 1997.

But Nebraska law enforcement agencies are feeling meth's effects.

Three years ago at the Nebraska Crime Lab Lincoln, the usual case backlog
was 20 to 30 a month, said Celeste Laird, supervisor of the drug chemistry
section. In July, the backlog was 180 cases.

When she started working there 10 years ago, cocaine and marijuana were the
predominant drugs. Now they're meth and marijuana. In 1994, the lab tested
481 cases for stimulants, a narcotics category that includes meth but not
cocaine. That amount jumped to 1,319 last year.

Meth cases require more time and labor to test, she said. Unlike marijuana
and cocaine, meth must be tested for many ingredients. The Midwest HIDTA
grant has allowed the lab to hire another technician. Laird said although
cases still back up, all are done in time for trial.

In Kansas, judges have had to dismiss meth cases and allow accused
manufacturers to go free because the state's crime lab could not process
evidence quickly enough.

Despite legislative efforts in Kansas and Iowa to crack down on meth, it
continues to flourish there.

David McElreath, a criminal justice professor at Washburn University in
Topeka, Kan., said Kansas has had little success in trying to legislate the
drug away. Even if Nebraska followed its neighbors' legislative lead,
McElreath said, he isn't sure it would solve the problem.

"We're arresting everyone we can, we're sending them to jail, we're running
education campaigns. But the reality is it's an issue of choice," he said.
"The penalty really isn't a deterrent. If they worried about their future,
their health, they wouldn't be taking this stuff."

When states increase their penalties, they often drive dealers and
manufacturers to neighboring states, McElreath said. Such pressures have
forced the drug to such places as Clay County, he said.

"These guys are ending up in rural America because they can't stand the heat
in the cities," he said. Dixie Wilkerson thinks that's why she stumbled onto
the makings of a meth lab at the Clay Center hotel she manages.

The Twin Oaks Motel sits in a dirt and gravel parking lot on the north edge
of town. It's a popular spot for road crews and scientists visiting the U.S.
Meat Animal Research Center west of town. And for contractors working on
ethanol plants - like the two men who stayed in Room 6 last June.

The first day she entered the room to make beds and change towels, she
wondered why the two men had lockboxes and a safe. The next day, the boxes
were open, with glassware and syringes in plain view.

"I don't even know what else was there, but I knew it was not kosher," she

She called her husband, Clay Center Police Chief Dee Wilkerson. Inside the
room, authorities found equipment to manufacture meth, meth recipes, meth
and marijuana.

"I saw the stuff and started worrying about where all these people would
stay if the place blew up," Dixie Wilkerson said.

Just off the town square, early in the morning of Oct. 8, another inmate is
booked at Franklin's office. It's Hampton again, arrested for auto theft.
The arrest report said he appeared very drunk, although from what happened
during the arrest, Franklin said meth use wouldn't surprise him.

Hampton threatened to kill his stepfather and the arresting officer, and
then kicked out the squad car's right, rear window, the sheriff said. Later
in jail, Hampton tore up another cell and a phone. He was released on bail
earlier this month and transported immediately to the Hamilton County Jail
on shoplifting charges. His two-week sentence there ended Tuesday morning.
But he faces more hearings and sentencing in Clay County.

"You just sit back awhile and you wonder," Franklin said. "If something
would have happened to get him off drugs when he was younger, would
everything be different? In a way, I'm kind of surprised he stayed out of
here more than 30 days."
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