Pubdate: Sun, 12 Aug 2001
Source: The News-Gazette (IL)
Copyright: 2001 The News-Gazette
Author: Steve Bauer


CHAMPAIGN - A rise in the number of people in East Central Illinois who are 
cooking their own methamphetamines poses problems for merchants and 
residents, as well as police.

"Virtually all the ingredients are commercially available items with 
legitimate uses," said Master Sgt. Bruce Liebe, clandestine lab program 
coordinator for the Illinois State Police.

To cut down on shoplifting and to track down people with their own meth 
labs, Champaign police are beginning to talk to merchants about what to 
watch for that may indicate someone is involved in manufacturing 

"We're asking district commanders to work with drug stores, discount stores 
and other outlets," Champaign police Deputy Chief John Murphy said.

Patrol officers are talking to store managers about the kinds of items used 
in the process of making methamphetamines and warning retailers to watch 
for shoplifting and excessive purchases of such things as lithium 
batteries, lantern fuel and pseudoephedrine, Murphy said.

Some merchants are being asked to put pseudoephedrine products behind their 
counters so they are not accessible for shoplifting, Murphy said. Some are 
being asked to consider discontinuing some products that are not typical 
cold tablets.

"We'd like them to voluntarily consider what the value of these kinds of 
products really is," Murphy said. "Does whatever profit they get offset the 
potential for abuse by people buying those products?"

Central Illinois has seen the spread of meth labs, particularly in Coles 

Home meth labs began appearing in California in the late 1980s and started 
popping up in western Illinois in 1997, according to Liebe, the state 
police meth expert.

Statewide, the number of meth lab seizures rose from 24 in 1997 to 207 in 
1999 and 350 in 2000. Coles County had 130 meth lab seizures last year, 
according to Illinois State Police data. Police say meth labs and the 
acquisition of essential components for making the drug are spreading to 
other areas of Central Illinois.

Liebe has been investigating meth labs since October that year and was 
assigned for three years to a task force with the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administration. He now coordinates meth lab training for the state police. 
He has investigated more than 300 meth labs in that time.

""It's hard to predict when and how it will hit. Meth is extremely 
addictive. When they become addicted, they figure out how to produce it 
themselves," Liebe said.

Information about meth production is available on the Internet, in 
underground publications and by word of mouth, Liebe said.

"It's not difficult," he said. "It's estimated one cook will teach 10 
others how to produce methamphetamine."

Unlike cocaine, heroin and marijuana, which are often controlled by street 
gangs, much of the current methamphetamine lab production and distribution 
is by meth addicts among a circle of friends.

Users range in age from their 20s through their 40s, but state police in 
one case arrested two 15-year-old girls who were "pretty active" in making 
the drug, Liebe said.

Street prices on meth, also known as "ice" or "crystal," run $1,500 to 
$1,700 per ounce, he said.

The materials cost $150 to $200 per ounce, Liebe said, so many try to cut 
costs by stealing items. Many farmers have been hit by meth lab operators 
stealing anhydrous ammonia. Most households have many of the other products 
used to make the drug.

Sgt. Brian Henn, the Task Force X supervisor of Task Force 10, said drug 
agents are teaching all the police departments in the area about safety 
issues related to meth labs. Many of the meth lab wastes are toxic or 
hazardous, he said.

Home meth labs pose potential problems for increased shoplifting, increased 
violence due to the effects of heavy drug usage and increased hazards from 
the production and waste resulting from making the drug, Henn said.

In a series of training sessions last week, Henn told Champaign police 
officers that after coming down off a meth high, methamphetamine addicts 
will buy and shoplift items like pseudephedrine. Their cars, homes or even 
their trash may contain hazardous chemicals like ether or anhydrous 
ammonia. All are used in the manufacture of the drug.

Police making a traffic stop or going to a domestic disturbance call, 
merchants selling large amounts of cold tablets or neighbors who live next 
to a meth lab may have no idea whom they are dealing with, Henn said.

Drug agents and local police department officials met last month to talk 
about other meth-related issues, including merchant awareness. Most 
merchants are happy to cooperate, once they understand the potential 
problems, he said.

"It's like they turn on a light - 'So, that's why they come in so often!' " 
Henn said.

Investigators have not yet seen any indications of widespread meth labs in 
Champaign County, but they have seen people from Coles, Edgar and Douglas 
counties and other areas coming to Champaign-Urbana stores to buy or steal 
the materials they need. That's what merchants are being taught about, Henn 

"They may come in three or four to a car, they mill about and walk up and 
down the aisles, picking up odd items," Henn said. "If they see someone go 
to the checkout with a lot of cold tablets and (lantern) fuel, it doesn't 
make sense they would go camping if they have a cold. If they buy starter 
fluid, drain cleaner, kitchen table salt and they don't buy any groceries, 
that's a red flag."

Sharon Weber, corporate spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the chain's 
employees usually become aware on their own about the problems associated 
with meth labs and the products used to make the drug.

Since 1997, Wal-Mart has restricted sales of certain over-the-counter 
cough, cold and diet pills to three or six items, depending on the size of 
the package, Weber said. Some stores limit sales to two items on some products.

"By company policy, certain items are limited in the register computer," 
said Charles Threatt, store manager at the Champaign Wal- Mart, 913 
Marketview Drive, C. "The register will not allow you to sell more than the 

Threatt said security staff and other employees will call police if they 
see anything suspicious.

For example, he said, "If we see a group of people with a rush on a certain 
product, we call police and let them take it from there."

That has happened several times in recent months, and the arrests of a 
Ludlow couple in July and two Kentucky men in June - all for unlawful 
possession of pseudoephedrine with intent to manufacture methamphetamines - 
are probably a sign of things to come, according to police.

In both cases, the arrests stemmed from shoplifting or excessive purchases 
of pseudoephedrine, according to police reports.

Master Sgt. Dave McLearin, supervisor for the East Central Illinois Task 
Force, said drug investigators in Coles, Moultrie and Shelby counties have 
been working closely with many merchants. In addition to limiting purchases 
on some items, some stores have security cameras trained right on certain 

Merchants should go beyond limiting purchases of some items to two or three 
boxes, he said. Meth producers will often go to a store with several people 
each buying two boxes of pseudoephedrine, McLearin said.

Under "Operation Crystal Clear," the East Central Illinois Task Force 
contacted stores about what to watch for.

"We did our first lab in March of 1999," McLearin said. "We went from 
hearing about meth labs to investigating them 24 hours a day."

The task force had 276 drug arrests last year, and 70 percent were 
meth-related, he said.

"They started popping up, and we educated ourselves what to look for. We've 
decided to educate the public on what to look for. We're having some good 

Police have given presentations to businesses, associations, civic groups, 
utilities, other police organizations and fire departments.

"We've had garbage haulers tell us what's going on someplace," McLearin 
said. "We've had contact with mail carriers. Mainly where we get most of 
our tips is from neighbors complaining about the smells."

Because of the chemical process used to make meth - including anhydrous 
ammonia and ether - there are distinct, irritating smells involved, he said.

Based on the experiences in Coles County, McLearin predicted other 
communities will start to see an increase in meth labs soon.

"Most of these people have a small group of their friends, and they are 
cooking small amounts, and they're using it," McLearin said. "Most of them 
end up quitting their jobs. They live for meth."

What to watch for

Many people may be unaware that they are living next to a methamphetamine 
lab. Employees of discount, grocery, hardware and convenience stores may be 
unaware that people are buying or shoplifting items to manufacture the drug.

According to Illinois State Police, store employees should watch for people 
buying unusual or excessive amounts of:

- - Lithium batteries;

- - Cold tablets or other products containing pseudoephedrine;

- - Coffee filters;

- - Drain cleaner or lye;

- - Starter fluid.

Employees and business owners should contact police for further 
investigation of people, often in groups, who go into a store, sometimes in 
more than one trip, buying more than one of those items at the same time, 
according to Master Sgt. Dave McLearin, supervisor of the East Central 
Illinois Task Force.

Residents should also be aware of unusual odors, like those of ether, 
ammonia or other chemicals in their neighborhood.

Other things to watch for:

- - People staying up, coming and going all night long;

- - Excessive trash, including antifreeze, lantern fuel cans, drainer cleaner 
or starter fluid;

- - Unusual amounts of clear glass containers being brought into a home.

Methamphetamine can be manufactured almost anywhere with the necessary 
chemicals and equipment. These include:

- - Ephedrine or pseudoephedrine;

- - Salt;

- - Lye;

- - Lithium batteries;

- - Ether (found in starter fluid);

- - Anhydrous ammonia;

- - Glass jars or glass containers;

- - Plastic tubing;

- - Coffee filters;

- - Duct tape;

- - A hot plate, microwave or other equipment to heat the chemicals.
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