Pubdate: Fri, 27 May 2005
Source: Bristol Herald Courier (VA)
Copyright: 2005 Bristol Herald Courier
Author: Matthew Lakin
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


ABINGDON -- The problem started like a virus.

Recipes for cooking methamphetamine turn up everywhere from books and 
magazines to the Internet. But authorities believe most cooks learn from 
each other, through demonstrations at home or conversations in jail.

"I don't think we've ever seen anybody who didn't learn by watching," 
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Bockhorst said.

Investigators believe they can trace nearly all of the meth labs raided in 
Washington and Smyth counties in the past few years back to one man -- 
Steven Winfield Tomershea, 37, who pleaded guilty in April to federal 
charges of manufacturing meth and conspiracy to manufacture, possess and 
distribute meth.

"He was by far the biggest player in this whole meth problem we have," said 
Special Agent Mike Baker of the Virginia State Police.

Tomershea, a Foxborough, Mass., native, learned to cook meth in California 
and came to Washington County in 2001 from Sweetwater, Tenn.

Before his arrival, most area cooks relied on anhydrous ammonia, an 
expensive chemical used in refrigerants and fertilizer, to break down 
pseudoephedrine into meth.

Tomershea introduced the "red P" method, which uses red phosphorus from 
matchbox strike plates, authorities said. The cheaper, easier process 
caught on quickly and became the region's dominant method for making the drug.

Stores in some areas now sell matches by the crate.

"What he really did was put the chain in motion," Bockhorst said. "He put 
the knowledge out there on the street."

Tomershea spent the next three years traveling between Virginia and 
Tennessee dealing the drug, authorities said. He built up a network of 
about 15 people around Southwest Virginia, paid in meth, who dealt the drug 
and bought or stole the ingredients for it.

At one point, he made more than $300,000 a year.

Tomershea also traveled to various labs operated by others, giving lessons 
and tips. Sometimes he showed up for no more than five minutes to put the 
finishing touches on a batch of the drug, investigators said.

Authorities called him Washington County's godfather of meth. Addicts 
called his product the best in Southwest Virginia.

"I smoked some of it," said Craig Crouse, another cook. "It's true."

Out of 24 suspected meth labs raided in Washington County last year, nearly 
all of those charged either knew Tomershea or shared a mutual friend, 
authorities said.

"We know he taught at least 18 or 20 people how to cook," county Sheriff 
Fred Newman said.

 From there, the knowledge spread into Smyth County and northeast along 
Interstate 81.

Tomershea's career ended April 12, 2004, when sheriff's deputies and 
federal agents caught him at a barn in Meadowview with 5 grams of meth -- 
about $500 worth -- in his shirt pocket.

That night, more than half a dozen meth labs turned up burning or dumped in 
roadside ditches as his former pupils tried to get rid of evidence, 
authorities said.

Tomershea faces from 20 years to life in prison. But the cycle he started 
shows no signs of stopping.

"We're finding intelligent people doing this," said Smyth County sheriff's 
Sgt. Danny Waddle. "It's lower-class, middle-class. This stuff is ruining 
good families."

Police estimate each cook teaches at least three others, sometimes more, 
before getting caught. Most go back to cooking as soon as they leave jail.

"I can count on one hand the number of people who have been released on 
bond that didn't go back to making meth," said Bockhorst, the prosecutor. 
"I'd say the one certainty is that if a defendant starts cooking meth, they 
keep cooking meth."

Unlike Tomershea, most cooks care mainly about making enough meth for 
themselves, authorities said.

At an average street price of about $100 per gram, it's cheaper for cooks 
to make the drug than to buy it. Sometimes friends, neighbors or family get 
together to pool their money for a quick batch, usually a few grams.

"We've yet to run into a full-scale industry," Wythe County Chief Deputy 
Doug King said. "Most people involved in manufacturing use it, but they 
still make enough from the sale to keep the enterprise rolling and feed 
their own habits."

An estimated 95 percent of those labs -- what investigators call "mom and 
pop" or "Beavis and Butthead" labs -- produce just 5 percent of the 
nation's meth, according to law enforcement estimates.

The rest comes from superlabs in the West or Mexico, federal authorities said.

Making meth requires breaking down pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in 
most cold and sinus pills. The drugs share an almost identical chemical 
structure, except for an extra oxygen molecule in pseudoephedrine.

Removing that one molecule turns an over-the-counter decongestant into one 
of the most powerful stimulants ever made.

Lawmakers in Tennessee, which reported 1,574 labs last year, approved 
legislation this spring ordering stores to move all pills containing 
pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Authorities there believe the new law 
already has helped cut the number of labs.

"We've been able to take away the source," said Ed Jones, assistant 
director of administration for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

A similar move in Virginia's General Assembly failed last year. The pills 
remain on the shelves here everywhere from drugstores to gas stations.

Most stores limit the amount they sell, but those rules don't stop cooks. 
They go from store to store, buying the limit of pills at each. Sometimes 
they shoplift, raking entire shelves of cold tablets into bags or purses.

"A lot of flea markets sell pseudoephedrine tablets," King said. "There's 
always somebody getting out of business and somebody buying their inventory."

The new law in Tennessee, along with others in Kentucky and West Virginia, 
leaves Virginia surrounded by three states that have moved pseudoephedrine 
behind the counter. Police said they're already seeing cars with 
out-of-state license plates parked outside area drugstores and hearing 
about booming sales of cold pills.

"It's just too easy," Marion police Investigator April Morgan said.

Short of banning the ingredients, only locking up the cooks appears to stop 
the cycle, authorities said. That approach leads to crowded prisons, broken 
families and an ever-increasing number of children in foster care.

"It's going to fill up our jails," said Doug Meade, director of social 
services in Washington County. "The government's going to have to raise a 
whole bunch of kids. If that's the approach we're going to take, there's 
going to be hell to pay. We've got to reach out there and try to save some 
of these people.

"Most people think it's not going to affect them. They think it's somewhere 
else. Well, somewhere else is here now. The day has come."
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