Pubdate: Mon, 10 Apr 2006
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
Copyright: 2006 Asheville Citizen-Times
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


MARSHALL -- J.R. Shelton isn't the talkative type. He can sit in his 
car on Interstate 26 for hours, silently watching the cars go by. 
About the only words he says are to Ben, the drug dog in the back of 
his Madison County Sheriff's Department car.

But Shelton doesn't need a lot of words. He has a sixth sense for 
which car, among the hundreds he sees every week driving through 
Madison County on I-26, is carrying drugs. And Ben has a nose beyond 
belief for finding them, once Shelton has stopped a car and had a look inside.

Sheriffs John Ledford and David Kent Harris of Unicoi County, Tenn., 
believe I-26 is a major corridor for methamphetamine, a cheap drug 
people whip up in kitchens, bathrooms and back seats from over-the- 
counter medicines. The high can last for days, and the drug often 
gives its abusers an almost supernatural strength and endurance.

Perils Of Meth

Addicts may crash for days between highs. They may lose their teeth 
from the corrosive chemicals. They lose jobs, family and fortunes. 
But try telling that to someone whose only thought is to get more of it.

That's why they're dangerous and why two or three times a week, the 
Sheriff's Department's drug officers head up the interstate. Ledford 
said the drugs seem to be coming from Tennessee and headed to 
Asheville and beyond. There aren't many other ways to get it through 
Madison. The interstate is where the officers go to score.

It was sunny and warm in Marshall when Shelton and the three other 
drug officers -- Capt. Buddy Harwood and Detectives Kip Aldridge and 
Jeff Neill -- left the Sheriff's Department, but it's hazy and cold 
at Sams Gap, near the Tennessee state line, where the officers set to 
work. Traffic on the interstate is sporadic -- a clot of cars, then 
nothing for minutes. Shelton, his mixture of chewing tobacco and 
snuff in his cheek, sits with his window down, fresh breezes blowing 
through his military haircut. Ben snoozes in back of the police car, 
a bed made where the back seat had been. They're working the eastbound lanes.

"You develop a sense" for who's carrying drugs, Shelton says. "Some 
throw up their hand (when they see a cop), some grab the wheel and 
stare straight." Some look nervous, and some try not to look nervous.

Seeking Probable Cause

Law enforcement officers can't stop a motorist without what they call 
probable cause -- some infraction of the law. It can be as simple as 
not wearing a seat belt and as stupid as weaving between lanes. Not 
many people are dumb enough to hold drugs up where they're visible to 
an officer lying low. But you'd be surprised, Shelton said.

"Usually, if we fall in behind them in a marked car, they'll eat it 
or throw it out or try to hide it in a better place," he says. When 
that happens, officers have their probable cause.

Shelton's car at the crest of Sams Gap isn't visible to oncoming 
traffic until the cars are about a quarter-mile away and coming up 
fast. The deputy has the drop on motorists, and many going too fast 
smile sheepishly or in a worried way when they zoom by. But the 
sergeant isn't biting. He watches a car with two young people in the 
front seat and two bikes on the back.

He merely glances at a family van as it passes.

In recent years, North Carolina has seen growing usage of 
methamphetamine, sometimes known as "meth." The State Bureau of 
Investigation reported nine methamphetamine lab busts in 1999. In 
2003, that number had grown to 177. Law enforcement officers in North 
Carolina swooped in on 243 labs last year. Most of the labs have been 
found in Western North Carolina, where rural areas help hide the 
pungent, ammonia smell that comes from making meth.

The drug is responsible for a whole raft of social problems. Parents 
amped up on the drug can't feed or take care of their children, who 
fall behind in school and behind in emotional development.

Because users are often unable to work, they apply for food stamps 
and other social services. Addicts can be violent toward their 
families and law enforcement officials. Their behavior is unpredictable.

At 10:21 a.m., Shelton hasn't done much -- which is a good thing, 
because his traffic citation book has only four tickets, should he 
pull someone for some infraction and actually have to write them up. 
"I want the big haul," he says to Harwood, who pulls his big SUV in 
front of the sergeant's car on Sams Gap, the better to hide it.

"Supposed to get almost 70 degrees today," Shelton tells the captain.

"It won't on top of this mountain," Harwood says through the rolled- 
down window of his car.

Police Support System

Shelton's got everything he needs. In green fatigues, he's got a huge 
service weapon strapped to his leg. He's wearing a radio and a cell 
phone. He's a radio click away from dispatchers finding out anything 
he needs to know, and what they can't tell him he can call up on the 
laptop bolted to the console next to him in the car.

He's driving an eight-cylinder Crown Vic that tops out at 180 mph. He 
even has a cardboard car freshener wedged into the dome light 
overhead. And he's got Ben, his partner since January, in back.

"You've got to be patient to do this," he said as the umpteenth car 
of the midmorning went by. A former manager of a concrete business, 
he's been in law enforcement for six years, a job no different from 
anyone else's, he said, except that it requires him to be a little 
more careful than the average Joe. He doesn't think about the danger. 
If you did, you couldn't do the work, he said.

"You hear that?" Harwood says to Shelton, referring to trucker 
traffic over the CB radio. "Dog on the back of a motorcycle."

"I don't think Ben would ride on the back of a motorcycle," Sgt. Shelton says.

Sure enough, within seconds a motorcycle whizzes by with a little 
white dog sitting in a milk crate wired to the back of the bike. The 
officers laugh.

"Just when you'd thought you'd seen it all," the captain says.

A red Chevy pickup passes, and Shelton zeros in. He checks for 
traffic, pulls onto the highway and rapidly accelerates to make up 
ground. In less than 20 seconds he's behind the truck and calling in 
its tag, asking dispatchers to find out if it's stolen or not.

The driver, a young man in a turned-around New York Yankees baseball 
cap, creeps along at less than 50 mph. He may be nervous, he may be 
slow, but he's just given Shelton probable cause. Shelton hits the 
switches to the siren and light bar on his car. It's surprisingly 
loud from where he sits.

The sergeant is pure textbook as he approaches the vehicle. He stands 
behind the driver when he asks for license and registration, so he's 
not surprised by someone throwing open a door. He's careful not to 
stick his hands inside the truck. People can grab you.

Aldridge arrives as backup, and Shelton asks the driver to get out of 
his car and for permission to search his vehicle. He gets it, then 
gets Ben. Ben, happy to get out of the car, is all ears and 
eagerness. Shelton squeezes a noisy toy, the kind kids take to the 
bathtub. It's Ben signal to go to work.

He sniffs the outside of the truck, then jumps inside to have a nose 
around there. Nothing.

"Son, you're going to have to do more than 48 (mph) when you're going 
down the interstate," the sergeant tells the young driver. "You're 
holding up traffic."

If nothing else, this is good training for Ben, Shelton says after he 
gets back in his car. The more Ben practices, the better he'll get. 
The sergeant is proud of his partner. Ben, 2 years old, was born in 
Mansfield, England. His trainer picked him out of 35 dogs at the 
kennel. Shelton's telling a story about Ben when he throws the car in 
drive and takes off after a Honda, heading south toward Wolf Laurel.

He comes up fast, and the driver, a woman, slows to 50 mph. License 
tags are valid, dispatchers tell him. No outstanding warrants on the 
registered owner.

Shelton rides behind her, moves over the right lane. In the distance, 
the lower hills of Mars Hill sweep out before him. It's still hazy 
overhead. The woman's passenger, a man, flicks the ash of his 
cigarette out his window.

"No PC," the sergeant said. He turns on the air conditioning, so that 
Ben doesn't get hot. It gets chilly real fast. He watches the car pull away.

"Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't," he said of catching meth 
heads. "It's just a wait-and-see game."

He slows, pulls over and sets up behind a guardrail near the Wolf 
Laurel exit, waiting for more traffic. He's not looking for a 
particular person or a particular car. He knows he won't get most of them.

"It's just getting the right ones," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman