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Taking it Personally: Sheriff Continues Crusade Against Methamphetamine

If you see something like this along a roadside, beware. It could be fatal and a source of colorless, ordorless hydrogen chloride gas. This is the most dangerous stage in the manufacturing of methampehtamine in clandestine labs and is known as an HCL generator. It's obviously also a common Coke bottle and some plasic tubing that's been put to use to make the deadly drug.

Bradford County residents have learned, much to their chagrin, that their county holds a prestigious position when it comes to manufacturing methamphetamine. It was No. 1 in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in terms of clandestine labs seized last year, and there was nobody else even close.

In fact, based on the formula cited by the experts, including Sheriff Steve Evans, there should be 800 clandestine labs operating in any given month in a county of barely 60,000 residents,

Prestigious might not be the definitive adjective, unless you happen to be someone dependent on the manufacture of illicit drugs. Evans does not appreciate the top ranking, and has made a personal crusade out of getting the public on his side. He's been all over the county, from Stevensville to Litchfield, arming people with knowledge that may help stem what is clearly an epidemic in this rural part of Pennsylvania.

—Bradford County Sheriff Steven Evans will be bringing his power-point presentation to Wyalusing on behalf of CommUNITY Against Methamphetamine during the first week of September. There will be a public forum at the Wyalusing Fire Hall Thursday, Sept. 2, at 6 p.m. The night before he will be meeting at the same location with firefighters, EMTs and first-responders.—

The stats quoted by Evans show that in the year 2003, there were 58 methamphetamine labs seized in Pennsylvania, with 16 of those seizures coming in Bradford County. The next closest county was Crawford with eight. If you want even more context, consider that there were 18 operations seized in all of New York State in the same year.

"For every meth lab seized, they estimate there are 50 or more active," said Evans, who recently returned from the state conference of the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association in Berks County where he was the featured speaker on the topic and compared notes with law enforcement officials from all over the state.

Evans, who admits he knew very little about methamphetamine three years ago, has learned an awful lot in the past two years. Some of his demand as a speaker is the unfortunate status of his county as a hotbed for this most highly addictive and dangerous of drugs known most familiarly in these parts as meth, crank and speed. It is his knowledge, self taught and too often from personal experience with the bad guys and their products, that makes him an effective crusader in this battle. He also, to be frank, puts on quite a show, as informative as it is disturbing. You see, the sheriff is taking this personally. He lost two deputies and good friends, Mike VanKuren and Chris Burgert, this spring in a methamphetamine-related double homicide. These were two young men who had taken a special interest in removing this cancer called methamphetamine from the Endless Mountains, whose nooks and niches provide sanctuaries for mobile operations that can produce batches of the killer drug in a few short hours.

"My attitude is to keep talking about this until nobody shows up," says Evans. The positive spin on that is that sooner or later we're all going to be educated about this and make it almost impossible for meth makers to thrive among us. A negative slant, based on how quickly this problem seems to be growing, is that our communities will eventually become so ravaged by methamphetamine that hopelessness and fear will keep the few who can fight it home.

In fact, task force spokesperson Diane Bahr is concerned that some of the local news media are already regarding methamphetamine and efforts to curb it as old news. The weapon of choice is education and information. It is the only way to turn the tide, Bahr and Phil Cusano, executive director of Bradford County Drug & Alcohol, concur. If something with this much impact is not regarded as news, it makes it difficult to bring urgency to the message, they argue.

"There was a renewed interest when the two deputies were killed," said Bahr. "I hate to think it will take another tragedy of this nature to put this back in the news."

"I will say it straight out, methamphetamine is THE most dangerous drug," says Evans. "We now have a very, very powerful controlled substance that can be made in Bradford County in about two hours."

One of the most alarming aspects is that it is the innocent and the uninformed who may pay the price. The laboratories where this drug is produced with mostly ingredients you can purchase at common retail stores, from Sudafed to starter fluid, are extremely dangerous, even when inactive and abandoned. People literally fill up the basements of rental properties with this hazardous material and months later, anyone can walk into a toxic brew of chemicals and unstable gases that can kill them with a flick of the light switch.

"They'll just toss it down the steps and move, leaving it there for someone else to find," says Evans of some members of this drug culture.

For every pound of methamphetamine produced there are five or six pounds of what is essentially toxic waste—stuff that should be literally handled only by a HazMat team and cautiously removed by a disposal unit who may have to be summoned from as far away as Pittsburgh or Harrisburg. One ingredient in the process favored in Bradford County, known familiarly as the Nazi method, that you can't buy or steal at a retail store is anhydrous ammonia. It is pressurized with a powerful percentage, between 98 and 99, of ammonia and is commonly stolen from farmers' fertilizer tanks just across the border in New York State. The combination of this powerful ammonia smell and ether used in the process favored from cans of starter fluid gives away these labs, whether they be in a barn or out in the woods in a pickup truck. The odor is often compared to mega-doses of cat urine.

The only two requirements for a successful meth lab are light and ventilation. You don't even need heat, despite the reference to those who make it as "cooks."

It is the pseudoephedrine that is the key chemical signature of meth. The finished drug and pseudoephedrine are essentially the same chemical makeup, and the making of meth is known as "the pseudoephedrine reduction method." That's why Sudafed and similar medications, some generic versions, are so vital to manufacturing crank. It takes 1,000 pills of Sudafed to make a standard "batch" in a typical Bradford County clandestine lab, says Evans, and you can sell a batch on the street typically for between $1,500 and $2,000. In most cases, the manufacturers are users and they aren't getting rich. They are slowly killing themselves, selling some on the side to pay the bills and put food on the table and staying home and tweaking, or staying high. Only about 40 percent of meth addicts hold down jobs, says Evans.

Because of the violent behavior and paranoia associated with addicts, it is dangerous enough to have these people around you and your family. Show up at the wrong place at the wrong time, even innocently, and you could be signing your death warrant. But there are other reasons to be fearful.

"I am terrified that some kid is going to come across a Coke bottle lying beside the road with hoses coming out of it," says Evans. "What kid wouldn't be curious about such a thing? A well meaning adult may pick it up as trash and throw it into the trunk of his car."

That could very well be fatal, dealing death with odorless, hydrogen chloride gas.

Here is the story on the most dangerous part of the process, both for the cook and others who may stumble across its toxic remnants. It is called "bubbling" and consists of creating hydrogen chloride gas in a plastic bottle, say by combining sulfuric acid and table salt. They run plastic tubes out of the bottle—and often a liter Coca-Cola or Pepsi bottle is preferred—and into liquid suspended methamphetamine in another container. You literally have to blow this color and odorless gas, which can be fatal if you breathe it, through the tube and into the meth container. In fact, this is so dangerous that many cooks avail themselves of the services of a "bubbler" to accomplish this critical stage.

The plastic bottle and tubes are known as an "HCL generator." It can only be used once and tossed, and what is discarded may be poisonous gas poised to assault the lungs of someone who picks it up, steps on it or throws it into a trash bag and stashes it in the trunk of his car. The cooks aren't going to toss such things in their own garbage or on their own premises where it not only poses a danger to them, but is decisive evidence of illicit drug manufacturing. It is more likely they'll drive down the road and toss it out of a window, where it sits barely off the shoulder of the road awaiting an innocent victim.

This epidemic is about more than the addicts and manufacturers, who are often one and the same. It is about the children in the homes who may breathe it in or ingest its residue out of drinking glasses. But it can also claim a child walking down the road minutes after a disposed HCL generator is tossed. Maybe it will be a Boy Scout troop on a litter patrol.

"This is why the public has to know," says Evans, who reiterates that you are not safe just because you have no contact with methamphetamine and the people who use and distribute it. "It can wipe out every facet of your community. We have to mobilize our community to say, ?Not in my town!'"

There is so much to tell about this drug, and it usually takes Evans a solid two hours to make his presentation as well as answer questions. He'll tell you ways to identify clandestine labs, the waste that comes out of them and the people who are addicted to it. It is not only fascinating, but it should be required attendance for any Bradford Countian who wants to enlist in the sheriff's crusade against methamphetamine.

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