Drain cleaners, salts, medicine, batteries: Each are common every day household items that are used to “cook” methamphetamine, one of the most destructive illegal drugs to produce.
State and local authorities have been working for years to seek out and prosecute meth “cooks” in New Hanover and Pender counties, according to District Attorney Ben David. The goal has been not only to remove methamphetamine from local streets, but to prevent dangerous situations in homes and neighborhoods that can result from the drug’s production.
In a press conference on Friday, David said authorities have recently wrapped up one meth investigation that put six people behind prison bars and removed 788 grams of toxic liquid containing meth from five area residences used as laboratories in 2015.
“Operation One-Pot to Prison” targeted individuals who were reportedly involved in different levels of the meth production, from the purchasing of materials used make meth to the cooks who manufactured the drug near their unsuspecting neighbors.
“What you’re looking at, are several defendants who took just one pot — a small container, glass or plastic – and manufactured meth here in our community. And that’s why we call it, one-pot-to-prison,” David said. “We had flammable and highly toxic sites…right in neighborhoods where children are playing.”
According to Assistant District Attorney Timothy Severo, the operation began with the arrests of two women in April 2015.
Jennifer Fisher, 58, and Angelika Allen, 26, were charged with purchasing the ingredients necessary for making meth, including pseudoephedrine, which is the active ingredient for production of the illegal drug.
“Without this ingredient you cannot make methamphetamine,” Severo said.
Law enforcement has utilized tools and developed strategies over the years to seek out those who buy large quantities of the drug, often using purchasing information and store receipts as evidence, Severo said.
Those same methods were used in prosecuting the two women. Fisher and Allen pleaded guilty in December 2015 to possession of a meth precursor and each received an eight-month active sentence.
“We are going to use all the tools at our disposal to apprehend people who are acquiring those byproducts,” Severo said about the cases involving those who supply cooks with materials to make meth.
The women, who are known on the street as “Smurfs,” often purchase and trade the materials for making meth for a piece of the product, Severo said.
The investigation continued until mid-September 2015 and resulted in the arrests of four men prosecutors say were cooking in one-pot meth labs inside a local residence. The four defendants include, 32-year-old Christopher Patelos, 34-year-old Andrew Dudley, 34-year-old Walter McPherson and 33-year-old Jason Schmidt.
The cooks were discovered through investigations and interviews with Fisher and Allen. Each of them have since pleaded guilty to charges in the case and are now currently serving lengthy prison sentences for manufacturing meth and other charges related to the investigation, Severo said.
“They were making bombs. And there are no guidelines. There’s no quality control to do this,” Severo said. “And as you can see from this … we will take [the case] as far as it needs to go.”
It’s because of that danger and risk to the community that David and Severo said they are utilizing their resources and seeking harsh punishment for those who make meth in New Hanover County.
“There’s a misconception out there that this is “Breaking Bad” and this happens in a trailer somewhere in some isolated area but … that’s not the case,” Severo said. “It happens in apartment complexes, where this toxic waste is dumped into dumpsters. It happens in homes and communities. One of these was right down the street from a firefighter.”
During the operation and the arrests of the four cooks, authorities located a meth lab inside an apartment off Saint Andrews Drive in Wilmington and others inside homes in larger communities, including homes in the Kings Grant and Ogden area.
“These are highly flammable toxic sites that almost always have children present. And if these bombs go off … it could be someone else’s house that getting caught on fire and potentially children being caught in harms way as well,” David said.
David credited the resources provided by state and local authorities as well as law enforcement’s pro-active approach to one-pot lab investigations from preventing the “bombs” from going off in the community.
That’s the reason why a vast amount of resources are put in to meth lab investigations, including the dismantling of a lab and decontamination of the site, which can take several ours or last overnight, according to Special Agent Kellie Farrell with the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation Clandestine Lab Unit.
Along with the SBI and local law enforcement, EMS, the county health department and the department of social services, all play a critical role in dealing with the repercussions of meth production in the community, David said.
“We wanted to send this strong message: If you’re getting in on the conspiracy … even on the lowest end of the ladder, you’re going away. And if you are a cooker, were going to put you away longer than a first time armed robber,” David said.”That’s what we’ve been holding the line on over the last year these prevalent cases have been in the court system.”