The most deadly recreational drug has become the most popular, in Monterey County and everywhere.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Around 5:30pm on July 16, 2004, Pacific Grove police received an anonymous tip that a man was in his home at 316 Prescott Lane cooking and using methamphetamines. It was an unusual tip, but when officers Daniel Borgeson and Dawn Delfino responded to the call they witnessed 34-year-old Frank Abbruzzetti taking a hit off a meth pipe through the open front door.
Completely busted and totally high, Abbruzzetti made no attempts to flee or hide the large-scale home meth laboratory which cluttered his home like some kind of wicked Rube Goldberg apparatus.
For more than a year, Abbruzzetti had been successfully running the biggest meth lab in Pacific Grove history, but he had gotten careless—as manufacturers who also use meth frequently do. The smell from the chemicals used to make the drug were overpowering; the amount of foot traffic was becoming impossible to ignore; and theft rates were skyrocketing in the neighborhood. By all accounts, it was only a matter of time before he went down. Abbruzzetti had become too complacent, too high, too greedy.
At the time of his arrest, officials estimated that Abbruzzetti had enough materials to make $500,000 worth of methamphetamines.
Police promptly arrested the dazed Abbruzzetti along with the two female “companions” hanging around the house at the time of the arrest. When the cops entered the house, they discovered the extent of Abbruzzetti’s operation. It was unlike anything they’d ever seen in “America’s Last Hometown.”
Detective Sergeant Doug Dahmen of the sheriff’s office did a five-year study from 1992-1997 which illustrated a 1,500-percent increase in meth-related bookings in Monterey County jails.
With the assistance of the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, and two commercial hazardous materials crews, they removed more than 75 pounds of Ephedra sinica, a precursor for the manufacture of methamphetamine, from Abbruzzetti’s home. They also removed a variety of reagents, such as red phosphorous, methanol, acetone, denatured alcohol and sodium hydroxide. Agents filled numerous haz-mat drums with laboratory paraphernalia such as drums, contaminated containers, beakers, plastic and rubber tubing and cookers, and took them away. They discovered that Abbruzzetti had been dumping a portion of the contaminants into the back yard of the rental property.
Following an investigation, Abbruzzetti was charged with possession of methamphetamine, manufacturing methamphetamine, sales of methamphetamine and possession of methamphetamine precursors. His bail was set at $80,000 and he was lodged in the Monterey County jail. His female companions were questioned and released without charges.
It was a huge bust for the Pacific Grove Police Department, yet it was unsettling. This tiny coastal hamlet seemed like the last place one would expect to find a meth lab.
“I think it worked for the manufacturer because few people in Pacific Grove knew anything about methamphetamines,” Deputy District Attorney Ann Hills says. “They might see Abbruzzetti wheeling in ephedra leaves and think that he was just doing some organic gardening. He could have gone undetected for who knows how long. It’s the last thing you’d expect in Pacific Grove. It definitely helped him escape detection, to a point.”
If Abbruzzetti’s story has a point, it’s that meth is everywhere. In the last decade this amphetamine derivative has rapidly clawed its way up the recreational drug chain to perch upon the throne like some mad, toothless king. Traditionally it’s been a domestic drug. It’s made here and it’s made cheaply. It makes users feel like superheroes—10-feet-tall and bulletproof, supremely confident and optimistic, even as it devastates their bodies, minds and lives. And it is lethally addictive. As a result, there is no demographic for meth users.
“Demographically it reflects the community,” says Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Todd Hornick. “It’s across the board. It’s certainly not ethnic or age or class specific. It runs the gamut.”
A majority of meth users go about their addictions while holding down jobs and raising families. For those who can maintain the habit, meth is just another substance. Seemingly “normal” people have the stuff on hand.
For example, Ashley Smith, the cute, innocent-looking 27-year-old widowed mother who was taken hostage by suspected Atlanta courthouse gunman Brian Nichols last March, recently disclosed that she was an addict, and that she gave her captor methamphetamine during the hostage ordeal last March.
As Hornick points out, our idea of the stereotypical meth user only comes from those people who get busted.
“In my experience, I’ve found drugs to be readily available across all classes. I don’t believe that the people in Pebble or Carmel aren’t getting high on meth,” Hornick says. “It’s just that users in Chinatown or North Fremont are readily perceptible. They’re easier targets.”
Hornick suggests that the same is true for all crime, including theft, burglary, or even domestic violence.
In the same way that the bucolic PG neighborhood hid Abbruzzetti’s operation, meth users may be able hide in the suburbs better than they can in cities.
“In an apartment complex where people are sitting one on top of the other, domestic violence is going to make a whole lot of noise and bring the cops quicker,” Hornick says. “If you’re standing in Chinatown smoking a rock or sitting on the railroad tracks shooting heroin, there’s just a better chance that you’ll get seen.”
From Abbruzzetti’s booking photo you wouldn’t guess it, but the man was a graduate of Humboldt State University with a degree in chemistry. He had been a long-term substitute teacher at Pacific Grove Middle School, and had even served in the community as a youth recreation coach before devoting himself completely to meth. Thanks to a clean prior record, he received only one-quarter of the maximum penalty for his crime. He is currently serving a five-year sentence at the California Correctional Center up in Susanville.
It’s a scary trend. Unlike marijuana or cocaine or most other recreational drugs, meth grinds users into bone powder if they do it long enough. For most, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when that will happen. And according to Detective Sergeant Doug Dahmen of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, it’s far and away the number one drug of choice in Monterey County, if not the entire state and the nation.
‘The stuff was engineered for WWII fighter pilots. Governments created it to create super-efficient soldiers. Well, here I am, baby. The direct descendent.’ —“James,” unapologetic meth user
“I’d say 70 to 80 percent of all narcotics busts our unit makes are meth-related,” Dahmen says. “The public demand is clearly methamphetamines.”
As a result, the manufacture of meth is big business. No longer a niche drug market controlled by biker gangs or rural “meth cooks” setting up labs in shacks or trailers, the meth trade now is ruled by cartels that manufacture 50 percent to 80 percent of this country’s meth in Mexico and California, according to US Drug Enforcement Agency statistics. As a result, drug enforcement officials are seeing a shift away from the large rural “superlabs” run by Mexican nationals in the last decade.
“We don’t have nearly as many big labs out in rural countrysides where whole teams of Mexican nationals were brought in by ‘Mr. Big’ to manufacture meth nonstop for a day or two and then leave,” Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Ann Hill says. “That kind of operation was big in the ‘90s in the Lewis Road area [near the old Salinas Valley landfill] or down in the South County rural area. Back then, meth labs flourished away from neighbors offended by the smell of chemicals and the foot traffic of users.”
Today the large Mexican cartels manufacture meth in bulk quantities in Mexican labs by smuggling tons of pseudoephedrine-based pills to Mexico from factories in Europe, India and Asia. Some experts predict that the cartels will increase Mexican meth production to meet demand left by new laws’ squeezing of domestic makers.
Laws like California’s Precursor Compliance Program (PCP) regulate the sale of controlled chemical substances, laboratory apparatus, reagents and solvents used in the production of meth. California officials hope that even if such laws like PCP don’t reduce meth use, they will reduce problems directly associated with makeshift labs, including the potential for explosions and exposure to toxic chemicals.
“As the drug’s popularity has increased across the state, we’ve seen more people manufacturing on a small scale using more primitive cookware like coffee makers and mason jars,” Detective Sergeant Dahmen says. “Of course, that’s far more dangerous because of the explosive nature in the manufacture of meth. It’s one thing to blow up a barn in a rural area, it’s something else to blow up a house in a neighborhood.”
The new laws seem to be working in California, but not nationally. The DEA reported busting 498 clandestine meth labs in California in 2004—down from 2,063 in 1999, which signals a significant drop. In fact, Abbruzzetti’s lab was one of only three labs busted in Monterey County for all of 2004.
But a national study shows that the DEA busted 9,797 labs in the United States last year compared to 162 in 1995, which indicates that the problem is growing massively.
And even if the rate of meth manufacturing is dropping in California and Monterey County, the amount of meth being used by Californians and Monterey County citizens shows no signs of abating. Dahmen did a five-year study from 1992 to 1997 which illustrated a 1,500-percent increase in meth-related bookings in Monterey County jails.
“Seven years later it continues to be our number one priority,” Dahmen says. “Meth still dwarfs our other bookings.”
“Meth is without a doubt the most popular drug,” Deputy DA Hill concurs. “It’s made inroads in every community in Monterey County over the past five years, except in the city of Seaside, where crack is still the drug of choice.”
And according to Hill, just because less meth is being manufactured in California doesn’t mean California is not still contributing directly to the manufacture of meth in Mexico.
“What we’ve been seeing is Mexican nationals or undocumented persons being paid to go to 40 to 50 stores in a day and purchasing the maximum number of Sudafed of ephedrine that the store will allow,” Hills says. “They’ll have a quota of 100 boxes a day maybe, which they will then deliver to ‘Mr. Big’ to be washed, vacuum-packed and shipped for eventual distribution to these new superlabs in Mexico. We know that thousands upon thousands of boxes are being shipped to LA but currently we just don’t have the investigation resources to follow the trail down there.”
As a result, Hill says, it’s hard to get a picture of the entire meth manufacturing process because the process has been divided up into steps. In other words, the cartels have concocted a more efficient process that is resulting in even more methamphetamine on the street in America.
On any given day you can find the tweaked meandering purposefully on Monterey County streets. There is no mistaking an individual in the late stages of meth addiction. They walk and talk and ramble semi-coherently, and look as if their skin has been peeled back to expose the raw wiring underneath.
I found “Kathleena” walking on a street adjacent to North Fremont Boulevard in Monterey. Although she didn’t remember, I’d met her once before backstage at a rock show last summer at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. When I pulled over and jumped out of my car to talk to her, she asked me what I wanted and I told her I just wanted to talk about meth. My odd request didn’t faze her in the least. On the contrary, she warmed right up to me.
Kathleena may have been pretty once. But today her face is a blotchy rictus grin. Her eyes are hollowed out. Her long hair blows in the stiff afternoon wind like black eels anchored unevenly to her head.
Kathleena was walking briskly down the street scratching her head and talking to herself. When she stops to talk, she doesn’t really stop. She’s fidgeting. A big flaking gold Lincoln rolls by slowly and two dudes honk the horn and yell something at her in Spanish. She turns her back to them, grits her teeth and closes her eyes.
Kathleena says she spends a lot of her time hanging around a motel on North Fremont or taking long brisk walks through the neighborhood around the Monterey County Fairgrounds looking for meth or for funds to procure meth.
A 30-something tweaker who says she used to be a nurse, Kathleena may have been pretty once. But today she’s completely bent by the drug. Her face is a blotchy rictus grin. Her eyes are hollowed out. Her long hair blows in the stiff afternoon wind like black eels anchored unevenly to her head.
But perhaps more concerning than her appearance is the look in her eyes and the things that come out of her mouth.
You get the impression that there is a stiff cold wind blowing inside her anguished head and it’s pushing images out—things that would make William Burroughs blush. A conversation with Kathleena is like watching a television being switched back and forth from a confessional documentary to some kind of ungodly death porn.
According to Kathleena, whose Tourettic conversational style doesn’t exactly instill a great deal of confidence, she grew up on the Peninsula and graduated from a local high school in 1989. She says she drank and smoked weed and did the occasional line of coke through her teens and most of her 20s. But at some point in her late 20s, she was given a line of crank at a party and it was “the best and greatest fucking fucking greatest ever.”
She moved in with a guy who dealt the stuff in Marina and evidently it’s been downhill from there. Yet despite the grim portrait of meth abuse that Kathleena has become, she does have moments of lucidity. Just before she continues down the street, she looks real sad and says, “It’s not as bad as all that, it’s not as bad as all that.”
But it is as bad as all that. To get an idea of how bad, read the endless pages of chilling confessionals on the Internet. The Web is full of methamphetamine catharsis from every imaginable segment of society.
Yet, while they demonize the drug, many meth users can’t help but continue to rave about how wonderful it feels; how unbelievably great prolonged sex can be on the stuff; how overwhelming that sense of superpower is.
“James” is a professional headhunter making six figures a year in the Bay Area. He also uses speed almost every day of his life and says there are millions like him.
“I couldn’t do what I do without it,” he says. “In this day and age we’re expected to work 80 to 100 hours a week. Man, this is just a postmodern tool for a postmodern world. If it gets to be too much, back off it. I recognize that some people can’t do that and that’s why they end up losing everything. But for most of us, speed is just a really wicked cup of coffee.”
James likes to point to artists and writers like Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey who allegedly cranked out masterpieces over the course of days on speed.
“The stuff was engineered for WWII fighter pilots. Governments created it to create super-efficient soldiers,” James says. “Well, here I am, baby. The direct descendent.”
Last July 25, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation, nicknamed the Anti-Meth Bill, which would strengthen penalties for the manufacturing and sale of methamphetamine, and provide funding to help clean up meth labs and fund prevention and treatment.
Yet despite the fact that the Anti-Meth Bill has been fast-tracked, Republican and Democrat members of Congress are growing increasingly outspoken about what they see as the Bush administration’s slow response to the meth epidemic, according to an Oct. 2 article in the Christian Science Monitor.
Among other things, the members of Congress criticize the administration’s decision to end the $804 million Justice Assistance Program, which funds regional drug task forces.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the administration’s stance on meth is Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of the House drug policy subcommittee who has called for the resignation of White House “drug czar” John Walters and called some of the White House data on meth labs and users “laughable.”
Today, Frank Abbruzzetti sits in a cell in Susanville. His prison wages are already being taken to help pay to remove the contaminated soil around the residence on Prescott Lane as well as the neighbor’s residence and to remove the methamphetamine and chemicals from the walls, floors and ceilings of the house.
In addition, he must pay the total costs incurred by the Pacific Grove Police and Fire Departments, the Seaside Fire Department, the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and the State Department of Substances Control to break down his clandestine lab and to safely haul away the noxious chemicals. In total, Abbruzzetti owes $203,595. He will most likely be paying for the rest of his life.
The house at Prescott remains boarded up and is still
considered uninhabitable, another example of how
methamphetamines grows ever more visible in our society. Yet
just as meth addicts like Kathleena only hint at all the
Jameses in the world, the boarded-up house at Prescott only
hints at the meth labs flourishing in this country and across