By Samantha Huseas
(Editor's note: This is the last in a series of stories exploring what authorities consider to be the nation's biggest drug problem crystal methamphetamine.)
The job of drug eradication officers is to get illegal substances off the streets. From there, it's up to the courts.
Drug eradication in Faulkner County falls primarily to the Conway Regional Drug Task Force.
Search warrants executed by the task force are often done in cooperation with the Faulkner County Sheriff's Office, the Drug Enforcement Association, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Arkansas State Police.
With all these agencies working toward a single goal, some might think drug dealers don't stand a chance in Faulkner County. That's not quite the case.
There have been 52 drug search warrants executed by the task force this year. More than half of those, 29, were crystal methamphetamine labs. Last year 40 labs were busted.
It's possible this year's number will not climb that high, not because the labs aren't there, but because funding was cut short last spring, according to Lt. Bob Berry of the task force.
"A meth lab can cost anywhere from $400 to $100,000 to clean up," Berry said. The police department that makes the bust is in charge of getting that dangerous job handled. The actual cleanup, however, must be done by a hazardous waste company.
Faulkner County's labs averaged between $400 and $6,000 to clean up, Berry said. The DEA allotted funds last year to be used by states to cover those costs. Arkansas' share ran out in March.
The drug task force continued to bust labs and was able to find clean-up money through the Department of Emergency Management and other agencies, interim Conway Police Chief A.J. Gary said.
More federal money has since been allotted.
"We have not had to pay (for clean up) and I hope we never have to," Gary said. "It really got touch and go for a while and who knows what the future holds."
The Police Department's budget doesn't include meth lab clean up, and Gary said if it ever comes to the point where they are paying the $400 to $6,000 per lab, "we would definitely have to regroup."
Money is also a motivating factor for meth manufacturers. A few hundred dollars can turn into several thousand in a meth lab.
Meth users also surround themselves with people who do the same thing, and breaking from that social group becomes nearly impossible, experts say.
With few or no social or economic reasons to leave a drug that's psychologically and physically addictive, the law must step in.
Judges, lawyers and officers who work undercover with the drug task force all say they see the same people over and over again.
"We'll get somebody and they'll say 'Well, that's once, I have two more to go before I go to jail'," said an officer who, because he works undercover, asked not to be named.
"They all know the system," he said.
Officers said while they like their job, it does get frustrating.
"Some of these people you see so much they know you. It gets to the point where they follow you around. That's not fun when you're out with your family at Wal-Mart," another drug task force officer said.
The dangers involved in walking into a meth lab also haunt the officers.
"You go in with all this equipment and if one wrong chemical gets knocked over it can cause an explosion," an officer said.
The group recalled one of the more frightening meth busts worked by the task force. In 1997, officers stormed into a home near Damascus. The operator of the lab jumped from a window, trying to connect two wires as he went.
It was a large, somewhat elaborate lab that had a self-destruct feature. If the man had succeeded in connecting the wires, the lab would have blown.
Another more recent near disaster took place in Wooster at the end of September. Officers were attempting to execute a search warrant when a man in the home allegedly set fire to the structure with a woman and two children still inside.
Because of the hazardous, flammable chemicals inside, the home burned quickly.
Berry, who heads the drug task force, said there is little they can do to change the system or the dangers.
"There are times I say 'why am I doing this' ... but all we can do is do our jobs," Berry said.
Lt. Bill Milburn, interim commander of the Conway Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division, said one reason meth manufacturing continues to grow is criminals feel the chances of going to jail are low in Faulkner County.
"We have had people tell us they moved here from (other towns) because they know, if they get caught, they aren't going to jail here," Milburn said.
Twentieth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney H.G. Foster and Deputy Prosecutor David Clark, who handles the drug cases, said that's not quite true.
Prosecutors have a state-issued grid used to determine recommended punishments based on the crime and the accused's criminal history, Foster said.
As the amount of drug possessed goes up, so does the amount of probation or jail time the grid recommends. Clark said that 28 grams of meth calls for 10 to 40 years in prison, 28 to 200 grams calls for 15 to 40 years and it continues to go up.
A person with .2 grams or more can be charged with possession with intent to deliver, Clark said, but it's hard to prove with that amount.
"To prove intent to deliver, you've got to be able to point to something else. For example, 3.5 grams is known as an Eight Ball, a unit of sale on the streets," Clark said. "But if a person gets stopped with that in his car, and there's nothing else, you could just have somebody with a serious drug problem."
This is known as "simple possession." It could not be proven to a jury or judge that a person makes or sells meth, he or she just possesses it.
In most drug cases, the defendant and the prosecution negotiate a plea. Berry said in the eight or nine years he has worked in the narcotics division at the Conway Police Department he has actually had cases go to court less than a dozen times. That doesn't include any federal trials.
Because of the difficulty in proving intent to deliver in the majority of cases, negotiated pleas are the one way to know what punishment the defendant will receive, Clark said. "And you never know what the jury is going to do or what the judge is going to do."
Foster added, with guilty verdicts "the defendant almost always appeals."
Clark and Foster agreed the sentencing grid is too easy on criminals and it's not necessarily the best answer to the sentencing question, but it's the one the state says to use. It's what Clark looks at when determining plea sentences.
"I look at what he's charged with and nine times out of 10, if it's more than simple possession, I increase the amount of time the chart indicates," Clark said.
He must then justify the increase, according to state laws.
There are also times when he lowers charges, Clark said.
"We have to look at what we stand to gain and what, if anything, we stand to lose. At times, lesser charges get dropped (and the defendant) pleas to the vast majority of the charges," Clark explained.
"And sometimes we recommend a regional punishment facility. Often they get more training there for jobs and maybe, when they get out, they'll have some skill so they can become a part of society," Clark said.
Of 92 Faulkner County Circuit Court drug listings from January through mid-October, all were negotiated pleas. Thirty-six of those received jail time, split almost evenly between the Arkansas Department of Correction and regional jails. The remaining 56 received only probation.
Clark said he could not comment on each one without finding each case file, but he did not think many of those would be for meth, which is considered a more serious drug offense than marijuana.
In general, Clark said, "anyone manufacturing or selling meth who gets anything short of ADC time is a confidential informant with the police."
One reason officers working the street see the same offender more than once is because he or she is out on bond, waiting for disposition of their charges.
Because everyone is innocent until proven guilty, the law says everyone should be released on their own recognizance, whenever possible, Circuit Judge David Reynolds said.
"For serious offenses that's not possible," he said.
Reynolds looks at the defendant's criminal history, local ties and whether or not use of force was involved.
Meth charges can get a defendant anywhere from a $5,000 to $50,000 bond. Bond will usually be revoked on a second offense, but not always. Usually when it's not revoked, the defendant has sought treatment of some kind, Reynolds said.
Because the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory is extremely backlogged, timing of offenses also plays into the situation. It generally takes months, up to nine months sometimes, to get evidence back from the crime lab, Reynolds said. Therefore, there is a lot of time for a meth user to get another charge while on bond.
Judges, lawyers and recovering drug addicts agree on one thing -- meth addicts must get therapy if they are ever going to get off the drug.
"We think everyone should have a chance to be rehabilitated," Reynolds said. The justice system is designed to offer that help.
Clark said, "I don't think someone who's using drugs, who has a drug problem, needs to be locked up. Those are the people we want to try to help."
He added that the probation system in Faulkner County is very good, with rules too tough to follow for those who aren't serious about getting help.
Among other things, those on probation are tested regularly for drugs. A positive test results in probation revocation.
Shannon Walters, a state prisoner serving time for possession of meth, said he feels the justice system is doing all it can.
"I've seen one guy arrested, given a big bond, he stayed in jail and was given prison time. When he got out, he was right back doing it," Walters said.
"Law enforcement is doing their part, the people have to want to change and they have to get help to do that," he said. "Drug awareness needs to be put on the front burner and turned up all the way."
(Staff writer Samantha Huseas can be reached by phone at 505-1253 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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