Costly meth 'epidemic' spreading in Walworth County 'like wildfire'
ELKHORN—Patrick Weingandt was 19 when a friend gave him methamphetamine.
He tried it.
He loved it.
A month later, it was his life.
Weingandt had done other hard drugs, he said, but meth is different. Unlike heroin, which is derived from the resin of the opium poppy, meth can be cooked from common chemicals. You can walk into Wal-Mart at noon and have a batch of meth finished by 4 p.m., he said.
“It's just like five ingredients, let that sit around for a while and you pretty much have it," Weingandt said.
The number of meth cooking operations busted by Walworth County authorities nearly tripled in 2016.
In the first 15 years of his career, sheriff's office Capt. Robert Hall saw methamphetamine “once in a blue moon.”
Today, Hall, who supervises the drug unit, sees meth becoming an “epidemic” in Walworth County. He said it's “life-threatening” both in its production and use.
The sheriff's office drug unit busted 11 meth labs in 2016 leading to 12 arrests. In 2015, investigators busted four labs resulting in seven arrests.
“All drugs rain havoc on communities. This drug is especially dangerous because of the volatility of it going bad and causing injury or death or property damage," Hall said.
'GOING REALLY FAST'
Weingandt mostly grew up in Lake Geneva, but he bounced around Walworth County in foster care. He said meth is unlike any other drug he's used.
“You start staying up for days on end, and all of a sudden you just sleep for days,” Weingandt said. “I kind of lost relationships with friends and family and ignored them completely just to be on meth.
“Things just started going really fast after that,” he said.
He smoked and injected the drug.
He didn't eat. His skin dried. He grew paranoid at work and would “make stuff up,” thinking new hires at his job were police officers.
The law did catch up with him. He was arrested March 13. The sheriff's office drug unit and Genoa City police picked up Weingandt and Jesse J. Kruzinski, 35, after investigators discovered meth labs in two apartments at 1201 County H in Genoa City.
Weingandt said he didn't sell meth and only made it for personal use. He said it's easy to cook.
Ingredients are inexpensive--$20 for a box of pseudoephedrine and $30 for other ingredients--and cooking can require as little as a few hours.
This “one-pot” cooking method is what law enforcement is seeing in Walworth County, Hall said. It's the cheaper, smaller alternative to large-scale cartel meth that comes from larger labs, sometimes outside the United States.
Hall called meth "a poor man's drug" because of its ease of production and low cost.
Although one-pot cooks are simple, they are dangerous. The chemicals involved can burn or explode, Hall said. Some of the chemicals are respiratory hazards or carcinogens, he said.
During an interview with The Gazette, Hall showed before and after pictures of meth users. One user had lost his teeth and had a deteriorated jawbone. Another woman looked like she had lost an eye, perhaps from a bad cook, Hall said.
“This is the thing that people need to see,” Hall said.
Some places in the southern United States use billboards to show before and after photos of meth users, he said.
The chemical hazards of meth labs require law enforcement to take extra precautions and get help from supporting agencies before making a bust, officers said. Going after a known or suspected meth cook “doubles our workload,” Deputy Jason Rowland said.
During a lab bust, deputies might wear Tyvek suits to protect their skin. Local fire and emergency medical services departments are put on standby to help with decontamination, Rowland said.
Those arrested and evidence need to be decontaminated before being taken into the Walworth County Jail, Hall said.
A village of Bloomfield house had to be razed following a 2015 meth bust because of the hazardous materials inside, Hall said.
The cost of the extra precautions add up.
The sheriff's office in 2016 has spent $7,800 for overtime for meth investigations, Hall said. He estimated the Tyvek suits cost $38 to $100 each. That doesn't include the costs incurred by other responding agencies, some of which come from Milwaukee or Chicago.
“When we have a coke bust, the federal government isn't paying for the hazmat team to come from Chicago to take everything away to bring it to a special landfill," Hall said.
Meth is different.
"The costs are astronomical, absolutely astronomical," Hall said.
Representatives from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration could not be reached to provide cost estimates for materials and training. The Milwaukee DEA office provides the primary response team for Walworth County and can send three or four agents to help with meth busts, Hall said.
Hall hopes state grants will help local agencies cover the cost of meth investigations in 2017.
The state Department of Justice received a $1.5 million grant for meth-related work, spokesman Johnny Koremenos said in an email. The department met Friday to determine how the money will be shared.
Hall said the South East Area Drug Operations Group, which includes Walworth County, applied for some of that grant money. This year, the group received money for heroin and opiate investigations.
Fighting meth is expensive, but the drug also erodes a community, Hall said.
Weingandt is now 20 years old and living in Elkhorn. He works in medical molding and was accepted into Walworth County's drug treatment court May 5. He said it's “going great.”
Others have not been able to step away from meth after arrest.
Patrick Gerber, 38, Whitewater, admitted to manufacturing meth at a town of Richmond residence after he was arrested in early August, according to a criminal complaint.
While he was out on bond, police stopped him Oct. 19 in a Lake Geneva fast-food restaurant parking lot with methamphetamine precursors and a “partyway done” batch of meth in a vehicle, according to a second criminal complaint.
Bryan Tidwell, 32, Elkhorn, was arrested Oct. 13 after police say he was making meth in his home where he lives with his minor daughter, according to the criminal complaint. The day after he pleaded not guilty, he was arrested on suspicion of dealing meth.
Police on March 10, 2015, arrested Heather Opper and Joshua Kieckhefer, both of the village of Darien, on charges of making meth in their apartment. Two children, ages 9 and 7, were taken to the Children's Hospital in Milwaukee for decontamination, Rowland said. The suspects later pleaded guilty to manufacturing meth and child neglect, according to court records.
Weingandt said meth is cheap and easy to make. It's spreading in Walworth County as one person teaches another.
“If you have everybody that's out there that's cooking and doing this and you find out how inexpensive it is and they say how easy it is, it's like wildfire,” Hall said. “And now it's… it's in the community.
“It's truly an epidemic.”