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Meth: Cheap to make, expensive to clean up

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Jonah Beleckis
Sunday, March 19, 2017

LAKE GENEVA—The fire alarm screeched as officers Aaron Greetham and Caleb Tracy pressed through a smoky hallway at The Cove of Lake Geneva hotel.

“I remember specifically the smell and the taste of the smoke. It wasn't like the bonfire smoke you have at home,” Greetham said more than two months after the incident. “It was sharp and sour tasting. It burned to breathe in.”

Just after 3 a.m. Jan. 9, the two Lake Geneva police officers entered Room 314 to find the reason for the alarm, which was first called in as people smoking in their room.

Tracy rushed to take Patrick McBean out of the room. McBean had been standing, looking confused, his facial hair burned off.

Greetham pulled his turtleneck over his nose to protect his lungs and kept searching for the cause of the smoke.

Then he stepped into the bathroom.

“The bathroom looked like a grenade had gone off inside. It had blood on the floor, and there was just burned stuff everywhere. The toilet bowl itself looked like it had blown up. There was black water in the tub,” Greetham said. “It was a miracle that place didn't burn down.”

They would later learn the cause of the damage was a methamphetamine explosion, they said.

The two officers were treated at a hospital for chemical smoke inhalation.

Their treatment cost $708, Lt. Ed Gritzner said.

Meth is a cheap drug to make--as little as $50 for a batch.

The cost of clean-up can be high. The incident at The Cove cost the hotel and responding agencies at least $24,000.

Meth is spreading in Walworth County and statewide, leading officials to dread its costs to users and the community.

THE COSTS

The incident at The Cove prompted a large response from emergency workers.

Only three Lake Geneva police officers are on duty at the time of the explosion, so another six officers were called in or immediately assigned when their shifts started, Gritzner said.

The incident cost the Lake Geneva Police Department $4,000 in labor costs, Gritzner said.

Eight departments and agencies assisted.

Here is how the costs break down:

-- $15,000 to $20,000 for the hotel to refurbish the damaged bathroom. The hotel room did not sustain serious damage, according to a manager at the hotel.

-- $4,908 for the Lake Geneva Police Department for staff hours, equipment and medical costs.

-- $3,100 for the Lake Geneva Fire Department.

-- $736 for the Walworth County Sheriff's Office for a deputy and drug unit Sgt. Shannan Illingworth to respond to the hotel at 5 a.m. that day. Illingworth said she went to St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee to take pictures for Lake Geneva police of the woman, Melissa Kuen, who was sent there with burns from the incident.

-- $160 for the town of Linn Police Department, which sent an officer to assist.

-- $100 for the city of Lake Geneva Public Works Department for dropping off some blockades and barriers.

-- $50 in estimated costs for Walworth County Public Health, which provided some protective equipment.

Cost estimates could not be obtained from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Racine County Hazardous Material Team, which also responded.

The Racine Fire Department sent six people, Battalion Chief Paul Madden said in an email.

Walworth County sheriff's Capt. Robert Hall, who oversees the drug unit, previously called meth “a poor man's drug” because it is cheap and easy to produce. But he said the costs associated with investigating and cleaning it are “astronomical.”

Gritzner said the only situation comparable in cost to The Cove meth lab explosion was a missing child case last year that cost the department about $16,000 over two weeks.

Meth lab cases cost more than other drug busts because of the cleanup expenses, Gritzner said. Tracy said meth cases “definitely hands down” cost more than other cases in terms of manpower.

“Certain cases we have evidence on, we bag that evidence ourselves and we put it in our evidence room,” Gritzner said. “This stuff's toxic. So the only evidence is going to be photographed because it has to be destroyed for health reasons. It's not like we walk that stuff into court down the road at trial.”

At the scene of The Cove explosion, law enforcement reported finding Sudafed tablets, batteries, camp stove fuel, drain cleaner, a water bottle with melted liquid, a gas generator, a bottle of a white powdery substance and other materials used or produced by meth manufacturing, according to a criminal complaint filed against McBean.

Meth clean-up costs statewide totaled $235,000 from 2014 to 2015, according to the Feb. 9 Wisconsin Methamphetamine Study presentation prepared by FBI Milwaukee Special Agent in Charge Justin Tolomeo.

The state Department of Justice received a $1.5 million grant for the COPS Anti-Methamphetamine Task Force in December for “reimbursement of overtime costs and purchases of expensive equipment used to conduct methamphetamine lab related investigations,” according to Feb. 9 testimony from state Attorney General Brad Schimel at the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.

From that, the Southeast Drug Operation Group, to which the Walworth County Sheriff's Office Drug Unit belongs, will receive $20,000 per year for two years, according to a January news release from the sheriff's office.

SIGHTS ON METH

Meth is on the rise in Wisconsin. Meth use in the state went up at least 250 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to Schimel's testimony.

“Although I've made the fight against prescription drug abuse and heroin the hallmark of my administration, it's time we also turn our sights to methamphetamine,” Schimel said. “It's time we begin fighting on a second front.”

Meth investigations nearly tripled in Walworth County between 2015 and 2016.

Law enforcement agencies are now preparing officers to deal with meth if they come across it.

Gritzner said they recently started training patrol officers on how to identify it. Detectives and other officers assigned to the drug unit get more extensive training.

“For instance, say you're in a kitchen and there's camp fuel and lithium batteries in a cupboard in the kitchen. You know right away usually your camping stuff is in the garage,” Gritzner said. “It's just to look for those oddities.”

Beyond internal training, Lake Geneva police are inviting the public to a Tuesday, April 11, workshop on meth awareness. The event's Facebook page said it will be a “great presentation for employees of convenience and hardware stores, hotels and motels, pharmacies and healthcare.”

The Cove General Manager Dick Schwalbenberg is scheduled to give a presentation.

Tracy said because he and Greetham thought The Cove incident was just a fire, they did not use protective equipment they carry in their squad cars.

“We were just going in to get everybody out,” Tracy said. “And then when you're in there and you realize it's something more, you're not going to stop what you're doing to run back to the squad car.”

Greetham said this was the first big meth incident he's been involved with. Now, he knows better and has received more training.

“They show us videos in the training what happens when it goes wrong,” Greetham said. “I saw the aftermath of it, but when you watch it actually explode you're like, 'Well that makes sense.'”

Greetham said even with identification training, identification often means officers are close enough to see or smell the materials directly, which could be hazardous.

“Every time we show up to anything, we got to try to be safe, and usually being safe is as easy as being tactical in where you stand when you talk to people, how you park your car.

“In this (meth) situation, you don't really know what you have until you've already found it,” Greetham said. “There's nowhere you can position yourself. There's no way you cannot come into contact at least a little bit before you find it.

"And that's why it's so scary.”



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