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Cooking up trouble: One-pot meth labs spiking in shadow of opioid epidemic

As soon as Tiadaghton Valley Regional police Sgts. Brian Fioretti and Michael Crawford walked into the emergency room at Geisinger Jersey Shore Hospital and saw the patient, they could tell the 40-plus-year-old woman was a long-term user of methamphetamine.

“She had these big open wounds on her legs and her arms. The sores, the spots, actually covered more area of her body than (healthy) skin,” Crawford said.

“You can tell as clear as day if someone has been a regular user of methamphetamine. From interviews with people who use the drug, almost all of them describe a situation of believing they have these bugs under their skin. It’s all in their head. There are no bugs, but they will sit there and scrape and scrape their skin,” causing large, gaping wounds, Crawford said.

In the past two years, police throughout the region have seen not only an increase in the use of methamphetamine, but other crimes related to the drug.

In the call to the emergency room in mid-October, it was not the woman’s drug use that police were investigating, but her alleged theft of medical supplies — bandages and syringes — she was stuffing into a backpack while she was being treated there.

People with a long history of methamphetamine use “tell us they would quit in a heartbeat, but they can’t because they just have that urge to get high like they did the first time when it was fun, before all the wounds, the injuries, the criminal history and the charges,” Crawford said.

The woman in the emergency room admitted that she had been using methamphetamine since her late teens and was a former heroin user. Her addiction to methamphetamine had literally torn her body apart.

“She looked like she got really bad brush burns all over her body,” Crawford said.

Between early May 2017 and late February of this year, Tiadaghton Valley Regional police alone investigated eight cases where people in the department’s coverage area were caught operating what is known in the business as the “one-pot method” of making methamphetamine.

“It’s just a quick, easy, inexpensive process to manufacture methamphetamine. A lot of the ingredients are household items, located in most homes, and you can buy them in stores,” Crawford said.

Crawford’s boss, Police Chief Nathan DeRemer, said the increase in meth use is due not only to the fact that it is cheaper than buying other addictive drugs, “but it’s really easier to stay under the radar; you’re not going out and buying heroin.”

“Because the heroin epidemic got so great, and law enforcement was focusing on that, some people decided it was easier to make their own meth; now you’re not going out, you’re not carrying drugs around, you’re not meeting up with heroin dealers. Instead you can make your own drugs and use them,” DeRemer said.

At least nine people were arrested from the eight one-pot labs Tiadaghton Valley Regional police broke up, DeRemer said. In each case, members of a state police clandestine lab team responded and safely collected and disposed of various hazardous products that were found at the scenes.

“We were able to tie together seven of the cases,” DeRemer said, adding that “the ring” of one-pot lab operators was linked to a woman from the Benton-Berwick area who came to Jersey Shore and began to show two or three people just how to make methamphetamine. Those people in return showed others how to make meth, he added.

Crawford said the conditions of homes or apartments where these lab were found were “dirty and unkempt.”

That really did not surprise him.

“When you are trying to cook meth, trying to get high, you could care less about the garbage overflowing or the junk food on the kitchen counter that went stale months ago,” Crawford said, adding that housekeeping “is really the least of your priorities.”

Not only do the living quarters suffer, but often the real helpless victims of methamphetamine users are their children, Crawford said.

“It’s sad, definitely sad to see that,” Crawford said, adding “these kids are growing up with it.”

Of the nine people Tiadaghton Valley Regional police arrested during an eight-month period this year, “just about every one of them have kids,” Crawford said.

“They’re really not too interested in taking care of their kids. All they’re really interested in is getting that next high and finding the materials they need to make what is going to give them that high,” Crawford said.

In the Hughesville area, where the state police clandestine lab team was called to dismantle one-pot meth labs twice in 2017, borough Police Chief Rod Smith said such labs are popping up “everywhere.”

“In most cases, the meth users are past users of other addictive drugs, such as heroin,” Smith said.

In the borough, one-pot labs were found and arrests were made on South Fourth Street and in the 100 block of North Broad Street, Smith said.

As of the end of November, a state police clandestine team responded 10 times this year to Lycoming County to break down methamphetamine labs, according to Cpl. David Darrough, coordinator for the Eastern Division of the State Police Clandestine Laboratory Response Team.

The responses were as follows: three in Jersey Shore, two in Penn Township, and one each in the city and the townships of Brady, Piatt, Mill Creek and Porter, Darrough said.

The clandestine team broke up seven meth labs in the county in 2017, three in 2016 and one in 2015, Darrough said.

“Ninety-eight percent of our responses involve methamphetamine labs. The others involve drugs like fentanyl and home-grown marijuana,” Darrough said.

Other than in a brief period in the late 1980s, the state police did not begin training troopers for the clandestine team until 2000.

“Back then, we saw a trend of meth labs coming from the West Coast to the East Coast,” Darrough, a state trooper for 31 years, said.

For the last 10 years, the number of methamphetamine labs shut down statewide has steadily increased from 31 in 2007 to 400 last year, he said, adding that 230 meth labs were found since the end of November this year.

While operating “one-pot labs” will not cause a city block to blow up, it is a very dangerous addiction, police said.

“When people are messing with this stuff, it can blow up, causing severe bodily injuries, severe burns,” Smith said.

That’s exactly what happened to a city man this past spring.

In late April, a 22-year-old man operating such a lab in his bedroom at a rooming house in the 600 block of West Edwin Street was burned when a fire suddenly erupted. The property is just around the corner from city fire headquarters.

The young man admitted to city police that he was injured while “cooking meth” in his room. Another tenant in the building told a reporter at the scene that he heard “a loud bang” followed by white smoke and then “black smoke billowing out from under the door” of the man’s bedroom.

The fire was contained to the bedroom and was brought under control in a matter of minutes. The injured man spent one night in a burn unit and then, upon being discharged, was arrested on felony charges of manufacturing methamphetamine and causing or risking a catastrophe and related offenses. He remains behind bars and is awaiting trial.

While there have not been any recent fatalities involving meth labs, Darrough said he is aware of several incidents in which people operating such labs “suffered life-altering injuries, especially severe burns.”

“Statewide, 16 people were injured last year, including one person burned in a fire in Mifflinburg,” he said. Fourteen people were injured in 2016, including a resident burned in a house fire in Lewisburg, he added. Nine people were injured by meth labs in 2015.

Local methamphetamine labs were not the only thing to make crime news in 2018.

A domestic homicide in the city’s Newberry neighborhood as well as a murder in the Trout Run area and a brutal deadly beating at a nursing home in Sullivan County also were in the headlines this year.

Two men, Edward Heck and Kenneth Smith, are awaiting trial on a charge of criminal homicide and related offenses in connection with the death of Heck’s 49-year-old wife, Sonja Heck, in the couple’s home at 2501 Linn St. in mid-August.

City police allege Edward Heck, also 49, hired Smith, 33, whose last known address was in Cambria County, to kill Sonja, who died of injuries suffered when Smith allegedly struck her in the head with a hammer and slit her throat. Smith and Heck remain behind bars without bail.

At the Dar-Way Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center near Forksville, resident Terry Lee Heckman, 57, allegedly stomped to death another resident, Michael Zaladonis, 64, at the facility on June 30, according to state police.

Zaladonis was rushed to the UPMC Susquehanna Williamsport Regional Medical Center, where he died of his injuries on July 7.

Heckman, who remains jailed on no bail at the Columbia County Prison, is awaiting his preliminary hearing.

Also awaiting trial is Fallon Mae Davis, 21, of Morris, who was charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter for allegedly running over her 25-year-old boyfriend, Luke Beatty, in Beatty’s driveway on Route 14 in Lewis Township during the early morning hours of Aug. 25. Beatty was pronounced dead at the scene.

Jailed since her arrest in late August, Davis was released on Oct. 23 after posting $75,000 bail.

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