Part one in a series -- The untold story of the tragic reach of meth in Carroll County

Friday, August 1, 2003

This is part one of a three-part series addressing the explosion in the use, manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine in Carroll County.

The most significant crime problem in Carroll County this year is well-documented as a dangerous and insidious drug called methamphetamine.

But even though the newspapers have been recording every meth bust with large headlines, heralding the take-downs of 18 or more meth labs since January, perhaps a more important story is going untold:

Who are the users, how many addicts are there in the county, and how many lives are in the process of being ruined by a drug that any amateur dealer or "cook" can make in the kitchen sink?

Investigator Ralph Gordon of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office shook his head.

"We have no idea," Gordon said.

Asked to hazard a guess ---- is it hundreds, thousands? He said he couldn't speculate.

"I do know there are dozens of dealers out there, and we have arrested a lot of them. There are different types of dealers; those who deal and don't use; those who deal and use; those who make it for themselves and friends; but I can't even guess how many users are out there."

Sheriff's Investigator Alan Hoos agreed, saying that with methamphetamine recipes readily available, spreading through the criminal network and also on the Internet, it is nearly impossible to get a grasp on the magnitude of the problem in Carroll County.

One thing both investigators also agreed on is that meth users (not dealers or cooks) are among all areas of life in Carroll County, from common criminals, to blue-collar workers, teens and most any other social level one can imagine.

The two said that one of the problems in estimating the number of meth users is that about 70 to 90 percent of the users never get caught.

Hoos and Gordon agree on that estimate, and so do several other city police officers interviewed for this article.

The sheriff's office has been on a concentrated campaign since January to go after the cooks and dealers. The users are usually caught in possession of meth when they come into contact with police for other reasons such as arrests on misdemeanors, warrants, traffic stops and other violations.

Habitual users, who deteriorate enough to be noticed because of strange behavior, paranoia, and careless actions such as driving without licenses or expired tags, are the ones that usually show up in the jail log.

One thing is clear: the problem here may be immense, or just bad, but it is impossible to say for sure if the users are in the hundreds or even one or two thousand out of a population of about 25,000 people.

Police, sheriff's and state investigators work within a network of confidential informants, and other criminals who trade information for lesser sentences to inform on meth dealers. Local police agencies, sheriff's investigators and state police agents also use their own surveillance and observations, and a host of undercover techniques.

One law enforcement source said he could name six or seven places in a certain city ---- he wouldn't say which ---- where he could go at any given time and buy hundreds of dollars worth of meth, or even thousands' worth.

Sources in Berryville and Green Forest say that number appears to be accurate, though an exact figure is impossible to come by.

The dealers are the targets of law enforcement for the most part, and it is unusual that the average meth user will fall into the police net.

Berryville, Green Forest and Eureka Springs police departments have limited resources for undercover work, and their normal duties eat up most funding they are provided by their city councils.

"When it comes to being proactive in investigating meth dealers, we just don't have the resources," one city police officer said.

Green Forest Police Chief John Bailey said the problem is bad enough in Green Forest that he and Sgt. Brad Handley have to work meth cases as much as they can.

He said, "We work closely with the sheriff's office and we recognize that the problem hits all sorts of people. As we work with other agencies, maybe we can have an affect on this problem. Most of the crimes of theft, domestic abuse and other crimes go right back to methamphetamine and alcohol," Bailey Said.

Bailey said he agrees that 70 to 90 percent of the users are not caught or identified.

Many families are destroyed by this drug," Bailey added. "It is a big problem."

Berryville Police Chief David Muniz agreed with that assessment.

"A lot of crime, like domestic abuse and sexual abuse, comes from meth and alcohol. We're also doing our best to work with other agencies and the resources we have."

Eureka Springs Police Chief Earl Hyatt is on vacation, but has said in the past that the problem there is not as bad as it is in the county, but his officers do what they can with the resources that are available.

Sheriff's investigators, who have been busting meth labs regularly, can barely keep up with meth cooks out in the county, and the three county investigators concentrating on the problem also have to investigate all the other felonies such as murder, burglaries and violence ---- which are often directly related to meth or alcohol or both.

It is believed that most meth cooks operate in the county, in remote areas, where their activities are harder to keep under surveillance than in the cities.

However, cooking and dealing is all over the county, including the cities.

"It is all over the place," an undercover officer said.

Sgt. Shannon Pearson of the Berryville Police Department said, "There is a presence in the city, and we are aware of it." He stressed that meth use and its related crimes "touch everyone, or could touch anyone at any time."

Berryville has no criminal investigation unit like the county's, and the city is in the midst of a hiring freeze. All Berryville can do is react to incidents and information that comes to them from informants or other investigators such as the state's, or when they come across a lab in a vehicle or in a related arrest. This year, Berryville has taken down two meth labs, one with the help of the county and Harrison police, who caught the residents of an East Freeman Street address who were trying to shoplift ingredients in a Harrison store which are used in making meth.

Green Forest has busted two significant meth labs in the city limits, with help from the sheriff's office.

Busting a meth lab is very time consuming and expensive, with a lot of overtime involved. Some of the drug investigators at the county level don't even bother to turn in some of their overtime because of the heat that is brought on the sheriff's office by the quorum court because of overtime or comp time.

Though many of the quorum court members are supportive of Medford's campaign, several question his investigators' and deputies' overtime, and have demanded detailed accounting of what the sheriff's staff time and costs entail.

Most notably, quorum Court member Marshall Turner, a Republican from Holiday Island, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Carroll County Newspapers that he believes the sheriff is spending too much resources on fighting meth.

His comments resulted in angry people writing letters to the editor criticizing Turner and the Quorum Court. The Democrat-Gazette penned an editorial cartoon recently that showed a caricature of a "Carroll County Quorum Court" member putting up a "Wanted" poster with a drawing of Sheriff Medford. It said "Wanted: Sheriff Chuck Medford for Stealing the Spotlight," as the quorum court member says, "If we don't stop him from busting meth labs, we'll go broke."

Medford was amused by the cartoon, but felt it accurately portrayed how the quorum court has been treating him. Before that publicity, the county's budget committee, headed by Jim Wheeler, talked for almost an hour about the sheriff's budget figures, at which Wheeler presented charts that showed Medford was way over budget.

At one point, member Yvonne Herron said, "let's call Chuck in here and ask him about this."

County Judge Ed Robertson called Medford, who was not informed about the meeting or Wheeler's figures. He arrived a few minutes later with Captain David Slaton, who were both visibly surprised by the figures, and taken aback by not knowing what the committee had been discussing. Slaton said he didn't think Wheeler's figures were accurate and asked for time to look at the budget. They were given two days to come up with answers for the following quorum court meeting, and Slaton, Medford and Administrative Assistant Pam Webb worked day and night on a presentation that showed Wheeler's figures were inaccurate and the department could come in within budget when approved federal grants for overtime were received.

After Slaton's presentation to the quorum court, Robertson said, "The sheriff has done what we asked him to, so let's move on."

After the meeting, a visibly angry Medford asked a reporter when the newspaper was told about the meeting, and the answer was, "a week before it was held."

Next week: Meth made them do it -- the crimes caused by a drug.

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