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Police and fire

Active meth labs seized by Fort Wayne police
(as of Wednesday)
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne police officers provide an example of a “one-pot” lab and the surprisingly few materials necessary to make methamphetamines.

City, state struggle with surge in meth labs

– When dealing with meth labs, police always face the risks of toxic fumes and explosions, but warm weather creates another unpleasant aspect for officers who wear rubber hazmat suits for protection.

“We have to consider heat exhaustion in those suits,” Fort Wayne Detective Bob Kirby says, especially when the temperature tops 75. “We easily lose five pounds of body fluid when we’re in those suits in the summer, so we have to watch out for each other.”

This summer is shaping up to be an exhausting one for Kirby and the city’s five other officers who handle meth investigations. Not because of scorching temperatures, but because meth lab seizures are on a breakneck pace.

It’s only July, but city police have already come across 38 labs, a record for the most labs seized in a year. The previous record was 34, set in 2011, according to police statistics on meth labs, which have been kept since 2007 when labs began appearing in the city.

Police officials have theories to explain this year’s surge in lab seizures, but nothing definitive. What is clear is that the fight against meth continues to be a struggle in Fort Wayne and elsewhere.

“It’s a huge problem, and I don’t think that a lot of people know that it’s a huge problem,” said Capt. Kevin Hunter, head of the city’s vice and narcotics bureau.

This year’s jump in lab seizures comes on the heels of a significant increase last year in the number of labs statewide. Last year’s 1,726 lab seizures set an Indiana record, according to state police data. In 2011, there were 1,437 seizures.

Kirby, one of the city’s lead meth detectives, blames this year’s spike, in part, on the convenience of one-pot meth labs, which have taken root in Fort Wayne in recent years and make up the vast majority of labs found here.

With the one-pot method, meth cooks can visit a drugstore, buy all the necessary ingredients and mix them in plastic soda bottles to make small batches of the highly addictive drug. Making the process easier for urban meth cooks, one-pot labs eliminate the need for anhydrous ammonia, a volatile farm fertilizer.

Kirby believes a second factor fueling the high number of labs seized may be the spread of “smurfing,” a strategy for skirting laws that limit purchases of medicines like Sudafed, which contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient.

A meth cook will pay a group of smurfs, sometimes up to a dozen people, to buy pseudoephedrine in exchange for cash or meth. Many smurfs become addicted and end up cooking meth themselves, Kirby said. Hoosiers who buy pseudoephedrine must show identification, and their personal information is stored in a database. Purchases are limited to 3.6 grams a day, and no more than 7.2 grams in a 30-day span.

This year, Indiana legislators passed a law that set an annual limit, which equals about eight months’ worth of medication.

When someone tries to buy more pseudoephedrine than the law allows, an electronic tracking system, called the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, blocks the sale. These blocked sales, along with successful purchases, are recorded by the tracking system.

Hunter said his detectives have been using the tracking system more often to monitor who’s buying or trying to buy lots of pseudoephedrine. He sees this more aggressive approach as a possible reason for the rise in lab seizures.

Kirby said the large number of blocked sales keeps detectives from looking into every one, but they will typically investigate someone who’s been blocked 10 or more times. Through the tracking system, detectives can flag such people and receive notices when they buy pseudoephedrine or are blocked.

Although, with so much meth activity, sometimes it’s a pharmacy, not the tracking system, that tips off police about repeat buyers.

In June, a Walgreens pharmacy alerted Fort Wayne police to a suspicious customer named Ronald Miller Jr., according to court papers.

Police checked the electronic tracking system and found that since Jan. 3, Miller had bought pseudoephedrine 17 times and was blocked seven times for exceeding the 30-day limit.

On the lookout for Miller, officers spotted him June 19 at a Walgreens with two other people. After the three left in a sport utility vehicle, a detective pulled Miller over for speeding and driving left of center, according to court papers.

Speaking generally, Hunter said police must have reasons like traffic violations to make such a stop rather than pull someone over just because of blocked pseudoephedrine sales.

In the SUV, police found Sudafed, and in Miller’s pockets, they found lithium batteries, which are used to make meth. At his house, they discovered a one-pot lab, court papers stated.

Miller, 37, now faces four felony drug charges, including dealing methamphetamine. Kirby said Miller’s case led to the arrests of acquaintances who had served as smurfs.

January through June, Fort Wayne police made two arrests for dealing meth, 17 arrests for manufacturing meth and 12 arrests for possessing meth. In all of 2012, police made nine arrests for dealing meth, 14 arrests for manufacturing meth and 14 arrests for possessing meth, according to police. As meth strengthens its foothold in Fort Wayne and other places, the best way to address the problem is up for debate. But Hunter, Kirby and some other law enforcement officers hope for what they see as the solution.

“The only law that has worked across the country is to make pseudoephedrine a prescription” drug, Kirby said, recognizing that such a measure would be “a hindrance to law-abiding citizens.”

Oregon and Mississippi have taken this approach to curtail labs and seen dramatic results. But in Indiana, such a move has not gained sufficient support from lawmakers.