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Beyond drug smuggling: meth labs on boats

Drug enforcement officers have found meth labs in homes, apartments, motel rooms, cars and pickups, boathouses, shacks in the woods and now aboard a 28-foot sailboat.

Police said this 28-foot sailboat was being used as a lab to make crystal methamphetamine on a Daytona Beach, Fla., mooring.

Tipped off to illegal drug activity on the Halifax River in Daytona Beach, Fla. — the Intracoastal Waterway — investigators from the East Volusia Narcotics Task Force and Daytona Beach police zeroed in on the fiberglass sailboat, which was moored 100 yards south of the Seabreeze Bridge, according to Volusia County sheriff’s spokesman Brandon Haught. When a sheriff’s patrol boat with investigators aboard pulled up on the morning of March 20, the marine officer asked whether deputies could come aboard and check the boat’s marine sanitation device.

Haught says James Smith, 50, gave his permission for them to board. While inspecting the device, the deputies saw a plastic bottle with tubing sticking out of it that they recognized as a homemade cooker for making methamphetamine. The marine unit towed the boat to the Seabreeze Bridge ramp, where deputies searched it and found bottles, tubes and chemicals used to make methamphetamine. Police charged Smith with manufacturing meth. A passenger, 48-year-old Julia Mizer, was charged on a violation-of-probation warrant.

Haught says this was the first case he knew of a meth lab on a sailboat in the northeast Florida county. While making methamphetamine on boats is rare there, meth cooking ashore is not. The number of incidents involving meth labs “goes up every single year,” he says.

The Drug Enforcement Administration reported 11,210 “clandestine laboratory incidents” involving meth across the United States in 2012. Missouri tops the incident chart with 1,825, followed by Tennessee, 1,585; Indiana, 1,429; Kentucky, 919; Illinois, 801; Oklahoma, 678; and Ohio, 634. Florida recorded 284.

Haught says a simplified “one-pot” method for making small quantities of meth from such common household items as ephedrine- or pseudoephedrine-based cold medications, alcohol, aluminum foil, acetone and 2-liter plastic bottles has fueled the proliferation of elusive “mom-and-pop” meth labs — many of them mobile, run out of cars and boats. One-pot gear “was what we found on this boat,” Haught says.

The suspect, James Smith, from the Daytona Beach arrest

He says the chemicals used in making meth are volatile, and the manufacturing process — heating the ingredients in a plastic container — is potentially lethal. “You make it all in one plastic container,” he says. “It’s one bottle under a lot of pressure. It’s very dangerous. If you don’t screw the cap on tight or you put in too much of a certain chemical, it can cause that thing to explode.”

Others have found boats convenient hideaways for meth labs. Last Nov. 26, two California men were found dead on a 40- to 50-foot houseboat on the Sacramento River after a family member reported one of them overdue from a fishing trip. One of the men was sitting in a chair in the saloon and the other was lying on the sole in the galley, where police found apparatus for cooking methamphetamine, says Solano County sheriff’s spokesman Deputy Daryl Snedeker.

The cause of the deaths hadn’t been determined, but Snedeker says toxicology reports show that one of the men had a high level of meth in his blood. He says police suspect that an overdose or inhalation of toxic fumes might have been the cause of death, or a combination of the two. “The federal DEA [agent]who cleaned up the boat said as part of the cooking process vapor can be generated, and if you even start to smell that vapor, you’re gone. You’re dead right there,” Snedeker says.

Last August, the West Bank, La., Major Crimes Task Force booked a couple, both 30 years old, on charges of running two clandestine meth labs, one at the woman’s home in Marrero and the other on a boat tied at the dock a few blocks from the man’s home in Lafitte. Police say they found plastic bottles containing waste from meth production shoreside, and chemicals, including a gallon of acetone, a gallon of hydrochloric acid and 24 ounces of sulfuric acid, aboard the boat.

Some of the meth-making equipment found aboard the boat

Last June, a meth lab explosion blew out the windows of a small boathouse on the St. Joseph River in Osceola, Ind. Neighbors said they saw a man take off from the boathouse in a car after the explosion. Police later picked the man up and took him to a hospital. He had burns on his arms and upper body.

In April 2011 in Cromwell, Ind., investigators with the Kosciusko County Drug Task Force arrested a 50-year-old man and accused him of running a one-pot meth lab out of a boat in the front yard of a home and another out of a shed in the backyard.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries agents and Livingston Parish deputies arrested two men in a stolen boat on the Amite River in May 2010 after finding a backpack on the boat carrying meth-making paraphernalia and a 9mm handgun. And in another houseboat incident, Limestone County, Ala., sheriff’s deputies in May 2013 arrested three Tennesseans on the Elk River near Athens after finding meth-making materials. Two of those arrested were fugitives in a robbery case.

In January 2012, Calcasieu County, La., sheriff’s police arrested three people who allegedly were cooking meth in their car at a ferry landing in the town of Sulphur. In November 2013 Nicollet County (Minn.) sheriff’s police charged four people with operating a meth lab out of a car at a boat ramp on the Minnesota River in Mankato.

Waterways appear to be convenient receptacles for tossing out the trash associated with making meth. In May 2012, Indiana state police scoured three miles of the Yellow River in Marshall County looking for meth-making trash after fishermen reported seeing suspicious debris on the river. The troopers recovered two dozen plastic bottles used as one-pot reaction vessels or hydrogen chloride gas generators, empty pseudoephedrine blister packs, burnt foil strips, soiled coffee filters, empty instant cold packs, tubing, salt and smoking devices.

The troopers warned people to stay away from the trash from meth labs because it could contain chemicals that are toxic, flammable, corrosive and acidic. A lot of this is attributable to the one-pot labs, Haught says.

June 2014 issue