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How to Investigate a Meth Lab

September 01, 2006  |  by David Street

The Cooker

Probably one of the more dangerous components of any methamphetamine lab is the cooker himself. Paranoia and violence are common by-products of methamphetamine addiction and the cooker, who is almost certainly high on his own drugs, knows he’s going to state prison when caught.

The cookers themselves rarely know anything about the chemicals they are handling. Once I did meet a cooker who had a master’s degree in chemistry, but he was so wacked on the drugs he didn’t really care. This creates a most dangerous combination.

On one occasion, my team did a “knock and talk” on a trailer where the cooker had a bubbling meth lab inside. He refused to come out. To destroy evidence, he intentionally set the lab on fire. Not a smart move.

My team surrounded the trailer, called the fire department, and waited the cooker out. It wasn’t long before he made a break for it and was successfully arrested. The trailer burned to the ground, but we still prosecuted the cooker on what was left. More importantly, none of our folks were injured.

Make Wise Moves

So here we are again. Your backup arrives, the mobile home goes dark, and all is quiet, but you can bet you’re being watched. Cookers are notorious for their surveillance cameras and listening devices.

This bubbling lab likely contains dangerously volatile chemicals. If you must approach it, do so with caution.

In my mind, it’s time to call in the sergeant and enough manpower to surround the place.

Don’t go rushing in. What you need is information to justify your next move. Use your resources such as the fire department, county health, your narcotic officers, and their hazmat teams. When I worked narcotics, I never minded those late night phone calls, even if the sergeant on scene just wanted a question answered.

It doesn’t make sense to enter a lab without the training and the proper protective equipment needed. You’re not likely to die if you do get exposed. It’s just that you’re taking a terrible risk if caught in an explosion or fire. And who wants to plant the seeds of cancer that might develop in the years to come? Is it really worth the risk over a case where the cooker may only get two to three years in state prison? Then again, if there are children involved, that changes things in my book.

Only the officer on scene can make the judgment. It’s your call; make it.

Do Not Touch

The following is a list of common chemicals and equipment used in clandestine methamphetamine labs. Many of these chemicals can be found in a hardware store and have legitimate uses, so call in an expert if you aren’t sure.

If found in a car, shed, residence, or any other location, patrol officers should stay upwind and be careful not to touch these items if they appear contaminated.

Warning: Never attempt to handle or disassemble any lab components without the proper training, safety gear, and a decontamination station set up. Call in your narcotic officers and hazmat team.

• Cold or allergy medication containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.
• Alcohol base solvents such as the auto gas additive Heat, acetone, or denatured alcohol.
• Unlabeled bottles or jars containing a clear liquid over white sediment.
• Coffee filters containing chunky sediment (usually the same color as the cold medication pills used).
• Glass pots and pans containing a white residue.
• Heat-resistive glassware such as coffee pots, flasks, and beakers containing red or amber contamination.
• Unlabeled bottles or jars containing bi-phase liquids, usually clear or tinted green over amber. These liquids are often acidic, corrosive, or flammable.
• Acidic or corrosive chemicals stored in unmarked bottles or jars.
• Contaminated plastic tubing, buckets, spatulas, wooden spoons, etc., stained amber or red.
• Hot plates with amber or red contamination on them.
• Twisted coffee filters or sheets stained amber and containing chunky red phosphorus.
• Plastic jars labeled red phosphorus.
• Glass jars labeled iodine crystals.
• Plastic jar containing granular lye.
• Organic solvents such as Coleman fuel, naphtha, freon, white gas, butane, paint thinner, methyl ethyl ketone, lighter fluid, etc.
• A plastic soda bottle with a tube secured to the top and containing a yellow liquid over gray sludge.
• Contaminated funnels and coffee filters.
• Plastic jug containing muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid).
• Plastic jug containing Drano (sulfuric acid).
• Rock salt.
• Aluminum foil.
• Amber-stained scales, plastic baggies, pay-owe sheets, spoons, scrapers, etc.
• Filters containing amber or white methamphetamine.
• Amber or red contaminated gloves, clothing, shoes, breathing masks, etc.

Dave Street is a senior detective and 28-year veteran with the Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department. He worked major narcotics for seven years and currently works as a “crimes against persons” detective out of the RSO Moreno Valley station.

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Comments (1)

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Amanda @ 9/23/2012 4:14 PM

i reported a possible meth lab 2 doors down, drug investigators said their watching his house. (this was 2 months ago) how long does it usually take to bust these houses?. im sick of it, to the point im looking at apartments to move.

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