Originally created 08/04/98

Drug agents open Augusta office



Over-the- counter cold remedies, asthma medications. Drain cleaner, battery acid, antifreeze.

All things that with a quick search, most residents can find under their bathroom vanities, tucked away on a garage shelf, lost in the bottom of a pocketbook among stray gumballs and breath mints -- normal, everyday items used to unclog your drains or your sinuses -- but also a recipe for disaster.

When mixed and cooked and cooled and heated in a backyard, back room, clandestine laboratory, these household items form methamphetamines -- and they're making their way to Augusta's streets.

The ease with which the ingredients are found, coupled with how-to instructions readily available on the Internet, is perhaps one reason the powerful stimulant is manufactured at such a rapid rate.

"It can be made in the U.S. with chemicals," said Richmond County sheriff's narcotics Sgt. Robert Partain. "With cocaine, you have to have it imported from South American countries. But with meth, you don't have to deal with the transportation. It's made in backyard labs -- clandestine labs."

Federal and local drug agents this year have seized more than $30,000 worth of methamphetamines, known as "crank," "ice" and "crystal meth" -- or more than two pounds. In the first half of 1997, officers seized only about three-quarters of an ounce.

"It's just a different drug trend," Sgt. Partain said.

But the surge in methamphetamines hasn't tapered other drug crimes in the area, and in the past six months, drug agents arrested more people, seized more cocaine but less marijuana.

An average of 32 people were arrested on drug charges each week during the first half of 1997, while this year nearly 40 people are arrested each week on drug-related charges. Agents doubled the amount of cocaine confiscated while only about one-quarter of the amount of marijuana seized in 1997 has been seized this year.

To help a growing epidemic throughout Georgia, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration opened an office in Augusta because the demand was there, said federal agent and task force supervisor Pat Clayton. Federal narcotics agents, in cooperation with local agents, target the big suppliers who are selling to pushers on Augusta streets.

On Monday, drug agents held an official open house at the new office where U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell and sheriffs from neighboring counties spoke to attendees. Mr. Coverdell was instrumental in establishing the office in Augusta, Agent Clayton said.

Sheriff's officers can arrest buyers and sellers on the street, but the high-level dealers who are supplying the area will find someone else to deal with. So the problem never really goes away.

"(The DEA) has helped us in working a lot of major offenders. They are better able to enter into long-term investigations," Sgt. Partain said.

Officials targeted several methamphetamines suppliers in the Atlanta area earlier this year who were serving Augusta, Agent Clayton said.

"Their authority ends at the county line," Agent Clayton said of local sheriff's offices. "But we can cross those lines."

Agents confiscated $86,000 from a woman who was hiding the drug money for her father, who had fled Louisiana and was living in the Augusta area. Officers arrested him, but the money, stashed somewhere in his home, was never found. DEA officers received a tip from Louisiana officials that the man's daughter came to town when asked by her father to get his money. Agents caught the woman in Columbia County after she had picked up the money, Agent Clayton said.

Federal agents, along with Richmond County sheriff's narcotics officers, also are in the process of seizing five pieces of property belonging to a major drug dealer -- all worth about $500,000.

"The area is inundated with drugs," Agent Clayton said. "It's supposed to be the second largest city in the state. Anytime there is something going on, we're there."