SAVANNAH - When liquid fertilizer starts disappearing, watch out.
That's what Screven County sheriff's deputies have learned to do, and their hunch paid off Monday, when Cpl. Cedric Rhodes spotted a woman lurking near a tank of anhydrous ammonia at a local fertilizer company.
Along with a tank of stolen fertilizer, Cpl. Rhodes allegedly found crystal methamphetamine in Susan Lynn Pennington's truck. He arrested the 37-year-old woman. Her companion, Willard Dale Pendergraft, 38, fled into the woods and was eventually caught.
The eastern Tennessee couple is being held at the Screven County jail. Both have been charged with trafficking methamphetamines, an increasing problem in Georgia.
The Screven bust might be just the beginning of the troubles.
Tennessee authorities searched a home in Butler, Tenn., on Monday and Tuesday and discovered more evidence of drug manufacturing, including gas masks, ether, acetone, sodium hydroxide, cooling pots and an over-the-counter cold medicine, enough supplies to make several pounds of crystal meth, also known as "poor man's crack," "crank" and "speed." Mr. Pendergraft faces charges there, too, said Johnson County (Tenn.) Sheriff Roger Gentry.
Cpl. Rhodes said authorities had been keeping a close eye on local anhydrous ammonia tanks because of recent thefts. The liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which is injected directly into the soil before cotton and corn are planted, is a major component in the drug's manufacture. The situation in front of Boyd's Fertilizer Company had elements Cpl. Rhodes had been trained to look for.
He noticed the couple waiting in a car in the middle of the parking lot near the tanks. He said that while talking to Ms. Pennington, he saw that her eyes were dilated, one of the symptoms of methamphetamine use.
"Truck, tank, Tennessee plates, dilated eyes: I just put it all together," Cpl. Rhodes said. Besides dilating users' pupils, the addictive drug speeds up the heart, raises blood pressure and body temperature, and can make users hyperactive. It's popular with long-haul truck drivers, who use it to stay awake.
Tennessee and Georgia have both seen spikes in methamphetamine use and production, which has spread eastward from California. Because of the smell associated with producing it, it's usually cooked up in rural areas, experts say. In 1999, 34 clandestine drug labs were seized in Georgia, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. More than 100 were shut down in Tennessee.
"It is a problem growing at epidemic proportions," said Charles Sullenger, a special agent principal in the Savannah regional Drug Enforcement Office of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Unlike organic drugs such as marijuana, crystal meth is made, not grown. Anhydrous ammonia is a dangerous chemical that can injure people who touch it or inhale it, Agent Sullenger said. A byproduct of the chemical reaction used to make the drug can severely damage the environment. Agent Sullenger said hazardous waste recovery teams are needed to remove and store the materials, an expensive process.
It's a lucrative business, Agent Sullenger said. A half ounce of the drug costs about $150 to make and sells for about $1,400 on the street.