Local law enforcement officials have been waiting and training for a day they hoped would never come.
But now, crystal methamphetamine has arrived in Niagara County in a big way, after local police uncovered meth labs in several locations in just the last month.
"This far exceeds any numbers we've had in the past decade," Buffalo-area Supervisory Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Michelle Y. Spahn said of the recent meth lab arrests. "If we are going at this rate, we will double what we had last year. I do believe this is becoming an epidemic."
Methamphetamine, clinically used in nasal decongestants, inhalers and later introduced in pill form for weight control, treatment of depression and improvement of alertness, is used illicitly for its stimulant and euphoric effects. Commonly known as meth or crystal meth, it can be ingested, smoked, snorted or injected.
In its 2011 Drug Threat Assessment, the National Drug Intelligence Center called methamphetamine the No. 1 drug threat in Western, Central Western and Southwestern states, but throughout the mid-Atlantic region, New York, New Jersey and New England, the threat has remained minimal.
That has started to change.
Since January, three meth labs were reported by the DEA in Niagara County, one in Erie County, three in Chautauqua County and four in Allegany County.
Some law enforcement officials with decades of experience said raids in April and May of meth labs in Lockport, the Town of Niagara and Niagara Falls, which included a mobile meth lab in a Walmart parking lot, were the first they had ever seen.
Niagara Falls Detective Christopher Clark, a member of the Western District DEA Task Force, said the drug is highly addictive and makes users highly paranoid, which he said is a danger not only for addicts, but also for police and the community.
"It is about 100 times more addictive than crack cocaine. Addicts use it for a longer high," Clark said. "Your high from crack lasts about 15 or 20 minutes, where your high from meth lasts a day or longer."
> Special training
But the hazards to the user are only a small part of the reason for fear; the bigger concern is the danger to the community.
"It is really scary stuff," said Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour. "It's not unusual for a meth lab to blow up."
Spahn said that of the 50 seizures of clandestine labs reported this year, 45 involved a one-pot method of manufacturing. Also known as "shake and bake," this method involves a plastic soda bottle and has become more common.
"Everything is accessible. You can buy all of the ingredients separately, and they are legal; it's when you combine these ingredients and tamper with the makeup of them [that you create the danger]," Niagara Falls Narcotics Lt. Bryan DalPorto said.
When that process begins, it no longer is a matter for patrol officers.
"You can't just send in detectives. You need a specially trained team. It certainly is a game-changer as far as investigations go," DalPorto said. "You are talking hours of manpower [for investigation and cleanup] for one lab. It's a huge manpower drain."
> Highly explosive
Clark said he is part of a special team trained and certified to respond and investigate meth labs. He said that in every step of the production, a person is using solvents, so law enforcement and neighbors would notice a strong chemical or ammonia smell. He said these solvents are highly explosive.
"You don't know what type of chemicals they are using, the environment you are entering, and you need to use breathing apparatus," Clark said of investigations.
Investigative teams wear hazmat suits and monitor the air to determine the levels of oxygen and potential for an explosion.
These teams were called to respond April 28 when police following up on a domestic-violence call on A Street in Niagara Falls found a meth lab in one portion of a house and in a garage behind the house.
The DEA checked for evidence, neighbors were evacuated, and the Niagara Falls Fire Department was called to the scene. Afterward, a DEA cleanup contract was needed to decontaminate the area. Police charged Pedro J. Velazquez, 27, of that address, with unlawful manufacture of methamphetamine.
May 4, five people were arrested after a sheriff's deputy found an unresponsive man in a van in a Walmart parking lot.
> Lab located in trailer
Voutour said a deputy questioned the suspect in the van, Daniel M. Gawrysiak, 39, of Dysinger Road, and observed some items used in the manufacture of the drug, including a plastic Mountain Dew bottle covered with electrical tape, with a tube coming out of it, coffee filters, plastic funnels, a small box containing cold packs and several plastic containers with an off-white substance in them that had a strong smell of ammonia.
Gawrysiak was questioned and gave investigators information on an alleged methamphetamine lab operating out of a trailer on Quain Place in the Town of Niagara. Arrested at that site were Roberta W. Hannon, 44; his wife, Roberta W. Hannon, 44; and Robert W. Gardiner, 28, all of the Town of Niagara, along with Keith W. Crossley, 38, of the City of Lockport.
All five were charged with felony unlawful manufacture of methamphetamine. Hannon and Crossley faced additional charges of fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon after deputies found a loaded shotgun.
Voutour said that at the Town of Niagara site, residents were actively cooking the methamphetamine when they were found. Spahn said that if someone were to have opened that bottle in the middle of the process and exposed it to the air, it would have exploded.
"We basically had to handle that one like a bomb," Spahn said.
Volunteer firefighters from Niagara Active Hose in the Town of Niagara and South Lockport were called to the scene.
DalPorto said that in the A Street arrest, there was evidence that there had been fires in the past.
Voutour noted that it is not uncommon to see users with burns or missing fingers caused by mixing the volatile ingredients.
He said that all his officers had some training a few years ago about what to expect but that most of them had never seen a meth lab until the recent arrests. He said the Sheriff's Office is reinforcing this training and is asking the DEA to give local volunteer fire departments additional training.
> Community awareness
DalPorto said police are targeting the labs before they become established in neighborhoods.
"Once it takes a foothold, there is going to be a snowball effect," DalPorto said. "Unfortunately, I think we are going to see more of it."
DalPorto and Voutour said that anyone who sees signs of the drug use should call their local police stations.
Spahn said the agency plans to bring in an expert from Albany to hold community awareness workshops.
"It's dangerous to our officers, it's dangerous to our firefighters and, of course, to our neighborhoods because of all the chemicals," Voutour said.
"We had been very fortunate that this hadn't hit our area yet," DalPorto said, "but I think our luck may have run out."