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Methbusters

On the street with the most aggressive drug hunters in Ohio

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Meth lab or cat piss? the nose wonders. Litter box or burning chemicals?

Akron cop Chris Crockett stands in the middle of the cramped living room, sniffing at the midnight air. He's not pulling in lungfuls, just breathing normally as he talks with the 24-year-old woman he's dropped in on. But by the time Crockett swings the conversation around to his reason for visiting, he has already sifted through the various scents spiking the house. And he's found what he wants.

Three additional cops are drifting around the rooms of the blue Cape Cod northeast of downtown Akron, peering through doorways in search of other houseguests. The guy who had answered the door moments before — bleary eyed, tattoos climbing both arms, pasty gut rolling over his jeans — now nervously leans on a wall papered with brightly crayoned drawings and posters of wide-eyed Pixar princesses. Outside, the dead-end street is quiet, the plentiful shadows bandaging the neighborhood's wear and tear.

The woman is collapsed on the couch, her arms and legs poking from a T-shirt and jeans like tent-poles under a tarp. Though the color has been chased from her pretty face, she doesn't seem alarmed as Crockett patiently explains why he's here: An anonymous call had come in about a female cooking meth at this address, he says. The caller said the resident's two-year-old daughter was there too.

"Oh," the woman answers, her forehead ridged with concentration, as if she's trying to tune Crockett in through heavy radio static.

"Is anybody making meth?" he asks.

"No."

"What I would like to do — since your daughter does stay here? She's just not here tonight? — is make sure there's no meth lab."

With the woman's blessing, Crockett and the others begin searching the rooms, each one clogged with the heady bouquet of feline hair and filthy carpet. In the bedroom, they find a video camera, sex toys, and other clues suggesting the couple had just been capturing their gymnastics on film. But while the others gawk, Crockett roams the house, cycling through his mental list of potential hiding spots. Occasionally he tosses the woman questions; she dribbles back clipped answers or shrugs.

"When was the last time you used?"

"A while ago."

"You use that hot plate down here?"

"I don't know why that's there."

After 10 minutes, Crockett finds his target. Under the kitchen sink sits a roller suitcase; when he inches open the lid, out peeks tubing, coffee filters, and a bottle crusted with white powder — innocuous home items that are the common tools of a meth lab. For all Crockett knows, there could be bottles cooking inside the case, and one wrong shake might spew lithium flames across the kitchen at 1600 degrees.

A member of Akron's Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team (CLET), Crockett logs endless hours mingling with meth heads and poking around for their hazardous home chemistry projects. These days, you can find meth just about anywhere. And Akron Police find it like nobody else.

***

From behind the bifocals of your average chemistry nerd, the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine is all about a single stubborn oxygen molecule.

Unknown to most cooks risking jail time and injury, the various methods of home production all aim to coax that tiny molecule from the atomic framework of pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in sniffle medicine like Sudafed.

When meth first became popular about two decades back, the prominent recipe was known as the "Nazi method," a term coined by the motorcycle gangs who organized early production into a steady business. It called for anhydrous ammonia, a compound found almost exclusively in fertilizer. For that reason, meth was manufactured mostly in rural areas, where the nose-tingling fumes from the process could rise up undetected amid all that empty farmland.

Meth didn't trickle into Northeast Ohio till the rise of the "Red P" recipe, which leans on red phosphorus to get the chemical reactions moving. The substance, found on the striker plates of matches and road flares, was mixed with crystal iodine and pseudoephedrine, then cooked on a hot plate, in the process casting off odorless but highly toxic fumes.

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