By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
While we are talking with Pennal in his office, he gets a call from the Fresno police. They’ve been tracking a load of red phosphorus and iodine up from L.A. County and have arrested the two men transporting it. We follow Pennal up to the arrest site, about an hour‘s drive north of town -- as we found out, Pennal spends a lot of time in the car. After a few hours of standing around handcuffed, talking with the police, the two men agree to ”roll“ -- to tell where they were taking the chemicals. By now, it’s dark. We follow along as the two men direct the police to a farmhouse at the far end of a dead-end road -- the perfect site for a meth lab. We drive by with our lights off, but can‘t see anything from the outside.
After a quick meal from Carl’s Jr., Pennal assembles 20 or so BNE agents and police officers. They don‘t have a warrant, so they decide to do a ”knock and talk.“ They’ll drive up, knock on the door, explain that they suspect that someone is cooking meth on the premises, and ask permission to look around. Then we head over to the suspected lab site. The owner is a white guy in his early 50s, a meth abuser with a long history of arrests for petty offenses. He agrees to the search, but keeps insisting that he doesn‘t know what’s in the barn 50 feet from the trailer he lives in. When Pennal and his team enter the barn, they find a superlab operation, with around 40 pounds of meth in solution in white tubs. The actual cookers are nowhere to be seen -- presumably when the red phosphorus and iodine didn‘t show up on time, they became suspicious and fled. But the owner is facing a long prison sentence for renting them his barn.
The next day, we return to the site of the bust. All the superlab equipment has been taken out of the barn and laid out, to be dusted for fingerprints prior to being hauled off as toxic waste. Here are the empty cases of off-brand ephedrine tablets. And here are the boxes that held the Martha Stewart bedsheets -- favored for straining meth because of their high thread count, but also, suggests one of Pennal’s team, because the Mexican national trafficking organizations simply like her cachet. ”Who doesn‘t like her?“ my colleague Serena muses, looking down at the boxes. ”We all love Martha.“
According to meth expert Stalcup, the reason that the drug is so addictive is that prolonged meth use can damage the pleasure receptors in the brain to the point where it takes two to five years after quitting to simply feel normal. ”Imagine two to five years of boredom,“ Stalcup says. ”Or depression,“ Serena suggests. ”Want-to-kill-yourself depression,“ Stalcup agrees. ”People do kill themselves.“ So addicts keep taking meth not because they’re physically addicted, as heroin addicts are, but because, without meth, it‘s impossible to enjoy anything.
Back in L.A., we catch up with Amber, the 19-year-old meth addict we met early on in the story. In the month since we’ve seen her, she‘s been arrested, sent to detox and let out. She is shooting more than ever. ”I knew that I was going to do it as soon as I got out,“ Amber says. ”I was looking forward to it. The beast is getting hungrier.“