Suspects of Convenience

The sting targeted stores selling over-the-counter medicines that could be cooked into meth. But the cops warned major retailers to stop the sales while throwing the book at mom-and-pop shops, most of which are owned by Arab immigrants.

* Most of the targeted stores had little or no Mini Thin-type products in stock when the undercover cops first approached them.

* The AG's case presentation to the grand jury was compromised by key omissions and misstatements by police witnesses.

* Many targeted stores are owned by foreign-born people of Middle Eastern descent, whose command of English in some instances is poor. That led to contentions that some defendants didn't know what the narcs meant when they referred to "cooking dope" or "making drugs."

"Did you have any difficulty communicating with [any] . . . of the approximately 16 [arrestees] that you interviewed?" a defense attorney asked Phoenix detective Frank Pina in February. "Oh, yes," Pina replied.

Despite the dismissal--at least temporarily--of the criminal charges, the government continues to attack the Mini Thins sellers with the ferocity it usually reserves for mobsters and child molesters. The store owners are being assailed from every legal angle--criminal, civil, licensing and, potentially, immigration.

State forfeiture proceedings against 16 of the convenience stores and their owners are ongoing. It's a devastating mechanism by which the government may collect sums of money from an accused "racketeer"--and, sometimes, to push the accused into financial ruin.

Whatever happens legally from here, the ramifications to those ensnared by the sting have been staggering: Life savings have vanished, dreams have been shattered. Perhaps worst, at least six of the accused who aren't U.S. citizens may face deportation to Iraq if they're convicted of a felony.

The Drug
Methamphetamine cooks are resourceful. When the drug warriors shut one door, the dopers invariably open another.

Until the late 1980s, cooks could buy ephedrine legally from chemical-manufacturing firms, then easily convert it into meth. The feds caught on, and Congress in 1988 passed a law that regulated bulk ephedrine sales.

The strong pharmaceutical lobby that year won a key exemption for over-the-counter ephedrine-based products--Sudafed and Actifed are among the most well-known--for which Congress had considered requiring prescriptions.

A DEA white paper titled Methamphetamine Precursor Chemical Control in the 1990s describes how meth traffickers switched to pseudoephedrine after the feds imposed controls on the import, export and distribution of bulk ephedrine powder.

Ephedrine pills and capsules still could be found in large quantities through mail-order distributors who sold the drugs as bronchodilators, energy boosters and diet aids.

In April 1994, the distribution of pure ephedrine tabs and capsules became subject to federal reporting and recordkeeping requirements. That led cooks to turn to over-the-counter cold medicines, many of which contain ephedrine and pseudoephedrine--the building blocks of methamphetamine.

The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 attempted to cut off easy access to meth precursor products. It was the first law to limit sale of over-the-counter drugs, and it stemmed from the vast increase in sales of the pills by the large retailers.

Among other requirements, the new law limited an over-the-counter customer per transaction to no more than three grams of ephedrine in a bottle, and to sell no more than 24 grams of ephedrine in a sealed pack.

The new law's focus, a sheriff's detective explained last February in an interview with defense attorneys, is on the bottles, not the packs.

"They didn't feel that meth cooks would go through the problems of busting up the blister packs," said Jeff Eccles, leader of a county methamphetamine task force. "What they forgot is that meth cooks are up for 14 days straight."

And, of course, the law can't stop a diligent meth cook from hopping from mega-store to mega-store around the Valley, collecting enough precursor products to make a batch.

The big stores won a year's grace period from implementing the new law, to educate their employees and reconfigure their cash registers to halt bulk sales. It finally went into effect last October 1, two days after the Mini Thins raids.

Eccles revealed a stunning piece of information to the defense attorneys in his interview. It came after he said he'd told Wal-Mart officials in 1996 that he'd been seeing their cold medicine, Walfed, at many meth-lab busts:

"We had also generated a letter that went out to all the pharmaceutical-based stores."

The letter had alerted the pharmacies that over-the-counter cold preparations were being used to make meth. "We would like to ask for your cooperation in addressing this increasing problem by contacting us," it said.

Wal-Mart went one better, announcing in early 1997 that, "in cooperation with law enforcement agencies," it immediately would limit the amount of over-the-counter precursors that a customer may buy at a time.

"Can you tell me why a letter like this did not go out to the convenience stores?" defense lawyer Eleanor Miller asked Eccles.

"I'd shown . . . or advised [Phoenix police detective] Swain Granieri and [DEA agent] Art Staples of the letter we were preparing to ship out . . . and [they] advised me they were involved in an investigation and they thought it would inhibit or hurt their investigation."

If you're Wal-Mart, you get a year to educate your employees and reconfigure your cash registers to halt bulk sales.

If you're E-Z Stop, you get solicited by undercover narcs.

Birth of a Sting
Phoenix detective Swain Granieri explained the genesis of the Mini Thins investigation in a police report after the big raid.

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