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.

In early 1997, he said, a confidential informant and other unnamed sources told the cops about retailers selling large amounts of over-the-counter medicines to people "involved in the manufacture, sale and distribution of methamphetamine. Mini Thins were identified as one of the brand names. . . . Involved in this activity were privately owned convenience markets and liquor stores owned primarily by persons of Middle East origin."

Where Granieri got the "Middle East" angle is unclear. Without question, however, the police heard about two of the convenience stores from snitches in the unrelated meth-manufacturing case of Ted Dean Groves.

One of the Phoenix detectives in the Groves case was Tommy Kulesa, renowned for his undercover work with renegade motorcycle gangs. During the Groves investigation, an informant told Kulesa that two independent convenience stores in west Phoenix were selling Mini Thins and like products in bulk to meth cooks. The snitch didn't know the names of the stores or if the retailers knew they were selling to cooks.

But he did provide cross streets. The nearest independent convenience stores to those streets were the Full Mini Mart and the A-1 Food Store. On February 25, 1997, Kulesa and Granieri stepped into the Full Mini Market at 60th Avenue and Thomas and began their undercover mission.

"We approached the stores in a role of persons involved in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine by dressing, talking and acting as methamphetamine users," Kulesa wrote in a court affidavit. "We determined to explicitly tell, and did tell, the persons with whom we were dealing that we intended to utilize the products we were purchasing to make methamphetamine, using common street terms for methamphetamine such as 'speed' and 'the drugs' and 'dope.'"

The owner of Full Mini Mart, a 51-year-old Iraqi immigrant, sold the narcs a bottle of Mini Thins, according to police reports. He also offered a case--144 bottles containing 100 pills each--of the drug for $500. That afternoon, the detectives returned and bought 10 more bottles, with Kulesa telling the owner he needed it for a pal who was "making dope." The man didn't respond.

Two days later, the detectives returned to the store and asked to buy a case of Mini Thins. This time, the owner led the men into a back room, and Kulesa again told him about "making dope" with the pills.

This time, the man's response was, "Yeah," after which he sold the cops $250 worth of Mini Two-Way Action tablets.

That the suspects in the Mini Thins sting understood the "dope" references was critical to making a case against them.

On March 19, the undercover team bought a case of Mini Thins at Full Mini Mart, and a case of the Mini Pseudo Nasal Decongestant from A-1 Food Store.

By this time, the cops got wind from sheriff's detective Jeff Eccles about two other west Phoenix convenience stores he'd heard were selling over-the-counter medicines to meth cooks.

That two store owners had sold Mini Thins in bulk to men they'd been told were "cooking" meth, and that two other stores may have been selling Mini Thins to cooks, apparently was the catalyst for the cops to broaden the scope of the probe.

"After these transactions were completed," detective Swain Granieri said in court documents, "it was decided that other, non-affiliated convenience-type stores should also be contacted with attempts to purchase large quantities of over-the-counter medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine."

After last September's raid, authorities explained in court documents why they'd targeted mom-and-pop shops and not large chain or convenience stores.

". . . [Officers have] learned that Mini Thins and related products are not known to be sold by any pharmacies or health-care facilities. Conversely, over-the-counter drugs are being sold by privately owned convenience stores and liquor stores.

"The officers had a basis for not contacting corporate chain stores in their undercover roles. They had no basis to believe that these stores were selling large quantities of precursor chemicals knowing that they would be used to manufacture methamphetamine."

But other than the first two targeted convenience stores--Full Mini Mart and A-1 Food Store--the police also had "no basis" to believe that any store owner "knew" that someone buying over-the-counter drugs in bulk was a meth cook.

Furthermore, over-the-counter medications containing the same amount of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as Mini Thins do remain available at the big stores. An ex-meth cook told New Times ("Methology," December 18, 1997) that, as recently as the spring of 1997, he'd send friends on "drug store runs" to collect pills from which to extract precursors.

Two men who have turned state's evidence in the still-pending Groves case spun a similar tale last month in interviews with defense attorneys.

"Did they go to stores to buy it?" a lawyer asked one of the men, referring to the meth cooks and to the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine pills.

". . . It was the pharmacies that were in Wal-Mart," the man replied.
The man was referring to pre-1997, when many local meth cooks relied almost solely on chain stores for their precursor drugs.

"Did you ever change your stores between July of 1995 and April of 1997?" a defense attorney asked.

"Yeah," the man replied. "There was a liquor store over on Glendale and 59th Avenue called A-1 Market. And they sold the Mini Thins by the basketful. You can buy as many as you want. . . ."

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