By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Some people live like animals. And if you think that's some sort of journalistic overstatement, then you should have been with the Valley cops who last week busted three suspected meth labs in Wittman, a community strewn along Grand Avenue west of Phoenix.
Actually, the term "meth lab" is a bit of a misnomer. These were not laboratories in the Bunsen burner sense. Nor were they drug manufacturing operations of any sophistication.
No, these were just sad little homes -- nothing more than hovels, really -- where people (undeniably total losers) apparently were mixing easily obtained chemicals (lye, acetone, cold medicine, for instance) in glass bowls and buckets to make methamphetamine, it seemed mainly for their own use although they allegedly had sold some to undercover police informants, which led to the raid.
The cops arrested six people; the men scrawny with tattoos and long, shaggy hair; the women -- well, the word "ravaged" would not be a cliché in this case. In another time and place, they might have been mistaken for subjects out of the famous James Agee and Walker Evans book documenting dirt-poor itinerant farmers. Except that these tweakers are more apt to pick their skin than a crop.
More than 100 officers from several Valley agencies gathered in the predawn darkness at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office shooting range to stage for the raids. The operation was led by a group known as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force which includes law enforcement agencies from all over the Valley. On Friday, tactical teams from Phoenix, Glendale and the MCSO hit three different houses in Wittman simultaneously just as the sun came up. They seized drug paraphernalia and chemicals commonly used to make meth. After SWAT teams cleared the homes -- no resistance was offered despite information that several of the suspects usually had guns stuck down their pants -- chemists and cops trained in clandestine lab investigations took over.
One "home" was actually a storage shed, no bigger than a medium-size bedroom, behind a dilapidated house. The shed housed a family of four -- mom, dad and two kids, including a baby. A small iron bed had a dirty mattress but no bed sheets, and the room was cluttered with trash. There was no water and no bathroom; the family appeared to have been using a corner of the room as an open toilet.
But the worst was a site about five miles away where a single-wide mobile home, maybe 30 feet long, housed a drug-making operation and the living quarters of a half-dozen people -- including a girl who looked to be about 7 years old.
The stench alone was enough to make you gag. Inside the back door, the floors and hallways were covered -- solid and matted down -- with a knee-high layer of refuse that looked exactly like the mess you'd find at a garbage dump. An old broken doll in a lavender dress poked through one spot. Two dogs and a litter of puppies also lived in the trailer, and one room was littered with piles of dog crap, the same room where some of the occupants slept.
It was a horrible mix of filth and squalor. Veteran officers who helped serve the search warrant on the trailer said later it was the worst scene they had ever stepped into. Some said they were considering filing paperwork claiming exposure to dangerous materials in case they got sick later.
Outside, a group of the home's residents sat in a small semicircle in the dirt yard, their hands cuffed behind them with plastic ties. Crying, the young girl climbed on the lap of a tattooed, stringy-haired woman, hugging the woman who could not hug back.
It wasn't clear what would become of the child, but those at the terrible scene hoped the state would take her -- and never give her back.
Safe at Home
Any cop who's been on the job a while knows that doing surveillance usually is like watching toast turn brown or tea boil. The big break in a case often comes after hours, even weeks, of sitting, watching, hoping for something -- anything -- to shake loose. That's what recently happened out in southwest Phoenix.
Backdrop: In January, Phoenix cops noted that a spate of businesses (mostly restaurants, fast-food and otherwise) were being ripped off in a brazenly similar way. The safes in these establishments were being unbolted from the floor in a matter of a few minutes, then taken to parts unknown. About 30 to 40 similar safe-robbing cases across the Valley made finding the bad guys a top priority, says Lieutenant Larry Gray, who heads the department's north property investigations unit.
A few weeks ago, someone found a cracked and abandoned safe in a vacant building on the west side. Around that time, detectives on the case got wind that a 31-year-old suspect named Theodore Windish might be the ringleader. Unmarked police units started to tail Windish -- a convicted felon who served prison time in the 1990s for theft -- around the clock.
Finally, at 4:45 a.m. last Sunday, literally 15 minutes before the end of yet another grueling 10-hour surveillance shift, they struck pay dirt (just as the crooks thought they were doing the same thing). Detectives observed Windish and two pals pull a Chrysler minivan into a Macaroni Grill at 2949 Agua Fria Freeway. In less than two minutes, the proverbial gun started smoking -- the restaurant's alarm started going off. Then the cops saw a safe on a dolly about to be loaded into the van. Windish drove off in the van, as his two alleged accomplices ran into the dark. Rodney Cable and Damian Riedeman soon were apprehended, as was Windish (the latter in the minivan at 115th Avenue and Union Hills). The trio was booked into Maricopa County Jail.