The New Boss

Police have shut down most of the meth labs in Phoenix, but now the drug is a big import from Mexico -- cheap, pure and more plentiful than ever

You would have thought cops were raiding the stronghold of Pablo Escobar.

Early on a warm August morning, 38 Phoenix cops, many in black fatigues with automatic weapons, stormed the home of Daniel Watkins, looking for drugs.

Instead, after three hours of dissecting the house in northeast Phoenix, all they found were three handguns and a couple of naked photos of Watkins' girlfriend.

Phoenix police book suspected meth cook Daniel Watkins outside his home, where cops seized two ounces of crystal and the makings of a small-time meth lab.
Peter Scanlon
Phoenix police book suspected meth cook Daniel Watkins outside his home, where cops seized two ounces of crystal and the makings of a small-time meth lab.
Mexican nationals at a Nogales port of entry wait for their vehicles to pass inspections by U.S. border officers. More than 1,200 pounds of meth have been seized at the Mexico-Arizona border so far this year.
Joe Watson
Mexican nationals at a Nogales port of entry wait for their vehicles to pass inspections by U.S. border officers. More than 1,200 pounds of meth have been seized at the Mexico-Arizona border so far this year.
Smugglers stash pounds of meth in secret compartments, like the insides of a car's electrical system.
Joe Watson
Smugglers stash pounds of meth in secret compartments, like the insides of a car's electrical system.
Phoenix PD meth-lab supervisor Don Sherrard: "In almost every type of crime, we're seeing an increased correlation between meth and the crimes themselves."
Peter Scanlon
Phoenix PD meth-lab supervisor Don Sherrard: "In almost every type of crime, we're seeing an increased correlation between meth and the crimes themselves."

Details

Later in the day, police finally dug up two ounces of low-grade methamphetamine and just enough parts of a meth lab to hit Watkins with charges of manufacturing with intent to sell.

Not much for more than 200 man-hours in police work, not including the four-month investigation that got them to Watkins' house in the first place.

Not at all like back in the heyday of clandestine meth labs in Phoenix, in 1999 and 2000, when big busts were making big headlines almost every week. Indeed, over the past six years, Arizona has dropped from fourth highest in the country in the number of clandestine meth labs to the eighth lowest.

Phoenix reached an all-time high of 164 meth-lab busts in 2000. So far in 2005, that number is less than 30.

But let's not declare victory in the war on drugs. The meth you can get in Phoenix today is purer, cheaper and more plentiful than ever, because at the same time local labs were declining, Arizona became the leading pipeline for Mexican-made methamphetamine into the United States.

Phoenix police aren't finding many big meth labs to bust because they're not in Phoenix anymore.

Instead, they are in the Mexican states of Sinaloa or Michoacán, where bigger, higher-tech, more cost-effective labs create a methamphetamine that lands on the streets of Phoenix as a more powerful and cheaper drug than ever.

With the high quality Mexican meth now on our streets, you can stay wired for most of the day for as little as $20, a fraction of what it'll take to keep you high on cocaine.

More so than any drug before it, methamphetamine seems to be generating into a perfect narco storm.

Meth, like NASCAR, ain't just for rednecks anymore. Now that it's clean like cocaine and readily available -- and far cheaper -- it's the drug of choice for hillbilly and hipster alike.

Shot into your bloodstream, meth makes you wildly awake, on top of your game, ready -- at least initially -- for sex.

At first, it seems like the perfect drug for play, for work, for everything -- particularly if you're a long-distance trucker or a working mom. Indeed, it's the drug that lets you work and still have your play because you don't need to sleep. And good luck kicking the habit.

As such, it's also the perfect drug for crime.

Because you always need more. Because you're amped up and ready for a fight, 24/7. Because consequences and fear aren't part of the equation.

As whiskey and laudanum fueled the outlaws of 19th-century Arizona, crank is fueling their 21st-century brethren.

And as police and health-care officials know, the more perfect the drug, the harder the fight to stop it.

The stranglehold is tight. As Mexican meth flows through Phoenix, it is wreaking havoc.

Consider:

• Meth is directly associated with increased crime rates.

According to an Arizona Criminal Justice Commission report published in July, the state continues to rank first in the country in overall crime rates, with no other state dealing with more property crimes and auto thefts than Arizona; murder and rape rates are also up.

And extensive computer-assisted research by New Times reveals that meth-related deaths in Maricopa County have gone up dramatically since the beginning of 2004 (see accompanying story). Those deaths include homicides, suicides, car accidents, overdoses, heart attacks and hemorrhages.

A 2003 voluntary study found that about 40 percent of Maricopa County jail inmates tested positive for meth. Compare that to figures from 1990 (about 7 percent) and 1999 (17 percent).

"In almost every type of crime, we're seeing an increased correlation between meth and the crimes themselves," says Don Sherrard, the Phoenix Police Department meth-lab supervisor.

Phoenix officials have done no work to statistically correlate meth use to specific crimes, although Sherrard and others say that, anecdotally, they know there's a connection.

But Tucson Police Captain David Neri has done exhaustive research that shows such direct links. He has examined crime patterns in neighborhoods in Tucson and linked the crimes to meth. Earlier this year, Neri told an Arizona legislative committee that meth is linked to 56 percent of fraud cases and 27 percent of auto thefts.

One crime where the connection has been clearly established is identity theft. In 2004, Arizona topped the nation in reports of stolen identities, and the trend continues this year. Dan Drake, an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, estimates that more than 95 percent of those cases were linked to meth.

• Meth is putting children in danger.

State officials estimate that more than 90 percent of Arizona Child Protective Services cases are associated with meth use. Between 2000 and 2002, about a third of children removed from homes with meth labs tested positive for meth, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. The AG also reports that children from homes where meth is used are at a greater risk for developmental delays and are more likely to have been abused or neglected than other children.

• Meth is threatening public health and driving up health-care costs.

A study earlier this year of more than 7,000 AIDS patients in metropolitan Phoenix revealed that 30 percent are frequent meth users. Meth is blamed for a spike in HIV/AIDS; it's become a huge club drug, promoting unsafe sex by lifting inhibitions.

An analysis by the Maricopa County Hospital earlier this year showed almost 10 percent of visits to the emergency room were meth-related. National figures show that meth-related emergency room visits in Arizona increased 50 percent between 1995 and 2002, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

• Meth poses serious environmental hazards.

In the past four years, the state has paid more than $4 million for disposal of contamination associated with meth production, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. A pound of meth yields five to seven pounds of waste. Meth labs are now being referred to as "mini-Superfund sites"; even People magazine recently profiled several families around the country who bought houses that had formerly served as meth labs, and got sick or were unable to clean up the mess. A few states have laws requiring sellers to disclose that a house was once a meth lab. Arizona is not one of them.

• Reports are in that meth is not just a white-trash drug anymore.

Meth is in the workplace. Quest Diagnostic, a company that administers workplace drug tests, reports a steady increase in meth use nationally, since 2000. The company publishes a full-color map on its Web site, showing positive tests, by region. Arizona has a very low rate of positive tests for cocaine. For meth, however, big parts of the state, particularly around Phoenix, are bright red -- indicating the highest rates in the country.

Mexican nationals are sampling the wares they're trafficking across the border, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, and local police report an increase in use among the Hispanic population, generally.

Meth is increasingly popular as a club drug, particularly in gay nightclubs, where ripped men dance nonstop for hours, chugging liters of water, looking for a "bump" (an evening's supply of meth). And they'll find it, typically at an after-hours party, where a dozen or more gay men will gather to snort, smoke or inject before finding an empty bedroom to cash in on their increased libido.

And the drug is reaching into a higher economic strata, with the introduction of purer forms, called "ice" or "G."

"We see guys in from Scottsdale now, and they're like, 'Hey, it's not meth, it's G,'" says Jeffrey Taylor of Phoenix Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter that provides comprehensive drug rehabilitation programs. "They want to be snooty about it, but it's the same damn drug."

And it's everywhere.

"It's frightening the extent meth, more than any drug before it, gets so deep into the fabric of society," says Jim Molesa, a DEA agent based in Flagstaff, who is recognized as a leading authority on Mexican meth in Arizona. "And now that the market around it has sort of matured, it's even more dangerous."

Additional stories in this series will explore how current public policy affects children, and how efforts to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter at drugstores and shut down local meth labs are simply not going to solve the problem.

• The Children.

For so many public-policy makers, meth is all about saving the children. But it's not that simple. There is much to be learned from past so-called "drug epidemics," particularly the rise in crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. Public-policy response to crack users has since proven to be grossly wrongheaded and, in the cases of families, very often disastrous.

Now, governments are often taking the same punishment-heavy, short-on-science approach to meth, stigmatizing children with the junk-science label "meth babies" while destroying families with get-tough meth laws in situations where, with smarter legislation or programming, the family might have been saved. For example, while Arizona mothers with meth convictions usually lose their young children to foster care, programs around the country that keep mother and child together while the mother undergoes intensive inpatient rehabilitation have proven to be much more successful in breaking the mother of her habit and, thus, making her a functioning parent again.

• The Solutions.

Despite the fact that meth addiction has been such a scourge in Arizona, state officials have been slow to act -- and their efforts have been far from comprehensive even when they do. There has been no statewide public health campaign that targets the drug, nor has there been a similar effort in Maricopa County for several years. No one seems to be talking about treatment, and it's extremely hard to find an inpatient rehab facility that works with meth addicts -- unless, of course, you can afford the $4,000-per-night tab at Meadows in Wickenburg.

Indeed, police, lawmakers and politicians have been focused on the quick, dramatic fix of closing meth labs instead of the harsh realities of treatment and prevention. And while meth-lab busts make for good headlines, and making it harder to buy pseudoephedrine-laden Claritin-D is a solution almost everyone can get behind, the plan does little to confront the reality of addiction in Arizona: Meth is pouring in from Mexico, and everybody from your boss to your high school kid is trying it. Forget those pictures Attorney General Terry Goddard likes to show of dirty babies standing in the middle of a meth house; think, instead, about your younger brother or sister and the fact that meth, initially, is fun.

The bottom line:

Meth is a bigger problem in Arizona than ever.

A problem that's overloading our criminal justice system.

A problem that's tearing apart families and stressing the state's health, social service and child protection agencies.

A problem that has yet to be met with public policy anywhere close to resembling a solution.

As policymakers flounder, local, state and federal law enforcement officers try to stem the flow of the drug first into the country and state, then into the Valley, then into the neighborhoods where meth houses sometimes still blight local communities.

They are winning the local battle on the labs.

But they are losing the now international war against meth.


Five years ago, the methamphetamine you'd find on the streets of Phoenix likely had been made in a bathtub down the street.

Now, it's likely being made at a sprawling compound at least a thousand miles south in Sinaloa or Michoacán.

For decades, the wooded and mountainous areas there have been a staging area for cocaine coming up from South America.

It's the perfect haven for major drug operations.

Like the mountains of many Third World countries, it is ruled by the law of the jungle. And over time, the poor and dispossessed there have come to see local traffickers as heroes.

And why not? For more than a century, the region has been ignored by a more-often corrupt federal government. If a local boy makes it big in the drug trade, he very often funnels a hefty portion back into the community. The fine church or school in this region is more often a gift from a local narco trafficker than good work by the government.

With the pipeline in place from the narcotics trade, it was easy for the Sinaloan Cowboys and their neighbors to make the switch to meth. All they needed were a few chemists and a steady supply of precursor drugs.

The cooks were easy to assemble. You can find recipes with a quick Google search. Or passed on from a fellow tweaker. The primary ingredient, pseudoephedrine tablets, is readily available -- by the barrel.

"It's coming from China, from Hong Kong, primarily," says Steve Comber, the assistant special agent in charge at the Phoenix field office of the DEA. "All you need is a broker with an international license. Then it's shipped in from China and then diverted to the labs."

Mexican labs will create as much as 70 pounds of crystal meth per batch, putting their American counterparts to shame. An average meth lab in Phoenix will make an ounce. "It's enough for themselves and 10 of their closest friends," says Phoenix PD's Don Sherrard. "That's what most Beavis-and-Butt-head labs are."

Then the drug is sent to the border in ever-more-creative vehicles.

Sometimes it's hidden in fruit bound for the United States. Very often it's taken to a custom body shop and built into a car or truck (traffickers have even modified eight-cylinder engines into six-bangers with two cylinders for drug storage).

Increasingly, U.S. drug-enforcement officials say, traffickers are using undocumented immigrants as drug pack mules.

Often, such deals go down in the Sonoran town of Altar, the farming village southwest of Nogales that has morphed into the primary staging area for Mexican nationals hoping to hike across the desert into Arizona.

"It's just a simple deal there," says the DEA's Molesa. "[The traffickers tell undocumented immigrants:] You carry this backpack, we'll pay for your coyote.

"There is 350 miles of continuous border here and all sorts of roads connecting us to Mexico," Molesa says. "It's perfect for traffickers."

And it's not just geography that makes Arizona and its Mexican sister-state of Sonora a great pipeline for meth.

It's the professionalism of the drug traffickers along the route.

For years now, drug officials say, the Arizona drug corridor has been controlled by what is likely one of the most peaceful and businesslike drug consortiums in Mexico's history. While both the Juárez pipeline to the east and the Tijuana pipeline to the west are fraught with sometimes spectacular violence, the Mexican drug lords along the pipeline to Phoenix work with chamber-of-commerce efficiency.

"We've generally been lucky that way because they are smart enough to know that murders get people fired up," Molesa says.

That luck may not hold out.


On a late Saturday afternoon in mid-October -- a typical Saturday, according to border and customs officers -- about 350 vehicles are inching north toward Grand Avenue, the main drag of Nogales, Arizona.

Five lanes of cars stop and go through entry wells as officers inspect undercarriages with mirrors and peer into back-seat windows.

Here, drugs in the meth pipeline come to a screeching stop.

Here, if you're running the stuff, it's time to start acting.

"If it doesn't look good, we search it. We're looking for something in our mental files," says Richard Gill, the chief customs and border protection officer at the Dennis DeConcini port of entry on Grand.

Such as wild eyes, nervousness, a slip in the story.

Many of the mules, Gill says, are "highly religious people, looking for protection, something to calm themselves." Often, a mule is carrying a photo of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, maybe on a keychain or in his or her wallet or purse.

Someone up from the south might be dumb enough to pray to Santo Malverde, "un santo de los trafficantes," the patron saint of smugglers who is a folk hero in the mountains of Sinaloa.

But the dead giveaways have gotten few and far between.

In 2003, there was 31 percent more meth seized at the Arizona border than in 2002, says the DEA's Steve Comber.

In 2004, the amount seized shot up another 37 percent.

"The success we've had in seizures is a combination of more personnel at the border and better enforcement techniques," Comber says.

Or, more likely, drug officers say, there's just a lot more of the drug coming through in recent years.

"Prior to three or four years ago, we didn't see meth at this port," Gill says. "Now, we're the major port in the country for meth trafficking.

"God forbid any gets past us."

Obviously, plenty has.

Because the successes at the border don't seem to be translating into any sort of a drop in price or product in Phoenix.

"Meth is cheaper now for better stuff," Molesa adds. "The market tells the truth."

About 8,200 cars -- and an average of nearly 26,000 passengers -- drive through Nogales ports of entry from Mexico every day.

Another 18,000 people, including Mexican nationals, U.S. citizens -- mostly Arizonans -- and foreign tourists walk through the turnstiles.

This says nothing of the tens of thousands walking across the border in the vast desert west of here.

And with those tens of thousands of drug-mule opportunities come trafficking methods that are increasingly difficult to detect.

"If you can think of it, they're doing it," Gill says.

Gill shows off a couple of seized vehicles parked outside the port of entry as five Mexican nationals are standing by, waiting for officers to complete searches of an Astro van and an old Chevy Caprice.

A muscled-up 2003 Ford truck -- the equivalent in Sonora of the Escalade with spinners -- was seized just a few days ago. Thanks to drug-sniffing dogs and some keen observations by "post-rovers," officers found a secret compartment built above the truck's axle, and deep enough to store at least five pounds of meth.

A sedan is parked alongside the truck, its entire dashboard ripped out. Behind the dash, smugglers rigged switches to open and close the compartments, where drugs had been stored.

"The high-dollar stuff, like meth and cocaine, is coming in the high-dollar vehicles," Gill says. "It makes it hard to pick out the smugglers. Now, they're using [Mexican] doctors and lawyers and dentists to bring the stuff over. "

This world of high-dollar vehicles driven by mules with doctorates is a far cry from what's going on up the road in Phoenix, where, despite law enforcement's best efforts, meth labs have not been made extinct.


You don't necessarily need a big, high-tech Mexican lab to make good, clean meth.

You just need a "conversion lab," the latest in local meth-lab technology, in which dirty meth is cooked to make it purer.

But there is a reason you don't see many of those in American houses anymore.

Smarter drug traffickers have learned you don't cook where you live. They've also learned that you draw a lot of attention by blowing up a house in an American neighborhood.

Take the incident this summer at 3325 North 80th Lane in west Phoenix.

According to police reports, Sergio Carbajal, a 32-year-old Mexican national, was the only person in the Peoria house.

Also in the house was a freezer full of two five-gallon jugs containing some sort of extremely volatile fluid.

Apparently, the fluid was so unstable that when Carbajal either turned on a light or unplugged the freezer, the spark created triggered an explosion that literally blew the roof off the place.

Witnesses said the roof went up with a 60-foot plume of smoke and fire.

Shards of glass from windows were shot like bullets a football-field's length down the street.

Somehow, Carbajal survived the explosion, running from the house with his entire body ablaze. He ran to a garden hose and put out the flames engulfing his body before collapsing on a neighbor's yard.

When police and firefighters arrived at the scene, they noticed what appeared to be a latex glove lying in the front yard. As they got closer, they realized it was no glove at all.

It was the skin from Carbajal's right hand -- his fingernails still intact.

That was June 22. Carbajal is still hanging on for his life in a drug-induced coma at the Maricopa County Burn Unit, where his wife apparently paid him a visit. According to Phoenix Police Detective Travis Bird, the lead investigator in the case, she didn't believe the body in the bed was that of Sergio Carbajal. There was nothing left of him she recognized.

"His family never made an effort to contact me," Bird says. "I don't think they want to contact me. They know what happened. They know why he was here."

The meth trade is thick with ghoulish Sergio Carbajal-like stories.

Which leads to the conclusion that it's better to let the professionals in Sinaloa do the serious cooking.


Even if you don't have your hand directly in the meth pot, you can get burned. The cost of meth addiction to innocent bystanders is high, and it's growing every day.

Almost all child endangerment cases in the Valley are now meth-related, says the Arizona Attorney General's Office. One state worker, who asked not to be identified because of the secrecy associated with cases involving Child Protective Services, describes a grim situation, multiplied by the dozens:

Not long ago, police raided a meth house (rather, a double-wide trailer), and removed the children -- four under 8 years of age. The children were covered in meth residue. Their toys and clothing had to be thrown out. The oldest hadn't been going to school; none of the kids had been bathed in at least a week. The chemicals used to cook the meth were right outside the window.

The state worker knows of malnourished babies, covered in insects and insect bites. She continues: "Dirty diapers on the floor, rotting food on the floor, no clean and safe food for children to eat. If there are pets, frequently pet waste is around. There may be weapons around, because some meth houses have some pretty interesting security systems."

The big joke is that meth makes you want to clean the house, but this woman says she's never seen a clean meth house. Meth is used as a weight-loss drug, she says, and jokes, "Our internal belief is that it's also a fertility drug." Meth won't increase fertility, but it will lower inhibitions -- and that leads to so-called "meth babies," taken into state custody all the time.

Domestic violence shelter professionals report that meth use is spreading among both abusers and victims. It is almost always associated with cases of identity theft, and increasingly with property crimes.

Emergency room workers see the destruction meth causes on a daily basis.

Steve Stapczynski, chair of Emergency Medicine for Maricopa Integrated Health System, reports the prevalence of meth addiction at the county hospital.

"A 64-year-old woman came in recently with abscesses all over her body and her arms from dirty injections, these boils, these pockets of pus," Stapczynski says.

The addicts he sees are not using clean materials, he adds.

"What they inject hasn't been sterilized. And then they don't realize what's happening to them. They tend to ignore it because they're high on methamphetamine." As for the woman, "We cleaned her abscesses, and then she didn't want any treatment or help. Which is pretty common, because they don't want to get off the drug. It's used to the exclusion of everything else in their life. They're not making rational decisions."

Stapczynski continues, "We've had a patient or two come in with sexual hyperstimulation, someone who masturbates for days at a time. They get raw to the point that they just have to finally come in, or they get arrested for doing this in public. They'll come in and the skin [either the penis or vagina] will be broken and raw and foul-smelling from the bacteria down there. You walk into the room and get physically nauseous. It's like it destroys their sense of self-preservation.

"The other thing that is surprising is the number of times meth comes up in drug screens, whether it's for car accidents, or other types of injuries.

"We see that something just isn't right with that patient, and then the meth will show up. Its prevalence is amazing to us at times. People you wouldn't think [would be on it], and it will show up."

His conclusion: "It is placing an additional burden on the emergency room. It contributes to car accidents, pedestrian accidents, assaults and other violent crimes."

It also contributes to property crimes and identity theft.

In December 2002, Paul Waldman, 43, a photographer, left his Tempe apartment for a trip out of the country. Just the day after he left, his parents, who were watching the apartment, discovered Waldman's place "had been trashed."

A checkbook was gone; two bad checks had already been written. Two $100 savings bonds that his father gave him when he was a boy had been stolen. An autographed baseball, signed by Roberto Clemente, gone. Four antique cameras -- one belonged to his grandfather, another to his dad -- gone.

Police never caught the person who actually broke into Waldman's apartment, and three years later, Waldman's still dealing with credit card companies and other businesses that say he owes them money. The cops did catch Rodney (nicknamed "Robney") Richards, who wrote the bad checks, after a tweaker snitched on him, according to Matt Shay, a detective with the Phoenix Drug Enforcement Bureau.

According to Shay, Richards, 38, was a north Phoenix meth cook with several different storage lockers filled with stolen property, including several motorcycles, an ID-making machine (he used it to make fake Arizona driver's licenses) and equipment for three different meth labs. Shay says Richards had a team of about 20 burglars working for him.

Shay says Richards could have ended up in prison for life, after police linked him to 24 victims, but he got a reduced sentence of 10 years.

Waldman is still angry. He never got any of his possessions back. The only things the police recovered were the two savings bonds, which are still in police evidence. He'll get them eventually.

"They've become a different kind of item to me," Waldman says of the bonds. "It's weird. I know they'll appreciate over time, and at some point I'll give them to my 2-year-old son. But, to me, they've become this item of loss."

A lot of other people were at a loss after "Cindy" and her friends got done with them.

Dan Drake from the U.S. Attorney's Office offered Cindy's story as an example of a meth-related identity theft, but only under the condition of anonymity because she's "cleaned up her act," he says. Her story draws parallels to Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Catch Me If You Can.

Cindy was busted in 2003 for identity theft. She served just six months, and is now on probation. In the summer of 2003, Cindy and her then-boyfriend were doing an average of a gram a day of meth each, a habit that cost $500 to $700 a week. They fueled the habit via a small team of people who stole mail all over the Valley. Bank statements, bills or credit cards would earn a team member a few dollars or some meth.

Then Cindy and her boyfriend would get to work.

"Everything you need [to commit identity theft] you can get from the Internet, whether it's bank information or somebody's date of birth," Cindy says. "It's a lot easier than people think. People are afraid to give out their social security number, so we [would] try to get their date of birth. Well, it's much easier to get your birth date. And those cluster mailboxes in neighborhoods are a joke. All you need is a crowbar."

She adds, "After a while, it was a thrill just to commit the crime. I was getting off on the actual crime before I was even getting the cash to go out and buy more dope."

Now she works with law enforcement officials like Dan Drake, helping them unravel other identity-theft cases.

"I think the guy in Catch Me If You Can was a lot better than I was," she says. "And he probably wasn't all doped up, either."


The meth pipeline from Mexico ends in Phoenix at places like Rosemonte Drive, a quiet street near I-17 in north Phoenix that runs up to the gates of North Canyon High School.

Police have visited the home at 1944 East Rosemonte Drive 82 times in the past three years.

The reports detail everything from fights to burglaries, fires, trespassing, missing persons, domestic violence, shots fired, and forgery complaints.

The grass is green on Rosemonte, with the exception of Joel Bartak's house. In the front yard of the two-story home, wilted shrubs and brown patches of grass lie unkempt. The stained blinds, slightly drawn in a second-story bedroom window, appear to have melted.

The pink stucco is chipped and blotched with blue paint in some spots. Dozens of cigarette butts litter the front porch. A broken window on the side of the house is boarded up with plywood.

Since September 2000, at least 17 people have been arrested at the address, including Bartak. Police suspect that Bartak, who could not be reached for comment, is involved with the Aryan Brotherhood since he's been renting his house to white-power skinheads for the past several years.

The house saw its most illustrious bust with the meth-related arrest of Brotherhood kingpin Robert "Chicago Bob" Ryberg in July of last year.

This year alone, according to Shay, the Phoenix Drug Enforcement Bureau detective, there have been three search warrants served there for possession of meth for sale and identity theft. Police have investigated reports of stolen property, recovered a stolen vehicle, and answered an aggravated-assault call ("Joel got beat up by one of the Aryans," Shay says) -- just since January.

It's no wonder the woman who answers the door across the street from Bartak's house won't let her kids play in the front yard anymore.

"If I would've known about that house before we got here," says the woman, who doesn't want to be identified, as her two kids stand beside her behind a screen door, "we never would have moved in here."

Other neighbors, including Jannah Heisey, who's lived in the neighborhood about three years in a house about 100 feet down the block from Bartak's, echo the sentiment.

"I've certainly considered moving," Heisey says, as her 18-year-old son, Sean, plays a first-person shooter game on the home computer. "We probably will sometime in the next year.

"It's a shame, really, because this is such a beautiful neighborhood."

Heisey says she's caught a skinhead digging through her trash late at night, "probably trying to commit identity theft." That was the last time she called the cops. "Now," she says, "all the neighbors are buying paper shredders."

Those who've stayed, at least.

Heisey says that at least four homeowners on Rosemonte have sold in just the past month. Two other houses are currently for sale.

According to Shay, Bartak's been served notice that he must clean up the property and bring the building up to code. If Bartak doesn't tidy up a bit, then the county can, and will, seize the property, and shut down the meth operation on Rosemonte Drive for good, Shay says.

"You hear these people all the time say that meth isn't their problem, tweakers aren't their problem. It's a border issue, it's somebody else's issue," the cop adds. "Yeah? Well, take a look at that neighborhood. Pay a visit to Rosemonte Drive.

"If it isn't just like your neighborhood already," he warns, "it will be."

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