Suspects of Convenience

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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.

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin