Embedded in Austin

On the ground in one of Minnesota's meth hot spots

Judging by the sheer frequency and number of meth stories in the Daily Herald--I counted 160 between 1999 and the summer of 2002--it appears that Austin is not quite the same as ever.

 

I hadn't been back in town for two hours before I'd made contacts with a huge mix of people willing and anxious to talk to me about meth--people in law enforcement and chemical dependency treatment, users and recovering addicts, families caught up in the net. Every time I made a phone call, the word would be passed around and I would get half a dozen calls in return.

To preserve the anonymity of the people whose lives have been most directly affected, the names of all users and their families have been changed here.

Patrick Flanagan is the Mower County attorney, and after working in the DA's office for a number of years he has only recently moved into the hot seat. Last November he ousted his old boss, Pat Ohman, at the ballot box. A young, gung ho prosecutor whose office is decorated with Easy Rider and James Dean posters and Rolling Stones album covers, Flanagan knew pretty well what he was getting into. By the time he came to town, the county's meth problem was already a standing beat on the local news.

At some point in the late 1990s, a small group of alleged California white supremacists migrated across the border from a small town in Iowa and took up residence in Lyle, a township just outside of Austin. These characters were reputedly part of a self-styled Riverside, California gang called the Inland Empire, and they were fiercely proud of the peckerwood label they had appropriated for themselves. The original Inland Empire incursion consisted of just two guys, and law enforcement officials allege that they quickly began importing large quantities of meth from California. There may have been some meth in the area when they arrived, but their efforts appear to have broken the market wide open.

"These guys were really the first big wave," Flanagan said. "They roped a lot of kids into their deal, and they ran a very well-organized business. The kind of markup they could make on meth here was just incredible. They could cut the stuff with horse-joint ointment and make up to $60,000 a pound. They were paranoid--all of these people are, it's one of the hallmarks of this drug--and they ran all kinds of crazy counter-surveillance, with video cameras and lookouts and you name it."

In a town like Austin, the California guys stood out from the beginning. Their shaved heads, flashy lifestyles, and elaborate tattoos ensured that local law enforcement would start paying attention to their activities sooner rather than later.

"To a 15-year-old Austin kid," Flanagan goes on, "these guys were very compelling. They had tattoos, cool cars, lots of cash, a house to party at, and they didn't have to work very hard to build up a loyal following."

Shortly after the California gang came to town, one of the ringleaders was arrested for possessing 30 pounds of marijuana and sent away to prison for a year and a half. Upon his release he came right back and set up shop in Lyle again. By this time--early 2000--local meth users had learned to make the drug on their own through a relatively simple process.

"Once people figured out how easy it was to make the stuff themselves," said 12-year-veteran Austin Police Chief Paul Philipp, "that's when we really had a problem on our hands. I'd say that right now a majority of the meth that's out there is probably locally produced, which creates problems for us on so many levels. The labs are dangerous, of course, but there's also all the other crimes that come with making and using the stuff. A lot of the ingredients are stolen from local businesses, and you've got these people going out into the country to tap the anhydrous ammonia right out of the fertilizer tanks in the fields. Then you've got kids stealing from their parents and users who are stealing whatever they can get their hands on to finance their habits. By the time you throw in impairment-related offenses or domestic problems--assaults, car accidents, child neglect--it has a huge trickle-down effect."

Before meth came along, Philipp said, cocaine and marijuana were the drugs the Austin police department most commonly encountered. "But realistically, in a town this size, all those other drugs are much more difficult to come by," he said. "Meth has definitely become the drug of choice in our area. And I'm afraid we're still just seeing the tip of the iceberg."

Around these parts the drug's popularity is increasing ominously among younger users. Mower County has been seeing meth use among kids as young as 13 and 14, and there are other aspects of the Austin experience that call into question some prevailing myths about the drug. Meth is always portrayed as a poor, rural, white-trash drug, but in Austin and nearby towns its use cuts a wide swath across social and economic strata. Many locals would like to blame the drug's upsurge on the influx of Mexicans in recent years, but there's very little evidence to support that idea. The majority of people making, selling, and using the drug are in fact white kids, many of them locals from seemingly stable middle-class homes.

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