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Sniffing out meth makers

DRUGS: Duluth landlords and social workers meet with experts to learn how to protect their property and people.

BY CHRIS HAMILTON
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Kim Orrie, a former methamphetamine dealer and user for 26 years, is now a local properties manager. When it comes to signs of meth use by tenants, she knows what to look for.

But even the firsthand expert -- who's been clean seven years -- learned some tips Wednesday on how landlords can ferret out the presence of the highly addictive stimulant on their properties.

The Duluth Housing Access Center brought together about 50 Twin Ports landlords, human services providers and real estate agents with law enforcement and housing experts as well as recovering addicts Wednesday at First United Methodist Church to discuss how to approach meth-related problems.

FOCUS ON DETECTION

Much of the day was geared toward discovering users before they severely damage properties with the toxic household chemicals used to make the form of speed.

St. Louis County has averaged finding eight meth labs a year, said Brian Poppenberg, a lab cleanup expert for the county. Those numbers remain on pace despite a law that went into effect in January that requires people to show identification and sign their name when they buy cold medications containing key meth ingredients.

Orrie said she appreciated advice on surprise visits from Poppenberg. Landlords should inform tenants in the lease that they plan to visit the property unannounced -- or at least knock on the door -- on a regular basis, Poppenberg told the group Wednesday. Landlords still must provide a 24-hour notice to go inside.

Jayne Hendrickson, a housing expert in Hibbing, said she was there in part to humanize the drug's users and victims. Her 26-year-old daughter, Alyssa Hendrickson, was both.

She was shot in the head in 2003 in Minneapolis by a friend who'd been drinking and taking meth.

"Meth is a horrible, horrible drug, but my daughter was a wonderful person," Jayne Hendrickson said.

Beyond the violence it often incites, meth wreaks havoc on property used for its manufacture.

For every pound of the drug cooked up in homemade batches, up to 7 pounds of combustible and corrosive hazardous waste is left over. The vapors and acids can kill and leave properties so contaminated they must be gutted or demolished.

And insurance companies won't cover the costs, said Lt. Tim Harkonen of the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department in Hibbing.

HELP FOR LANDLORDS

A Duluth landlord, who didn't want to be named for fear of reprisals, said she tried to get renters evicted from her Central Hillside home based on hearsay comments about dealing. The judge threw it out.

Over the next three months she and her neighbors videotaped up to 40 people a day coming in and out of the house. The next time she came before the judge with the tapes, he agreed.

When deputies arrived to enforce the eviction, she said they confiscated drugs and addicts crawled out of basement windows.

Videotaping criminal renters could be dangerous, Harkonen warned. So what can a landlord do?

 Do a real criminal background check on everyone living in an apartment. Often a place is rented by a front person, who quickly turns around and allows dealers and cooks to move in.

 If illegal drugs are found, landlords have the right to kick out their tenants ("If you can't prove it, it didn't happen," Harkonen said).

 Check Dumpsters for discarded chemicals and other waste, like a bunch of Sudafed boxes. It takes 25,000 tablets to make a pound of meth.

 Look beyond the obvious. Meth cooks -- as the drug's rudimentary chemists are called -- can now make their product look like Skittles or M&Ms.

In addition, landlords should look for:

 Windows covered with blankets, black plastic or aluminum foil.

 Lots of surveillance equipment.

 Dark stains in the bathtub or kitchen.

 A swirling chemical burn on carpets.

 Vegetation suspiciously dying on one section of the property.

Someone who makes a small batch of meth once in a home probably won't contaminate it, Poppenberg said. But there are no hard-and-fast rules about exposure once a bust has occurred.

The wallboard, ceiling tiles, upholstery, carpeting, forced-air heating systems and drain traps usually must be replaced. Just the required contamination evaluation by a professional contractor can cost between $1,500 and $2,500.

Another law that went into effect this year tags a meth home on its title in the register of deeds. That notice can't be removed until licensed contractors clean the property to a satisfactory level, Poppenberg said.