Hotel operators learn how to spot meth labs

Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The hot plates, alcohol, cold medicine, jars and chemicals collected by Alaska State Trooper Teague Widmier offered enough over-the-counter ingredients to create about five grams of methamphetamine.

And to accidentally scorch a hotel room or gas out nearby guests when the chemicals are hastily dumped before a raid.

Widmier displayed the make-shift meth lab components at a Monday forum at the Westmark Hotel. More than 60 representatives of area hotels, motels and inns gathered to learn how to spot labs and their operators.

Two recent meth busts in which labs or ingredients were discovered in local hotel rooms helped prompt the event, said Bob Harmon, general manager for the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel.

''It was time to just set something up for the hospitality community so they can know what to look for,'' Harmon said.

Widmier, an investigator with the statewide drug enforcement unit in Fairbanks, encouraged the group to call authorities when they suspect a room is being used as a lab.

''We'd be more than glad to come over and pay a visit and see what's going on,'' he said.

Doris Lundin, owner of the Fairbanks Hotel, said she hopes employees return to work with a higher sense of vigilance.

''These kinds of chemicals can hurt everybody in a hotel,'' she said.

Methamphetamine production in Fairbanks and North Pole still appears to be on the rise, Widmier said. Many of the labs authorities raid here are designed to manufacture enough for personal use and to share with friends. The labs are so prevalent authorities could bust two a week if they had the resources, he said.

Authorities also have worked with major Fairbanks retailers to limit the amount of Sudafed sold to a single customer.

Widmier told the gathering of managers, security, housekeepers and other industry workers how meth is created and how to spot each step of the process.

The table of ingredients ranged from relatively specialized products like a nutritional supplement for animals and sodium metal to familiar items like Drano and Iso-Heet. Most of the ingredients by themselves wouldn't raise a red flag. But meth cooks buy certain household items -- including matches, coffee filters and Sudafed -- in huge quantities, Widmier said.

Labs produce a strong chemical smell, which is sometimes compared to model airplane glue. Hotel staff also might want to watch for the remnants of match books because a chemical found in the striker on match books is used in the production of methamphetamine.

''This is exactly what I wanted them to show me. The chemicals, the containers,'' said Sam Brown, who handles security as bell captain for the Regency Fairbanks Hotel. ''I had a good idea of what I was looking for. Now we've nailed it down.''

A high volume of phone calls to and from a room and heavy traffic at odd times of the night also may be cause for suspicion, Widmier said.

Methamphetamine users may seem anxious, talk rapidly and appear itchy, the trooper said. Rotted teeth and sores on the face and hands, from scratching, also are common.

The high lasts 10 to 12 hours, keeping addicts up for days before they crash hard. Widmier painted an unappealing picture of the drug and its use.

''A lot of them don't snort it now that are heavy meth users. They just eat it,'' he said.

The audience watched a short training film geared toward law enforcement, warning that improperly handling an active meth lab or ingredients can lead to injury or death.

On Jan. 9, drug investigators raided a room at the Ranch Motel off South Cushman Street and found two men in the middle of cooking what was suspected to be meth. On Feb. 3, University Fire Department responded to a fire at the Aspen Hotel off Airport Way that investigators blamed on a suspected methamphetamine lab. In that incident, a 19-year-old man was charged with manufacturing the drug.

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