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Meth labs decrease in Wisconsin, but remain prominent in Rock, Walworth counties

Following a hot start in the first half of the fiscal year 2017, the manufacture of methamphetamine in Walworth County, Wis. dropped significantly during the second half. The head of the county’s drug unit, however, suggested that meth originating from drug cartels could be taking its place.

Walworth County started the fiscal year– Oct. 1, 2016, through Sept. 30, 2017– with nine identified meth labs in the first six months, good for one-third of all meth labs discovered in Wisconsin over that span, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Only two labs were found in Walworth County during the latter half of the fiscal year.

Rock County, although not as severe, followed a similar trend to the neighboring Walworth County. Authorities uncovered four meth labs in Rock County from October 2016 through April 2017, but reported no labs between May 2017 and the conclusion of the fiscal year.

Rock and Walworth counties still managed to combine for 40 percent of Wisconsin’s total for the year, as well as half of the meth labs found throughout the first half of the fiscal year. The Drug Enforcement Administration identified 37 labs statewide for the fiscal year 2017, which is fewer than the previous year for the first time since 2012.

Walworth County’s 11 meth labs accounted for nearly 30 percent of Wisconsin’s total, a statistic that has alarmed and mobilized local, state and federal law enforcement officials. In December 2016, Walworth County sheriff’s Capt. Robert Hall, who leads the county’s drug unit, described meth in Walworth County as an “epidemic” that was “spreading like wildfire.”

Hall’s assessment of the situation held true heading into the new year, which started with a bang for Walworth County. On Jan. 9, authorities responded to a meth lab explosion at The Cove, a hotel in Lake Geneva, Wis. Prosecutors said Melissa E. Kuen, 36, was making meth in a bathroom when it exploded, leaving Kuen with severe burns for which she was hospitalized. Kuen originally attempted to give police an alternate story, claiming she was burned when someone lit a cigarette as she was helping a friend put gas in her car, according to a criminal complaint.

Police then found a man, Patrick McBean, in a hotel room at The Cove. McBean looked confused and appeared to have his facial hair burned off, according to the complaint. Officers also reported finding many items consistent with meth production, such as Sudafed tablets, batteries, drain cleaner, cold packs and camping fuel. McBean, 50, and Kuen were both eventually charged with possessing meth waste and paraphernalia. The explosion cost The Cove and other responding agencies over $24,000. 

The meth lab explosion was the last significant meth bust for a time, and after March 8, the Drug Enforcement Administration did not report another meth lab in Walworth County until Sept. 20. Hall attributed this oasis to “tougher bonds” ordered by Walworth County judges to keep meth suspects in jail pending trial. It was mostly the same group of people responsible for the repeated instances of meth manufacturing, according to Hall. Once they were arrested, high bond amounts kept them incarcerated. Hall also credited his staff’s work in identifying, locating and dismantling meth operations. Their work includes checking pharmacy logs for the sale of common meth ingredients, such as pseudoephedrine, which Hall believes helped lead to the reduction.

All was quiet on the meth front until Sept. 19, when sheriff’s Lt. Todd Neumann, while off duty, reported seeing a woman dumping what appeared to be meth-making materials in a field in Delavan, Wis. The woman then ran across the field to a car driven by another woman.

The women were later identified as Kuen and Krista Stoll Wobig, 32, both of whom were already facing meth charges in Walworth County Court. According to court documents, Stoll Wobig was among the people found in the house belonging to McBean days before the explosion at The Cove took place.

Stoll Wobig’s case concluded on Sept. 6 when she was sentenced to nine months in jail and three years of probation on a charge of possessing meth paraphernalia. McBean received a worse fate, as he was sentenced on Oct. 25 to two years in prison and fined for over $125,000 in restitution for his role in the meth lab explosion. Kuen is scheduled for a trial– also for her relation to the explosion at The Cove– in February 2018.

While the group responsible for several of the meth incidents during the fiscal year 2017 has been mostly taken care of, the meth concern in Walworth County isn’t completely alleviated. According to Hall, the “quiet months” did not mean that Walworth County was free of meth; rather, there is fear among law enforcement that meth from drug cartels is making its way into Walworth County. There is no extensive evidence yet, but Hall said his unit is “getting wind of it.”

All of the meth labs that the Drug Enforcement Administration has identified in Wisconsin over the past year were “one-pot meth cooks,” meaning single batches of meth being manufactured in common bottles or containers. Cartels typically produce meth in mass amounts so they can distribute to multiple customers.

Cartel meth is “absolutely” as dangerous to use as the self-made meth Wisconsin usually deals with, according to Hall, but having less of it made locally reduces the risk of injury to innocent locals caused by accidents that can occur during its production, such as the explosion at The Cove. Alongside the risk that comes with making meth, disposing of meth requires “extensive manpower and resources,” some of which come from out of state. Hall mentioned that one Elkhorn family was twice displaced from their home because of meth production in the unit above them.

While the change to imported meth could relieve some of the hazards associated with its creation, it could make the sale of its ingredients more challenging to track, which may lead to fewer cases being identified.

“From a safety standpoint, we’re not putting innocent people at risk of those [health] exposures [associated with meth-making],” Hall said in comparing local meth to cartel meth. “But neither one of them is good.”

Beyond Rock and Walworth counties, only one other county in Wisconsin– Adams County– identified four meth labs, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The counties of Brown, Juneau and Wood reported two labs apiece, while Clark, Fond du Lac, Grant, Green, Langlade, Manitowoc, Portage, Sauk, Sheboygan, Taylor, Waupaca and Waushara counties all identified one lab.

Sources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Janesville Gazette, Lake Geneva Regional News

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