The Rise of Nazi Dope
Stanley Harris trundles up to meet me in an oily old truck that spits out a trail of exhaust fumes. I’m staying at a local “meth motel,” one of a string of fifty-dollar-a-night establishments arranged along a neon corridor on Glenstone Avenue, on the northern edge of town. The motels are often frequented by methamphetamine manufacturers, so-called cooks, who sign in under false names and pay in cash, then go up to their rooms where they cover the door cracks with wet towels to mask the smell and then they start making the drug. Harris is here to show me some of the sights and give me a tour of some of the local meth landmarks.
“I used to sell meth out of that motel across the street.” He points to another hostelry on the other side of the highway, one slightly swankier than the threadbare place where I’m staying.
Harris is a walking meth history lesson, living proof that sometimes speed doesn’t kill. A roofer by trade, he’s only forty-six, but he’s been shooting up methamphetamine for thirty-five-years, ever since at the age of eleven he eased a spike into his arm in the school playground while trying to impress an older crowd of boys.
“I was real scared at first,” he says in a raspy country accent, sounding as if his vocal chords have been rubbed raw by sandpaper. “But after I did it I felt like I was on top of the world.”
In the following three and a half decades, Harris shot up meth when he was happy and he shot up meth when he was sad. He shot up even when yellow puss was oozing from gangrenous holes in his arms and his doctors told him if he didn’t stop injecting himself they might have to amputate them. He continued to shoot up after twice flatlining during heart attacks. He spent half a lifetime pumping gram after gram of methamphetamine into his veins, in the process creating chaos in the lives of everybody he loved. But six months before I met him in early December 2005, Stanley Harris quit.
Harris is a stocky man with graying hair and big black circles ringing his eyes that give him the appearance of a demented panda bear. His big, hairy, tattooed arms resemble gnarled and rotted-out tree trunks. A hyperactive chatterbox, when he speaks the words come flooding out of his mouth accompanied by a barrage of facial ticks and herky-jerky hand gestures. When he does pause for a moment, he doesn’t so much take a breath as wheeze like a puff of wind.
Even though at the time I spoke to him he had just pled guilty to drug manufacturing and distribution charges and was facing life in state prison as a persistent offender, Harris was a happy man.
“I’m real happy because thanks to Jesus I’m not a servant to meth anymore.” He smiles, revealing a dental disaster zone. Harris doesn’t have bad teeth, he has practically no teeth; some of them he lost in bar fights and motorcycle accidents, he says, but most of them fell out because of his meth habit.
As world-class dope habits go, Stanley’s was a monster. At the height of his addiction, he was shooting an eight ball (an eighth of an ounce) of meth a day. But in early 2005, Harris finally hit rock bottom. He’d tried to kick the drug a number of times, but within hours of completing a treatment program he’d shoot up again. He was on parole and had already given two dirty urine samples. He was sure he was headed back to jail. It was then he decided that he was going to go on one last binge and either kill himself or let the police do the job. On his fourteenth day without sleep, Harris collapsed and was admitted to Sigma House, a local treatment center. After detoxing for a couple of days, an Alcoholics Anonymous counselor came to see him and they had a conversation about God that awoke long-dormant religious feelings in Harris.
“I used to hate Jesus Christ,” says Harris, who as an impressionable teenager was so influenced by the movie The Exorcist that he used to get down on his knees and pray to Satan. “I thought he was a pussy. What had he ever done for Stanley? But by this point I was ready for something to work in my life because if it don’t work, I might as well blow my head off.”
Missourians have been mainlining methamphetamine since the 1950s. In a 1959 article, Time magazine reported about a new drug craze among some Kansas City, Missouri, high school students who had learned how to extract and then inject the methamphetamine contained in Valo inhalers, which could be bought at the time in local drug stores for seventy-five cents apiece. The magazine highlighted the case of Gary A. Hamilton, aged twenty-two, who was arrested after ordering tea at a lunch counter, pouring the hot water into an inhaler, and then taking pictures of himself in an automatic photo booth injecting the liquid into his arm.
A Kansas City narcotics detective was quoted as saying: “There are at least two hundred known users in the city, and at least twice as many that we don’t know about.”
Meth in Missouri isn’t a new phenomenon, then, but a persistent and entrenched problem that has been around for decades. But something happened in the Ozarks in the early 1990s, something that dramatically changed the local meth landscape and turned a manageable problem into a genuine crisis, something that by the end of the decade had transformed the southwest corner of the state into a meth-manufacturing Mecca.
To call Missouri the meth lab capital of America is a little misleading. The phrase “meth laboratory” summons up images of foaming beakers, flaming Bunsen burners, and bubbling three-necked flasks, the sort of elaborate glassware and equipment found commonly at so-called superlab sites in California and Mexico. While it’s true that Missouri has reported more “meth lab incidents”—a catchall phrase that includes not just working labs but also abandoned labs, stockpiles of ingredients, and chemical dump sites—than any other state for four years in a row (2002–2005), most of the labs seized are what the Drug Enforcement Administration calls STLs (small toxic labs): do-it-yourself operations that employ everyday household items like coffee filters, plastic bottles, Pyrex dishes, and liquid blenders to produce small amounts of the drug. To an outsider who stumbles across one, these so-called mom-and-pop labs would seem like little more than a messy garage or an untidy garden shed.
A better way to describe Missouri would be to call it the kitchen chemistry capital of the United States, a place that in the mid-1990s saw an extraordinary fivefold increase in the number of hobbyists churning out homemade meth, a phenomenon comparable to the heyday of moonshining during Prohibition and an illicit drug manufacturing boom that is only now beginning to subside. In 1992, local authorities raided nineteen meth labs in the Ozarks and the DEA raided only two in the entire state. By 2004, there were more than 2,800 meth lab incidents—that’s roughly one meth lab for every two thousand Missourians. While the State Highway Patrol reported a 44 percent decrease in meth lab busts in the last six months of 2005, a drop largely credited to a new state law making it harder for local cooks to acquire the supplies of pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicines they need to make the drug, it wasn’t enough of a decrease to prevent Missouri once again leading the nation in meth lab incidents.
Bathed in a late autumn glow, Springfield doesn’t seem like a community ravaged by meth despite its reputation as a paradise for tweakers (chronic users). The Battlefield Mall—named in memory of Wilson’s Creek, a famous Civil War battle—is packed with shoppers buying jeans at the Gap and eating hamburgers at Ruby Tuesday. Students from Missouri State University throng the coffee bars in the newly revitalized downtown area, tapping on their laptop computers and sipping cappuccinos. Minor-league baseball fans catch a game at the new $32 million Hammons Field. Springfield is a medium-sized city with the feel of a small town, the sort of place that pandering politicians have in mind when they talk about “the heartland” and “middle America.”
If meth has spurred a serious crime wave across rural America, as is often claimed in newspaper editorials, it hasn’t hit Springfield. Crime is low here, astonishingly so given the city’s standing as a major center for meth manufacturing. On average, about a half dozen murders are committed each year within the city limits, which is about half the national average for a place its size. Armed robbery is about a third of what it is in the rest of the country. The only crime categories in which Springfield exceeds the national average are burglary and property crimes, which local police blame on meth addicts looking to feed their habit.
The Ozarks has long had the reputation as an economically depressed region—a backwards and backwoods place. Like something from the movie Deliverance. But the Springfield I encountered seemed like a flourishing city with a diverse economy, low unemployment, and steady job growth. Any simplistic theories I had about poverty being the root cause of methamphetamine abuse in the Ozarks dissipated after a few days in Springfield, a city that seems to have successfully shed its roughneck past—the drinking, whoring, and gambling cowboy town of yore, the place where in 1865 Wild Bill Hickok shot to death David Tutt over a pocket watch—to become a thriving community, a great place to live and raise a family.
The other feature of Springfield life impossible not to notice is the overwhelming atmosphere of hellfire-and-brimstone religiosity that permeates the city. An apocryphal story has H. L. Mencken calling Springfield “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” though he might as well have. Welcome to Jesusville, U.S.A., where the American genius for down-home, cornpone religion is on full display and where even the waitress serving you a cocktail quotes scripture. The city features dozens of different fundamentalist and evangelical denominations. Outside of Detroit, Springfield is probably the churchiest place I’ve ever visited in America. And we’re not talking roadside tabernacles here. Shiny new houses of worship are everywhere. These are not august edifices sanctioned by time and tradition, but buildings that look like shopping malls or technical college campuses more than anything else. Springfield is the main base of the Assemblies of God, the church that spawned both Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, and the world’s largest Pentecostal Protestant denomination, with more than fifty million members worldwide. The organization’s headquarters over on Boonville Avenue occupies ten city blocks and includes a publishing plant that pumps out sixteen tons of gospel literature every day.
Engage ordinary people in conversation here, and you’ll find many of them hold strange beliefs that sound more like political conspiracy theories than articles of faith: Star Wars is satanic; for instance, or Hillary Clinton, if not exactly the Antichrist, is at least his handmaiden. In the week I spent in Springfield, I got used to fielding questions from the locals like “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior?” and “Do they believe in Jesus where you come from?” At a bible study class, a preacher asked me in what religion I was raised. I told him I was brought up Irish Catholic. “Ah, C.I.A.,” he smirked. “Catholic, Irish, Alcoholic.” As opposed to P.A.T., I suppose: Protestant American Tweaker. And that’s another thing: don’t call them Protestants. It seems that “Protestant” is a term invented by Papists.
Springfield looks serene and content enough. But scratch below the surface a little—peer behind the image of industrious piety—and you see another side to the city. Driving in from the airport, the taxi driver, wearing a trucker cap and sporting a ponytail, wanted to know what this English-sounding dude was doing in the back of his cab. I told him I was here researching a book on crystal meth. “Sheeet,” he laughed. “You’ve come to the right place. In this city, it’s easier to get meth than a woman.”
According to Nick Console, who in December 2005 was days away from retiring as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Springfield office, the blame for the dramatic increase in amateur meth manufacturing in the Ozarks can be traced back to a single individual: Bob Paillet, a local meth cook who in the early ’90s began casting around for a new, cheaper, less bothersome way to make the drug.
When the DEA raided Paillet’s Springfield home in 1994, agents were initially baffled. They’d received a tip from an informant about the stockpiles of cold medicines, so they figured Paillet must be operating some sort of meth lab. But the presence of other chemicals puzzled them. Anhydrous ammonia? Sodium metal?
“We found things we didn’t think could be used to make methamphetamine,” says Console, a colorful Jesse Ventura–type character right down to the shaved head, black turtleneck, and cowboy boots. “We sent the recipe and the ingredients up to the DEA lab in Chicago and they told us: ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before but we’ll try it.’ They tried the recipe, and bingo, they produced methamphetamine.”
John Cornille, the DEA agent who arrested Paillet, says: “I remember the chemist’s exact words: ‘There is a basis in the scientific literature for such a formula, but it hasn’t been seen in the United States before.’“
Though he never received any formal education in the subject, Paillet knew a lot about chemistry and spent many hours researching in the library at Missouri State University, even though he wasn’t a student there. After his arrest, Paillet told Cornille that during the course of this research he came across a copy of a document stamped with a swastika that revealed how the Nazis made the methamphetamine they supplied to their battlefront troops during World War II. Unlike the other ways of manufacturing meth, the Nazi method didn’t require an open heat source. Instead, the cooking process was started by dissolving the ephedrine into a solvent and then adding a mixture of the common farm fertilizer anhydrous ammonia and a reactive metal such as lithium or sodium. This new recipe had the advantage of reducing the number of stages in the process and was therefore easier to make, although the method yielded smaller amounts of the drug than usual. You could now produce a little supply of the drug in a couple of hours instead of the twenty-four hours normally needed.
Whether Hitler’s chemists really used this way of manufacturing methamphetamine remains unclear. DEA chemists looked into the matter and could find no connection to the Nazis. Some scientists believe that what Paillet actually dug up was the Birch reduction method, named after the Australian scientist Arthur Birch. Whatever the truth of the matter, the “Nazi” moniker stuck. Paillet gave five of his friends fishing tackle boxes containing materials and detailed instructions on how to make meth using this method, and from there, the recipe spread, and Nazi dope labs began sprouting up all across the Ozarks like toxic mushrooms.
“I knew we were in a lot of trouble,” says John Cornille, “when the first sample of Nazi meth we sent to the lab turned out to be 92 percent pure methamphetamine, which meant it was quality dope.”
The DEA worried that what Paillet had discovered was potentially a Pandora’s box. If the recipe got out, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in southwest Missouri would start making their own drugs. Every user could become his own mini drug kingpin. And it wouldn’t stop there. The recipe was so simple and the ingredients so readily available, it was bound to spread to the rest of the state and then into adjoining states, as it eventually did.
“We tried to alert Washington,” says Console, “but the reaction we got was that ‘It’s a hillbilly problem; it’s not a problem throughout the rest of the United States.’“
Before Bob Paillet came along, meth consumption was confined largely to a few truckers, farmhands, and factory workers, as well as members of the Ozarks criminal underworld. Outlaw motorcycle gangs, both the Hells Angels and a local variant called the Galloping Goose, dominated the meth trade in those days. The supply came directly from California, carried by bikers who stored the drug in the crankshafts of their choppers, hence the nickname “crank” for meth. Or it was manufactured locally in a small number of clandestine labs. Southwest Missouri developed a reputation as home to some of the best meth cooks in the country. So-called 417 dope—meth made in the 417 area code—was a commodity sought after as far away as California.
“There’s a number of reasons why southwest Missouri became a major center for manufacturing meth in the nineteen nineties, but one of them is that there already was a history of meth manufacturing in the region traced to these outlaw motorcycle gangs,” says assistant U.S. attorney Dave Rush, who has spent the last fifteen years prosecuting federal drug cases in the Ozarks.
The first biker meth labs in the Ozarks were probably set up some time in the mid-1970s in the Mark Twain National Forest, a one-and-a-half-million-acre spread that spans twenty-nine counties at the southern end of Missouri and is to this day still a popular hideout for meth cooks. More meth labs are discovered here than all the other national forests in the country combined. Ed Houston, a Christian motorcyclist, remembers visiting a Hells Angels encampment in the middle of the Mark Twain Forest in 1975. The Angels had transported an irrigation system in a U-Haul all the way from California and had set up a marijuana-growing operation hidden among the trees.
“There were men, women, and children living in tents,” he recalls. “The outer perimeter was guarded by Doberman pinschers. The inner perimeter was guarded by pit bulls.”
The Angels had also hooked up an electricity generator and jerry-rigged a working laboratory that churned out hash oil, PCP, and meth. They lived on the barter system, trading drugs with some of the locals in exchange for food and other essentials, before they were eventually chased out of the forest by the police. Nevertheless, other biker meth labs followed and by the ’80s meth production had started to creep out of the forest and into the surrounding countryside. In 1989, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a number of Californians and Texans with wads of cash in hand were buying or leasing out-the-way farms on the Missouri-Arkansas border to convert into meth labs.
The biker meth produced back then differs from the ephedrine-based drug we know today. It was less potent, more difficult to make, and required bulky laboratory equipment to produce. Instead of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as the main ingredient, bikers used phenyl acetone, better known as P2P, a dark brown, syrupy chemical employed as an industrial cleaner or in photographic processing. “It was a complicated process,” says John Cornille. “It took a person with legitimate chemical knowledge to manufacture the drug. It had difficult-to-obtain items like triple neck flasks and condenser coils.” Further adding to the difficulties of manufacturing meth this way, the P2P method produced a telltale nauseating smell, which meant the labs needed to be located away from population centers to prevent detection by the police.
The Ozarks’ wooded terrain provided ideal cover for the biker meth labs, just as it had in the past for illegal whiskey stills. Labs were built in pig farms and behind chicken coops to mask the smell. One of the reasons meth manufacturing took root so easily in the Ozarks is that unlike cocaine and heroin, meth was considered a rural drug, one that didn’t carry big-city associations and wasn’t imported from a foreign country. In those days, there was a strong racial and class association with the drug. Not for nothing was meth christened “redneck cocaine.”
Also, meth making tapped into a rich seam of antigovernment sentiment common in the area, a kind of right-wing anarchism that went back to the days of Jesse James and the bushwhackers, an attitude that could be summed up as: “Keep your nose out of my backyard. Or else.” In terms of a threat to the community, meth didn’t appear that big of a deal. Unaware of the horrors to come when the drug broke first statewide and then throughout the Midwest, locals who prided themselves on their independence and rugged individualism tended to regard manufacturing crystal meth as little more than latter-day moonshining. The Ozarks boasted a long tradition of illicit home distilling that stretched back decades.
“The people here are very self-sufficient,” says the DEA’s Nick Console. “And they don’t like government interference in the way they live and the way they do business.”
The beginning of the end for the biker meth labs in Missouri came in 1987 when Glennon Paul Sweet, a member of the Galloping Goose heavily involved in the local drug trade, shot to death Trooper Russell Harper during a routine traffic stop on U.S. 60, just outside of Springfield. Sweet was on the way to deliver some methamphetamine when Harper pulled over his red pickup truck. Sweet leaped from the vehicle with an assault rifle and fired nearly thirty shots at the trooper, one of which hit Harper in the head, killing him. The subsequent investigation of the murder led to the discovery of half a dozen clandestine labs operated by the Galloping Goose and then a general crackdown on meth manufacturing by bikers across the region.
Bob Paillet’s Nazi recipe sounded the final death knell for biker meth in Missouri. Paillet’s method effectively decentralized the local meth trade, which was never that structured to begin with, broadening the appeal of the drug. “Once meth users realized that they didn’t have to depend on the bikers, that they could make it themselves, and not only have enough to supply their own habit but have some left over to sell, that’s when the problem really started to spiral out of control,” says assistant U.S. attorney David Rush.
Meth cooks now moved from the country into the suburbs and the towns. You could make meth almost anywhere using the Nazi method. People started manufacturing the drug in motel rooms, apartments, and in the flatbeds of pickup trucks. Meth recipes, once jealously guarded secrets, became common currency. With a small outlay and only a modicum of chemical savvy, every addict could now become a cook, who in turn taught others how to cook, who in turn went on to educate even more people.
“Once the method was simplified, it became like a giant pyramid scheme,” says Rush. “Pretty soon you could trace the lineage of a lot of these cooks back to two or three people.”
The results proved predictable. Meth production boomed in the Ozarks. Poorly trained and understaffed local sheriff’s departments couldn’t keep up with all the portable meth labs springing up across the landscape. In 1996, authorities seized 24 meth labs in the Ozarks. Two years later, the number had risen over sevenfold to 174, and those were just the ones law enforcement knew about. Thanks to Bob Paillet, the strongly conservative, deeply religious city of Springfield—the queen city of the Ozarks—had turned into ground zero for the Midwest’s growing crystal meth problem.
Copyright © 2007 by Frank Owen. All rights reserved