Monster Mash

Fighting meth, block by block

Mid-morning sunlight dances along Baxter Avenue, glancing off windshields and tracing precious shadows on a quiet boulevard flanked by tidy brick houses and towering trees. But beneath this bucolic veneer, there are many odd stories to tell. Like the time a stringy guy ditched cops by dodging into Susanne Ritchie's back yard. Then he dropped his portable meth lab in the dirt. "My son saw the guy out there," Ritchie says. "He even asked my son to please hand him the case."

Meet the meth monster. Not bright, perhaps, but sufficiently dangerous, and downright creepy.

"What we're seeing in property crime is linked to the meth industry," says Capt. Brett Klein of the Tucson Police Department. "Vehicle larceny, burglaries, identity theft, credit card thefts--all have that direct connection to meth." Fact: During one year, the midtown police district led the city with 1,878 drug-related arrests.

In turn, these meth addicts routinely prey on nearby residents to support their habits. After a string of thefts, Ritchie and a crew of neighbors have gathered in the midtown dining room of Barbara Lehmann, president of the Dodge Flower Neighborhood Association, to hash out their worries. Mild mannered folks they are, certainly not the war-weary foot soldiers you'd expect to find in a crime zone. But they've noticed their quiet community displaying troubling patterns. "I've lived here for 18 years," Lehmann says, "and I'd never heard of a burglary on my block. Then, last summer, there were four burglaries on our block within a month."

Brad Holland coined the term "meth monster" after encountering his fair share of the jumpy, jonesy, sticky-fingered urban parasites. As a deputy county attorney for neighborhood protection, he quickly rattles off several Tucson methamphetamine hotspots, including the Alvernon Way/Aviation Parkway area, the troubled streets around Stone Avenue/Prince Road, and this midtown, working-class neighborhood of unpretentious homes and sometimes neat, sometimes seedy apartment complexes.

"One way or another, meth monsters get into these neighborhoods," says Holland. Often, they arrive thanks to indiscriminate slumlords or because of friends. Either way, the effects are immediate, as rip-offs spike and neighbors either "go turtle" inside their homes, he explains, or they get pissed and fight back.

But it's also a battle raging far beyond a few besieged Tucson neighborhoods; in an eye-popping July report, the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission reveals our mushrooming state to have the nation's highest crime rates. Those numbers are driven "by the incidence of property crime, and particularly auto theft, with burglary and larceny following close behind," says ACJC spokeswoman Mary Marshall. While the reasons are complex--ranging from Arizona's location on the crime-ridden U.S.-Mexico border to its exploding population--answers for are even more elusive.

When these factors are added to a meth epidemic, "You have the perfect storm of crime," says Rep. Tom O'Halleran, a retired Chicago cop now serving in the Arizona Legislature. In response, the Sedona Republican recently sponsored a bill requiring pharmacists to strictly control sales of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine, an allergy drug used to make methamphetamine. But heavy pharmaceutical industry lobbying managed to water down O'Halleran's version.

That lack of political will--and the failure of lawmakers to adequately fund state police and prisons--draws sharp criticism form Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Last year, his office orchestrated 155 meth raids. Now he calls the ACJC report "another wake-up call" for the state Legislature to do its part. Despite Arizona's "spectacular growth," Goddard says lawmakers are slow to increase law-enforcement funding. "And I'm afraid what we're seeing is a reflection of that."

Arizona's growth was three times the national average between 1993 and 2003. But the Arizona Department of Public Safety still remains short 100 officers, "and our correction facilities are seriously overcrowded--to the point where judges are unable to sentence people to jail time, because there is no place to put them," says Goddard.

Failure to control the Mexican border adds to the problem, says O'Halleran, "and that means the federal government also has a role" in slowing the narcotics flowing north and stolen cars being driven south.

Another factor is Arizona's is low-wage poverty, says Ann Yom, government affairs counsel for the National Criminal Justice Association in Washington, D.C. "There's no one thing we can put our finger on; the increase in property crimes correlates with an increasing low-income population and increasing meth use."

Compounding the problem, says Yom, is anemic federal assistance for state crime-fighting efforts. For instance, President Bush's 2005-2006 budget would drastically cut or even eliminate Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, which distribute around $800 million annually to state anti-drug efforts. Already, significant federal funding cuts "are having a detrimental effect for states like Arizona, which is really struggling," she says.

Given a vacuum of state and federal leadership, Arizona's local officials are charging into the fray. Among them is Tucson City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar, who represents Dodge Flower and other midtown Ward 3 neighborhoods. "It's a tough issue, and meth-related crime is a nationwide problem," says Dunbar. "I think it's the No. 1 (crime issue)." In response, she called a June town hall meeting, where Tucson Police Department officers distributed resource guides--including tell-tale meth lab signs--to worried residents.

Ward 3 neighborhoods are also joining the Meth Free Alliance, a citywide "action plan" to fight Tucson's latest drug epidemic. Such community involvement is crucial when meth monsters move in, says Brad Holland. It can mean nothing more complicated "than having a Gladys Kravitz on your block," recalling the nosy television neighbor from Bewitched. The important thing is having plenty of eyes and ears watching for unusual behavior. "I tell people that every safe neighborhood has 15 insomniacs."

But for their part, Barbara Lehmann and her neighbors are simply going about their lives--albeit with a bit more caution. "Sure, sometimes it makes me want to move out of the neighborhood," Lehmann says "But it also makes us mad enough to fight back."