Execution-style murders and other violence are being tied to a flood of illegal methamphetamine in the region.
Authorities say the methamphetamine - and the violence it breeds - is filling a void created when agents knocked out a huge cocaine network with Operation Doughboy last year.
Other officials say the cheaper, easy-to-make drug known as crank or speed would have flooded the region even if the three dozen Doughboy arrests hadn’t cut into cocaine supplies.
“There’s turmoil, paranoia, turf wars and violence in the drug underworld - something we’ve never seen before in this area,” one federal investigator said.
Since early April, there have been four execution-style murders authorities suspect may be tied to drugs in Eastern Washington.
Three of the victims were shot in the head at close range and their bodies dumped along roadways, gangland-style.
In North Idaho, the body of an accused methamphetamine dealer was found floating in a creek east of Coeur d’Alene last month. That death also is being investigated as a homicide.
Authorities also report significant increases in car thefts, burglaries and check fraud believed associated with increasing meth use.
Law enforcement agencies recently formed a task force to deal with the growing crime and violence sparked by the drug.
“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in methamphetamine in this region, and a lot of these murders and other violence appear to be associated,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks.
“I’m hearing the same thing,” said Adams County Sheriff Mike Kline, whose investigators are trying to figure out who shot two men in the back of the head nine days ago.
There are more questions than answers in the case, but the sheriff said the murders appear drug-related.
Those double murders could be tied to another killing in Yakima a day after the Adams County shootings. A 25-year-old truck driver was found dumped in a roadway with a fatal bullet wound to the head.
FBI regional supervisor Jeffrey John said the Doughboy arrests last August in Spokane, the Tri-Cities and North Idaho created a void in the drug underworld.
“Once a void is created, then people start competing, and we’re seeing violence associated with that competition,” John said.
Many cocaine users looking for another stimulant after supplies dried up switched to meth, which is cheaper and easier to get.
Authorities say methamphetamine produces paranoia and violent behavior, even in people who aren’t otherwise violent.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane primarily handled cocaine cases a year ago. “Now it’s switched over to meth,” Hicks said.
“We’re also seeing an increase in sawed-off shotguns and additional violence associated with methamphetamine,” he said.
Drug investigators estimate that methamphetamine cases in the region now outstrip powder cocaine arrests 6-to-1.
“We’re hardly seeing any coke at all; it’s almost all methamphetamine,” said Agent Wayne Longo of the Idaho Bureau of Narcotics.
“We’re seeing this explosion of violence because more people are using meth,” Longo said. “It’s really no big surprise to us, because there’s always violence associated with meth.”
The drug can be injected or smoked. It’s cooked in clandestine labs - everything from briefcases for small batches to storage lockers, rental trucks and motel rooms for larger productions.
Homes in populated areas generally are avoided because of the stench associated with making meth.
Chemicals that can no longer be purchased to make methamphetamine are being replaced by retail products such as Red Devil drain cleaner and over-the-counter decongestants.
Manufacturers find instructions in easily obtained, how-to-cook-meth books.
While no one group gets all the blame for marketing methamphetamine, investigators says biker gangs are the leading culprits.
“People associated with the Hells Angels have been identified as being involved in manufacturing meth locally,” Hicks said.
The federal prosecutor said an investigation is under way, but no arrests have been made.
Arrests and prosecutions in meth cases are difficult because witnesses and informants are scared of retaliation.
The violence has grown to the point that, in at least one meth investigation, undercover informants were pulled out because of the danger.
Spokane Undersheriff Mike Aubrey, who oversees the Spokane Regional Drug Task Force, agreed the meth trend is being accompanied by “an increasing frequency of intimidation and assault.”
“If you carry that one step further,” he said, “you’re talking murder, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Violent deaths and drugs Authorities say three recent execution-style murders and a fourth suspicious death may be tied to drug-related violence: Shawn S. Chamberlain, 24, of Post Falls, and Aubrey Cameron, 34, of Pasco, Wash., were found shot in the head near Ritzville this month. No arrests have been made. Richard P. Morley, 30, of Spokane, described as a methamphetamine addict, was found stabbed, slashed and beaten in May near Eloika Lake, north of Spokane. Two suspects are in custody. Timothy P. Williams, 39, of Athol, Idaho, was found floating in Wolf Lodge Creek, east of Coeur d’Alene in May. Williams had failed to appear in court on possession of methamphetamine charges. His death is being investigated as a homicide.