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Crime Chemistry Deputies See A Direct Connection Between Rising Use Of Methamphetamine And An Uptick In Valley Crime Rate

Drug arrests - particularly for methamphetamines - were up in the Spokane Valley in 1995.

It was no coincidence that the number of burglaries, auto thefts, assaults and forgery cases also increased noticeably last year, sheriff’s officials said.

Drug users often resort to crime to support their habit. They burglarize houses and take televisions, VCRs, jewelry and credit cards. They burglarize garages and take tools, snow blowers and bicycles. They break into cars and swipe tape and CD players, cellular phones and check books. In short, they steal anything that can be traded for cash to buy drugs.

“Those are quick bucks for a lot of people,” said Sgt. Gary Smith of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department.

“Drug users have that sense of urgency, that I’ve got to have that,” said sheriff’s Lt. John Simmons.

Last year, there were 10,076 reports of forgery, theft, stolen vehicles and bikes, and house, car and garage burglaries in Spokane County - an increase of 17.6 percent from 1994. Two-thirds of those crimes were committed in the Valley, sheriff’s officials said.

The growing popularity of methamphetamines - a powerful stimulant also known as crank, speed or meth - is responsible for much of the growth in drug arrests. Exact figures weren’t available, but authorities said a big chunk of the 690 drug arrestes in the county last year involved meth. The number of arrests in 1995 was nearly double the number in 1993.

In years past, cocaine was the most popular drug among the area’s users, according to Lt. Lorin Sperry who heads the Spokane Regional Drug Task Force. But in 1995, deputies arrested eight people with methamphetamines for every one arrested with cocaine, he said.

“Methamphetamines is the drug of choice,” said Sgt. George Wigen. The drug task force, which targets big drug dealers throughout the area, charged 24 people with dealing meth, six times as many as in 1994.

“There is a trend there,” Sperry said.

Big methamphetamine dealers who moved here from bigger cities a few years ago to tap into a new market have led the way for a rush of home-grown drug labs.

Though the labs are volatile and the cooking process gives off a strong odor, the drug is easy to make. Many of the ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine, such as Red Devil drain cleaner and fingernail polish, can be bought in any drug or grocery stores.

Two meth labs were dismantled in the Valley last year. In December, deputies raided a home day care center in Opportunity and found a drug lab in the garage. Ronald L. Acre, the day care operator’s husband, was charged with manufacturing, selling and possession methamphetamine. He is awaiting a February trial.

In June, a series of search warrants served by state and local officials turned up parts of a lab boxed up in three units at the ABC Mini-Storage near Indiana and Pines. A stolen motorcycle was also found in one of the units.

Selling methamphetamine also has proved little challenge, authorities said.

The drug is relatively cheap and has turned thrifty drug users - especially teenagers - into loyal customers. A quarter gram sells for $25 and provides at least two eigh-thour highs.

Methamphetamine keeps users awake for days, agitated and paranoid. The drug’s side effects include agitation, anger and paranoia, Sperry said.

“(Users) may resort to violence for no apparent reason,” he said. “Meth probably causes more anxiety than cocaine.”

That’s why law enforcement officials believe methamphetamine may also have figured into the rise in the number of assault cases, up 16 percent in 1995 to 2,499.

Methamphetamine also played a central role in one of three Valley murders last year. Investigators said Mary “Cookie” Birnel was high on the drug last March when she flew into a rage and attacked her estranged husband, Rick Birnel, with a 12-inch butcher knife.

Rick Birnel wrestled the knife from his wife and killed her. He was convicted of second-degree murder in December and sentenced to serve five years in prison.

Sheriff’s Department officials are hopeful that programs like SCOPE (Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort), Operation I.D., and Block Watch will turn help curb the upward swing in both drug and property crimes.

SCOPE volunteers now patrol Valley streets, watching for suspicious activity and reporting it to deputies. Operation I.D. teaches residents to record serial numbers and mark their valuables with an identification number. Block Watch brings neighborhoods closer together and trains residents to be on the watch for burglars and drug-house activity.

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