-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – Brutal crimes, packed jails, sex trafficking and property theft can all be traced to a surge in purified meth filtering into Missoula and other Montana communities from Mexico, a panel of law enforcement officers told Sen. Steve Daines on Thursday.
Officers from multiple agencies across western Montana joined the FBI and the Montana Highway Patrol in detailing the challenges they face on the job as the trafficking of meth becomes more prevalent, along with the crimes that accompany it.
“Meth is a real problem in Missoula County, and we’ve continued to see up an uptick in violent crime and other crimes related to drug use,” Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott said. “There’s an obvious connection to meth and trafficking, or use and abuse.”
Daines stopped in Missoula to hold Thursday’s round-table discussion with local agencies, looking for what he described as a candid discussion around the real face of meth as seen by law enforcement.
Most of the agencies painted a picture of increasingly violent criminals who come armed with heavy weapons and, at times, body armor. They’ve also seen a rise in sickening crimes, from the strangulation of an infant by a doped-up parent to a series of grisly homicides in Missoula.
And in nearly every instance, they said, the crimes have accompanied the use of meth.
“The drug issue is fueling the property crimes, and especially here in Missoula, the violent nature of the crimes we’re seeing,” said Jeremiah Peterson, commander of the drug task force at the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.
“We talk about the double homicides we’ve had in Missoula the last two years, they’ve both been directly drug related. It’s a business the Mexican cartel is running, and they’re figuring out how to supply drugs to those with addiction issues.”
While the seizure of a few ounces of meth was once common, it’s no longer cause for excitement. Anymore, Peterson said, meth is coming by the pound and it’s purity is on the rise.
“It’s directly related to the money,” he said. “By the time it comes from Mexico to California to Washington and makes its way to us, tens of thousands of dollars have changed hands. Now, nearly everything we’re seeing is in that 95 percent or higher (purity).
With the increase in trafficking, the task force at Missoula County now counts more than 57 related arrests and 49 federal indictments among its achievements. It also has seized more than 40 pounds of meth, 73 firearms and $350,000 in property assets.
For smaller western Montana counties, including Lake and Lincoln, the problem has become overwhelming. Lake County Sheriff Donald Bell said he was forced to release a 71 year old man arrested for selling meth to 13-year old school kids for lack of the jail space to hold him.
In Lincoln County, the jail averaged 29 inmates per day in all of 2018. This year, Sheriff Darren Short said, it’s averaging 41.
“We all know that a large percent of those are for drug related crimes,” said Short. “We used to have people in jail for misdemeanor crimes and those kinds of things. Primary, our jail population is now comprised of felony drug crimes.”
Several members of law enforcement, including the Highway Patrol, said the average sale of meth is exchanged three to five times after leaving its cartel source in Mexico.
In Missoula, at least, most of the meth travels across the border to California or Las Vegas, where it’s moved into the Northwest and eventually Missoula. A growing element of human trafficking is now arriving with it.
“We all know money is traded for dope, as are guns, but girls are traded for dope too,” said Guy Baker, a detective with the Missoula Police Department. “Unfortunately, sex trafficking and drug trafficking go hand in hand, especially heroin. A lot of these crimes are being committed by people who are exploiting people who aren’t from Montana and are brought in on circuits, and the drugs are coming with them.”
Baker said the increase in meth trafficking also has brought a new gang element to Missoula.
“A lot of gang affiliates are trafficking dope into Montana and Missoula from sources in Washington, specifically Spokane, Yakima and the Tri Cities,” he said. “The associated violence that we’re getting, which is criminals who are more violent and willing to pull the trigger, is becoming more and more prevalent in our community.”
Daines has held similar discussions with law enforcement in other parts of the state, and like Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte, he recently toured the southern border as Congress continues its debate on how best to secure the border.
Daines said the series of talks with Montana law enforcement officials have been frank and eye opening.
“You get a picture of what’s going on in the state, and there’s consistency hearing from law enforcement about what’s going on right now with meth,” he said.