The officers casually lumber through the door of the Dare County Sheriff’s Department satellite office in Buxton, make their way singularly or in twos to their vehicles and head off toward their assigned roles.
Earlier, the Narcotics Task Force had assembled in Buxton to discuss the day’s operation. There’s Capt. Kevin Duprey, Sgt. Buddy Ruth and Detective Eddie Harper, all Task Force members. The group also includes Sgt. Dave Oberbeck, of the Sheriff Department’s Criminal Investigations Unit; Jason Godfrey, the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) officer assigned to Dare County, Paul Munson, another SBI agent; and Jack Scarborough of the sheriff’s office Patrol Unit.
The reason for their gathering began several weeks prior with a call to the sheriff’s office from a narcotics officer in Ohio. He passed on information about an Ohio couple who were reported to be in Dare County, possibly Hatteras Island. And based on their past deeds, there were concerns.
In fact, the couple had been under surveillance in Ohio for operating a “shake-and-bake” meth lab.
This new method for “cooking” methamphetamine was invented to do away with the clutter of typical meth labs. It can turn the back seat of a car or a bathroom stall into a makeshift drug factory. Some addicts have even made the drug while driving.
The meth cook extracts ingredients from pseudoephedrine pills and, to increase its strength, combines the substance with chemicals from such sources as battery acid, drain cleaner, lantern fuel and antifreeze.
The chemicals from the various ingredients are combined in the cooking container, typically, a 32-ounce plastic Gatorade bottle, and shaken vigorously for up to 20 minutes.
The chemical reaction going on inside the cooking bottle causes an extremely high amount of pressure to build up within the container. Unless the bottle is carefully and periodically “burped,” this method can result in a flash fire and explosion. That’s exactly what happened to the couple from Ohio, destroying the trailer they were living in several months before they showed up in Hatteras.
The next step, the pseudoephedrine pills are crushed and dumped into a coffee filter. The contents of the cooking bottle are slowly drained through the coffee filter containing the crushed pills. What comes out when it’s dried is a crystal-like powder, methamphetamine. It can be snorted like cocaine, smoked or taken intravenously.
The residue found in the bottom of the bottle after a cook is a toxic brown sludge. Often cooks toss the bottle out of a car or dump it into trash or garbage. Across the country, dozens of police and media reports describe bottles with this toxic sludge strewn along highways and rural roads in states with some of the worst meth problems.
“This becomes both a criminal, as well as an environmental concern,” explains Sgt. Ruth, who is leading the day’s operation.
Dare County has been fortunate. In 2013, for example. the county had two meth lab busts, compared to 50 in Wilkes County in northwestern North Carolina, and 46 is Onslow County in southeastern North Carolina, according to a North Carolina Department of Justice report.
Following up on the information from Ohio police, the Dare County Drug Task Force set up surveillance on the couple, as they drove a red pickup truck to local pharmacies, buying pseudoephedrine, and back to their Dutchmen Aspin Trail camper parked in a Hatteras campground.
“We did this for several weeks,” Ruth says. “Based on their repeated purchases of pseudoephedrine, we knew they were somehow involved in making meth, either cooking it or selling the pseudoephedrine to someone who was, an activity called ‘smurfing.’”
After several weeks of surveillance, the task force decided to do a “knock and talk,” in which “we knock on their door, ask them questions and see if we can determine exactly what they were up to,” Ruth explains.
After sitting around the conference table engaging in small talk, the group begins focusing its attention on the coming operation. They assign officers for surveillance, determine who is going to approach the suspects or knock on the trailer, and who is performing back up.
They discuss how they will interrogate the suspects, how to get them to consent to searching the camping trailer. And if this fails, with no Superior Court judge sitting in Dare County this day, they talk about whether to sit on the premises and dispatch someone to the nearest town where a judge is sitting to get a search warrant.
They talk about approaching the camping trailer carefully, seeing if they detect the telltale sign of an ongoing cook, and what their tactics will be if it is. Ruth explains that, if a cook is in progress, the team will have to back off, evacuate everyone within a half-mile radius and send for a hazmat team from the SBI lab in Raleigh to secure the trailer and any evidence.
The discussion is thorough; the plan detailed down to the last step. When Ruth feels that everything is in order, the task force members break up and head off to their assigned positions.
It’s a busy day for the task force. In addition to the knock and talk in Hatteras, there is a controlled drug buy scheduled on the beach, one in Currituck County, and an interdiction set up at the Dare County airport in Manteo.
Sgt. Ruth parks his pickup truck southeast of the target area in front of a green rental house set high off the ground on pilings. From his vantage point, Ruth can see the trailer, parked about 20 feet back from a canal that dissects the campground, and the red Dodge pickup truck. Capt. Duprey and SBI Agent Munson park northwest across a canal from the target. SBI Agent Godfrey and Deputy Harper are set to move in on the trailer at any sign of movement.
The time is 10:10 a.m.
The radio crackles with the news that the male suspect is mowing grass between the campground office and Rte. 12. Ruth turns his truck around and drives it to the main entrance of the campground. The suspect is on a riding mower dressed in an orange tank top, shorts and a baseball cap. Ruth stops his truck, jumps out and walks briskly toward the suspect. He waves to the man, points to his sheriff’s badge hanging from a lanyard on his neck, and motions the man off the riding mower. “Come with me. We gotta talk,” he says.
The man willingly walks with Ruth to the back of the sergeant’s truck, where they’re joined by Harper. Arms folded across his chest, Harper does most of the talking. The suspect, his right arm draped across the truck’s tailgate, visibly shakes as he answers the questions in short, fast bursts betraying his nervousness.
The man says he isn’t cooking, that he was buying pseudoephedrine at local pharmacies on the island and selling the boxes to a guy named Mike. Harper persuades the man to give consent for a search. They walk him over to the trailer and sit him down on a nearby picnic table.
SBI Agent Godfrey and Harper open the door and begin their search. Godfrey heads the examination because he’s specially trained to handle the dangers of a toxic meth lab. They soon carry out a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle, a can of Coleman camp stove fuel, a bottle of drain cleaner, bottle of lye, coffee filters and empty packs of Lithium batteries and pseudoephedrine medication – allegedly precursors to a shake-and-bake meth cook.
They also find a small amount of marijuana and pipes for smoking. Ruth uses his cell phone to photograph the evidence.
Harper and Godfrey continue questioning the man. At one point, Godfrey waves his hands, “I’m tired of you lyin’.” The man again protests his innocence. “Don’t b——t me, man, this is what we got here. It’s time you start tellin’ the truth.”
As the questioning goes on, Agent Munson and Capt. Duprey return with the man’s wife, who they found in the campground office. She’s wearing a blue shirt hanging loose around her waist, short beige shorts and flip flops. Duprey brings her to the back of the red Dodge pickup, pulls out a camp chair, unfolds it and places it on the ground. He invites the woman to sit down.
From questioning both suspects, police learn the husband and wife are both ex-military, serving in the Navy, she for almost 14 years.
Ruth says the Gatorade bottle has suspected residue in it and that they’re calling for a mobile SBI lab unit— called the Clandestine Unit because its technicians and analysts are used to analyze clandestine meth labs — from Greenville to analyze the residue and secure the bottle, lye, drain clearer and Coleman stove fuel.
Ruth collects the evidence taken from the trailer and a nearby trash can and puts it into paper evidence bags. The two suspects, Joshua Eugene Moreland, 33, of Summerville, S.C., and Messina Denise Moreland, 35, of Fredericktown, Ohio, are handcuffed and put into a dark undercover pickup truck. Harper readies to transport them to the Dare County Detention Center.
According to Ruth, at this point the two are being charged with misdemeanors for possession of methamphetamine precursors and illegally obtaining pseudoephedrine.
“If the residue in the Gatorade bottle tests positive for methamphetamine, we’ll also charge them each with a felony count of manufacturing methamphetamine,” Ruth says.
Late in the afternoon, the team arrives back at the parking lot behind the county Justice Center in Manteo. The mobile lab unit has arrived and a technician is ready to test the Gatorade bottle. She shoves a computerized instrument into the bottle, while Deputy Harper photographs the procedure. The glass cylinder immediately turns purple. It’s positive. Members of the team high five.
Ruth says the couple will be charged with the felony. He’ll write a court order to seize the camping trailer, but, if the sheriff agrees, leave them the red pickup truck.
“That way, when they’re out on bail, they’ll have the truck to get out of Dare County,” he says, “That’s what we wanted from this whole operation. Make a good case, and get these people out of here.”
Postscript: Both suspects were eventually released on bail. Sheriff’s deputies used a court order to seize their camping trailer and, as far as deputies are aware, both are gone from Dare County, according to Capt. Duprey. No court date yet has been set for their trial.
(This is part of a series of articles being published by the Outer Banks Sentinel that examine drug abuse and narcotics trafficking in Dare County, the people committed to fighting and treating it, and those who become its victims. The first part was published on Aug. 3, and the series will run until Aug. 31.To read more in the series, go to http://www.obsentinel.com/drug_war/)