Two men are serving years in prison for their efforts to bring Mexican-produced methamphetamine to Tennessee and Virginia — a growing problem enflamed by addiction and powerful drug cartels. Shawn Wayne Farris, formerly of Cathedral City, California, and Sean Maidlow, formerly of Pomona, California, lived in the Twin City (Bristol, TN/VA) for just a few years, but investigators say they supplied a large amount of meth — produced in Mexican super labs — to the region. Federal investigators from the Drug Enforcement Administration began probing the pair’s drug trafficking organization in Bristol in early 2017, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Abingdon, Virginia. Investigators said the organization was responsible for trafficking crystal meth between southern California and the areas of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee.
In recent years, meth has transitioned from being made in “shake and bake” clandestine labs to super labs operated by Mexican drug cartels.
“Going back over the years, we started to see the introduction of the drug cartel methamphetamine into Sullivan County,” County Deputy District Attorney General Gene Perrin said during a recent interview.
“It began slowly, but it continued to pick up speed.” Perrin works with local narcotics officers and coordinates with others across the region. He assisted with the Farris and Maidlow investigation because narcotics officers observed their efforts in Sullivan County.
With the nation in the grips of an opioid epidemic, law enforcement has turned its focus away from meth. As a result, Perrin said meth has become one of his biggest concerns in the Mountain Empire.
‘Shake and bake’ boom
Beginning in 1995, the United States saw a boom in the number of “shake and bake” or “one-pot” meth labs. The Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region recorded thousands of meth lab discoveries from 2000 to 2010.
The “one-pot” labs reached epidemic proportions. Anyone could make meth by using easily obtainable household goods and consumer products, such as pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient. “The very best cooks, the most efficient cooks, could typically produce one gram of meth for every gram of pseudoephedrine,” Perrin said.
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A cook in Sullivan County and surrounding areas could take a box of pseudoephedrine from the store and produce approximately 3 grams of meth. The meth could be cut and the potency would diminish, but more product could be sold to replenish the supply, Perrin said. “But there were a lot of factors involved that has led to the explosion of drug cartel methamphetamine,” Perrin said.
Setbacks for cooks
In 2005, legislation was signed that made it a requirement to show identification to purchase pseudoephedrine, a decongestant used to treat nasal and sinus congestion, in Tennessee and elsewhere. It also limited the amount of pseudoephedrine that one person could purchase.
“Most of the cooks would have to use smurfs or individuals that would go and purchase the pseudoephedrine,” Perrin said. The smurfs would then sell it to the cook or trade it for meth. Once the cook secured enough chemicals, he or she would then go through with the “one-pot” method, which often used a plastic bottle.
The “one-pot” method was especially dangerous. Fires and explosions were common in the region, sending many people to the hospital.
“After going through the process of the ‘shake and bake’ and hoping the thing doesn’t blow up on you, they were going to produce 2 to 3 grams of methamphetamine,” Perrin said.
During the time of the “shake and bake” epidemic, vice detectives could only find small amounts of meth because a cook could sell only a couple of grams. The small labs produced only a powder form. To convert it to crystal meth, or ice, an individual had to take additional steps to manufacture it. Ice is much more potent than powder.
Eventually, “one-pot” labs decreased and drug cartel meth moved into the Mountain Empire. Meth from Mexico already comes in the form of crystal, and is more plentiful.
“Drug cartel meth has exploded in this area. It’s flooding our streets,” Perrin said. An overwhelming majority of the meth in Sullivan County comes from Atlanta via the interstate system. Law enforcement officials say a number of people from the Mountain Empire travel to Atlanta to transport meth.
About 10 to 20 kilos of meth comes into Sullivan County on a weekly basis, Perrin said.
Cartels control meth distribution
“Methamphetamine is the most popular drug of choice in the area,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis in Virginia.
“The majority of the methamphetamine that we are currently seizing is coming from drug traffickers bringing it into the area for resale from areas like Atlanta, Georgia.”
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Once here, cartel meth is distributed quickly among the local established dealers and then on to the end user. Virtually all of the meth trafficked into the region is now produced on an industrial scale in Mexico by drug trafficking organizations that smuggle their products across the southwest border to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta and other hubs for distribution throughout the country, according to the DEA. The DEA said the network resulted in record seizures along the border, with a nearly 250% increase in meth seizures between 2013 and 2018. In 2018 alone, authorities seized nearly 43 tons of meth at the border, the DEA said.
From California to Bristol
The Farris organization obtained meth from sources in California, according to court records. Farris originally moved to Bristol due to a family tie, records show. Farris had a “voracious, out-of-control and long-term drug addiction” that he maintained through drug dealing, according to a court document filed by his attorney during sentencing.
Drug addiction led Farris to a series of bad choices throughout his lifetime, with some type of drug charge constituting almost half of all the crimes for which he was convicted. Records show he has several meth possession and manufacturing convictions in California.
John Ratcliff, a Tennessee man who is now incarcerated on federal drug charges, told authorities that Farris and Maidlow were the two largest meth distributors in the Mountain Empire. He said he worked for both men to collect drug proceeds and to introduce them to drug distributors.
Ratcliff told authorities that Farris drove his meth from California and Maidlow had it mailed to Bristol to a different address. In 2017, agents interviewed an informant about purchasing meth from Farris.
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“[Informant] stated that this source of supply for methamphetamine lived in a brick house with a long black driveway with two white garage doors located near Virginia High School in Bristol,” according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court. The informant said he was at the residence with another man and helped count $250,000. He said he observed 49 pounds of crystal meth and that the other man was making plans to rob the home. During a later interview, another informant told authorities that they obtained meth from Farris practically every day.
In June 2017, police conducted a trash pull at the Farris home on Garden Lane. They found mail, two cell phone boxes, several plastic bags that had previously been heat-sealed and receipts from restaurants in California.
The complaint states that it is common for drug traffickers to transport drugs, especially over long distances, in heat-sealed containers to avoid detection. Farris is currently in the Gilmer federal prison in West Virginia, and Maidlow is in the Elkton facility in Ohio.
Farris is expected to be released in 2044 and Maidlow in 2033, the Bureau of Prisons states.
Drug cartels, such as the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, produce most of the meth that reaches hubs in Los Angeles and Atlanta. The cartels produce it in “super labs” throughout Mexico. These labs range from small clandestine facilities to large factories, according to the DEA. Mexican and American narcotics officials regularly investigate and try to locate these “super labs.”
Although the Mexican government placed restrictions on meth precursor chemicals, such as pseudoephedrine, Mexican cartels continue to adapt by finding alternative methods to manufacture the synthetic product, the DEA said in a 2019 news release. In similar fashion, cartels are also expanding their methods of smuggling meth into the U.S. Meth, which can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked, is finding its way into the country via liquid suspension, pills, powder and shards.
As meth enters the country in its various forms, recrystallization labs are being set up across the country, posing a new threat to citizens — explosions, the DEA said. In recent years, DEA officials have visited Mexican “super labs,” which have been seized by authorities. It’s not known whether any local officials have ever visited Mexico.
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“I do not and quite honestly I cannot imagine anyone wanting to put their life in such jeopardy to do so,” Perrin said. “The cartels kill women and children so killing a drug agent would be nothing to them.” Perrin added that the cartels have a grip on local distribution. “Because they are so ruthless, individuals know better than to cross them,” Perrin said. The prosecutor said he is aware of local dealers that have declined to speak with law enforcement about cartel activity due to this danger. “I’d rather go do my time,’” Perrin quoted local dealers.
“Because the cartel will kill me in prison, they will kill all of my family in the community to send a message.’”
COVID-19’s effect on meth distribution
The COVID-19 pandemic has recently affected meth distribution in the Mountain Empire. With people being released from local jails due to COVID-19 precautions, Perrin said they are going back out to use and distribute meth. Many pretrial release inmates are drug addicts, he said.
“The coronavirus and the reduction of jail population onto the street and the infusion of stimulus money is putting drug activity at an all-time high,” Perrin said. “It’s wide open.”
Andis said meth has recently slowed by the lack of importation of pseudoephedrine from China into Mexico because of the pandemic. The lack of meth availability caused increases locally in the resale prices from normally around $200 an ounce to $1,000 an ounce, the sheriff said.
“We are now seeing increases in the methamphetamine, increase in sales and availability,” Andis said.
‘We are simply doing damage control’
Perrin said he believes law enforcement is under-resourced to effectively deal with the large quantities of meth coming into the region.
“We are seeing that our vice units are not even at the capacity that they were several years ago, despite that we are dealing with more and more drugs,” Perrin said.
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Fewer people also want to become officers, he added. “[Cartels] look for developing markets and they try to take advantage of it,” Perrin said.
Cartels are coming into the region, with not just meth, but also heroin, fentanyl and other deadly drugs. “Because we have such a demand for opioids in this area, they are hoping to tap into our growing heroin epidemic,” Perrin said.
Heroin has resulted in several fatal overdoses in the region and is one of Perrin’s biggest concerns. In 2019, 38% of the drug overdoses in Sullivan County involved meth. So far this year, three out of four people have overdosed on meth, according to Sullivan County records.
“We are never going to get ahead of it,” Perrin said. “We are simply doing damage control.”