Working on a tip from a suspicious mini-mart clerk and with clues from a grainy surveillance video, local narcotics agents tracked down two Phoenix people who agents say were on a buying mission for a meth lab.
The trail began last week at the Giant mini-mart on Highway 260, where a woman bought 33 bottles of an antihistamine containing ephedrine, a key component of the illegal drug methamphetamine.
The store's surveillance video showed the woman walk into the store at 11 p.m., pay $214 in cash for the antihistamine and leave with the driver of a dark-colored Nissan pickup truck.
The driver of the truck went to great lengths to prevent his face and the truck's license plate from being filmed by the store's surveillance camera, the lead undercover agent on the case said.
"The truck's movements were suspicious," the agent said. "The driver parked the truck with its lights off adjacent to the store and backed out of the parking lot. The driver didn't turn the lights on until he got onto Highway 260."
The clerk, who found out the next morning that store policy prohibits the sale of more than three bottles of the antihistamine at a time, called the police and reported the incident.
Narcotics agents were worried the suspects had spent the night in a local hotel and were cooking meth in their room. They canvassed hotel parking lots in Payson and found a truck matching the description of the Nissan at Holiday Inn Express.
"We have real concerns about people cooking meth in motel rooms," the agent said. "It's extremely hazardous to the people in the room and the people in adjacent rooms.
"It can be explosive. You hear about meth labs in Phoenix blowing up all the time and people burning to death. And the chemicals used to make the stuff have long-lasting effects. It stays in carpets and can harm kids playing on the carpets, and the waste they dump down the drains is toxic."
Shortly before the hotel's 11:30 a.m. checkout time, the suspect woman left the hotel and walked to the truck carrying plastic grocery sacks filled with empty antihistamine blister packs concealed under an afghan, the agent said.
"Instead of leaving their trash in their room to be discovered," the agent said, "they were taking it with them to dispose of it somewhere else."
Agents detained the woman, 29-year-old Denise R. Shannon, and 15 minutes later nabbed her companion, 30-year-old James J. Hadges, just outside his hotel room. He was carrying a couple of backpacks and a loaded rifle in a case, agents said.
Agents said that in the bed of the truck they found several thousand antihistamine and bronchial tablets containing ephedrine sealed in two plastic freezer bags, along with written calculations detailing how much ephedrine was in each bag.
Shannon was arrested on suspicion of possession of dangerous drugs and possession of equipment to manufacture dangerous drugs. Hadges was arrested on suspicion of possession of equipment to manufacture dangerous drugs.
In addition to the pills, agents seized nearly $2,000 in cash, a loaded .44 magnum handgun, the rifle and the truck for forfeiture, the agent said.
Hadges will face additional charges of misconduct with a weapon for possession of a weapon while committing a drug offense and prohibitive possession of a firearm because past felony convictions prohibit him from having firearms at all, the agent said.
Shannon and Hadges were arrested and taken to the Gila County Jail, where they were each released on $7,500 bond.
"There was some luck involved in this one," the agent said, "but we just stuck with it. We can prove that the purpose of extracting those pills was to manufacture dangerous drugs for sale."