An alert security staff at Wal-Mart helped police arrest two Valley residents Tuesday who were allegedly in the midst of a three-day shopping spree for cold medications containing the primary ingredient for methamphetamine.
Thomas LaFayette of Scottsdale and Pettina Sanchez were arrested Tuesday on a variety of drug charges. They remain in custody at the Gila County jail in Globe, each in lieu of a $10,000 bond.
According to a Gila County Narcotics Task Force agent, LaFayette, 45, and 19-year-old Sanchez spent the better part of Tuesday afternoon hopping from register to register at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, each time to buy as much ephedrine-based medication as the law would allow.
Ephedrine -- found in most over-the-counter allergy and cold medications -- is the main ingredient used to manufacture methamphetamine.
After Wal-Mart authorities alerted police, officers set up surveillance around the store's parking lot and watched the two suspects drop bag after bag into the trunk of Sanchez's car.
"After they were arrested, we found on LaFayette crystal meth and smoking pipes for crystal meth," the undercover agent said. "In the car, in Pettina's purse, we found marijuana, and a pipe with marijuana in it. We also found more crystal meth in the vehicle --about an ounce, plus the 45 boxes of cold and allergy tablets."
Officers said that when LaFayette was interviewed by task force agents, he led them to his pickup truck, which he had left parked at a Wal-Mart in Mesa. Agents contacted LaFayette's probation officer and were given permission to search his truck. There, they said, they found the makings of a meth lab on wheels.
"Inside black plastic bags in the back of the truck were all the chemicals and equipment to make meth," the agent said.
The area of the parking lot around LaFayette's pickup truck had to be cordoned off, while Haz-Mat crews cleaned up the site.
Agents said they later learned that LaFayette had been evicted from his neighborhood after his meth lab exploded, and had been homeless for the past week.
"We think he was just starting to use hotel rooms to (set up his labs)," the agent said.
The two suspects were booked into jail on charges ranging from possession of dangerous drugs, to possession of the equipment to manufacture dangerous drugs.