Savage meth: How meth got a foothold in the Midlands

A Special Series

abeam@thestate.com jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 23, 2007 

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    Day 1: Meet the man who unleashed meth on the Midlands.

    Day 2: South Carolina does not monitor long-term health of children exposed to chemicals at meth labs.

    Day 3: Is there a former meth lab in your neighborhood? Is it safe? Is there any way to know?

James Matthew Quattlebaum was sure he was finished.

The Indiana transplant sat in his car at the side of a Lexington County road, stopped for a traffic violation. On the seat, wrapped in tinfoil, was methamphetamine. On the floorboard were boxes of Sudafed. In the trunk, cans of ether.

The deputy charged Quattlebaum with driving with a suspended license and impounded his car. But when Quattlebaum got the car back, the meth, the Sudafed, the ether — all of it — was untouched.

“The car was full of ingredients to cook dope — and they didn’t know,” Quattlebaum said. “They had no clue.”

It was 2001, and indeed, the deputy wasn’t sure what he had. He certainly didn’t know who “Matt” Quattlebaum was.

Quattlebaum, law enforcement now knows, was the first to introduce the highly addictive and destructive drug to an unsuspecting Lexington County.

In the process, he helped give birth to an area so saturated with meth labs and meth users it’s known to law enforcement as the “Meth Triangle.”

Detective Sam Gunter has a flow chart with about 80 names of suspected meth dealers and cooks. Most link to Quattlebaum.

“Matt is the one that brought the recipe to Lexington County,” said Gunter, the county narcotics specialist who investigated Quattlebaum’s case. “The majority of these (meth cooks), while some of them may not have learned directly from Matt, they’ve learned from somebody that learned from Matt.”

Statewide, cooks like Quattlebaum have declined in number. Meth lab seizures hit an all-time low last year of 126 after rising to 246 in 2005, in large part because of laws restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, meth’s essential ingredient, found in over-the-counter decongestants.

Meth smuggled in from Mexico has filled the gap.

But law enforcement officials say U.S. crackdowns at the Mexican border could be choking off that supply pipeline — and leading to a new surge in S.C. cooks and labs. Lexington County deputies, for example, have raided 13 labs since June 1 — after finding none the first five months of the year.

Meanwhile, the appetite for meth has not declined. Meth possession cases have continued to rise — to 4,139 last year from 35 in 2000, according to state court administrators.

“Meth is the single largest and fastest-growing drug threat facing our state,” S.C. attorney General Henry McMaster said last week in announcing indictments against 23 Upstate defendants, some illegal aliens, in connection with manufacturing and distributing meth and other drugs.

And meth is a plague happening largely out of public view, experts say.

“People don’t think this is a big deal — but it is,” said Monica Miller of the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development, who for two years has helped county residents and officials handle meth’s fallout.

Meth, like crack cocaine, can destroy people’s health, livelihoods and families. It contaminates property. Its physical toll is so much worse than that of moonshine, its rural predecessor, that generations of families are struggling to recover.

It’s a world consumed by one question: How can I get more?

INTO THE TRIANGLE

Quattlebaum, now 33, came to Lexington County in 2000 on a Harley, addicted to meth and trying to outrun his heartache.

Peggy Darlene Eck, 39, was a lonely and depressed single mother who loved meth and just wanted someone to tell her she was pretty.

The two agreed to talk to The State before reporting to federal prison, in hopes their stories might help others.

Quattlebaum and Eck met in the Meth Triangle.

Four out of every five of the county’s 54 meth labs discovered in 2005 and 2006 were in the Triangle, a swath of southern Lexington County that roughly includes the areas around the towns of Gaston, Pelion, Swansea and South Congaree. The area is about half of the county’s land mass but home to only about 20 percent of its population.

About 85 percent of the area is rural, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 85 percent, white.

The demographic fits what law enforcement and drug experts say about who uses meth.

“I guess it goes back to the old saying, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” said Swansea Police Chief Cliff Hayes, who was once a Lexington County deputy — the one who stopped Quattlebaum in 2001. “With it being so much area down here, they could do it anywhere.”

Quattlebaum first came to Pelion, from Miami, when he was 14, a “shy, fat kid,” who never knew his father and wasn’t speaking to his mother.

He spent a lot of time hanging out, listening to Guns N’ Roses and Metallica and smoking marijuana.

In the ninth grade, Quattlebaum dropped out of school after he met his first love, a 1976 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide.

In 1997, at 23, he left Pelion for Terre Haute, Ind., where most of his family lives. He worked at a Ford dealership across from a federal prison.

Three years pass. In South Carolina, meth is barely registering. Police pursued 35 charges of meth possession that year, and zero for meth manufacturing, according to state court administration records.

In Indiana, meth was everywhere.

“Everybody up there cooked,” Quattlebaum said. “It’s so simple, in five minutes, anyone can make it.”

Quattlebaum had a girlfriend and a 2-year-old son in 2000. By year’s end, his girlfriend had left, taking their son with her.

“I said (expletive) the world and started running,” he said. He didn’t stop until he got to Pelion.

THE COOK’S LIFE

Eck smoked marijuana a bit in high school. She quit school in 11th grade, fell in love, got pregnant and was married at 20. By 26, she was divorced.

She and Quattlebaum found meth and each other at about the same time.

Quattlebaum needed a place to brew his toxic recipe. Eck and her three children lived in a mobile home on five acres in Pelion.

When Quattlebaum asked if he could make some “dope” on her property, Eck looked the other way — as long as it meant she got to have some.

“I said: ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. Me and the kids are going to leave. You just be gone when I get back,’” she said.

But Quattlebaum wasn’t gone and neither were his ingredients: crushed Sudafed pills, lithium batteries, coffee filters — and a tank of anhydrous ammonia.

Quattlebaum was using the “Nazi method” of making methamphetamine, named for its use by Nazi Germany during World War II.

A main ingredient in the Nazi method is anhydrous ammonia, or waterless ammonia, a pressurized liquid that causes a chemical reaction with pseudoephedrine to create meth.

Because ammonia has a high affinity for water, it will automatically seek out water that is closest to it — including the human body.

Ammonia causes severe burns when it touches skin and, when inhaled, can swell a person’s throat shut until the person suffocates.

In Quattlebaum’s recipe, 16 ounces of anhydrous ammonia made about two ounces, or 56 grams, of meth. A hit of meth is usually one gram.

In Indiana, known for its cornfields, gaseous anhydrous ammonia — a fertilizer — was everywhere but hard to get without stealing. In South Carolina, it was much easier.

Quattlebaum bought a tank from a welding supply store in Columbia. It was enough to make about 250 batches.

By the time he needed another tank, Quattlebaum said, stores wouldn’t sell to him anymore because of new federal anti-drug regulations. He would have to steal it.

Neighboring Swansea provided the best opportunity: a Tanner Industries anhydrous ammonia distribution facility.

“I would roll them however I had to,” Quattlebaum said. “If I had to drive through the fence, I would drive through the fence. I was going to get high.”

Getting other ingredients was easier. He bought boxes and boxes of Sudafed from unsuspecting store clerks.

But to meth cooks, ammonia is more valuable than the meth itself. Other cooks, most of whom Quattlebaum had taught, would steal his tanks as he slept.

“One tank would be stolen from like five different people,” Eck said. “People would pull guns on people. It was crazy.”

HIGHS AND LOWS

Quattlebaum and Eck were in love. Meth had a lot to do with it.

Because her man was making it, Eck never had to pay for it. She had a man, and she had a drug that helped her lose 40 pounds and gave her the energy to keep up with her children.

“Especially for women, that’s why it’s so dangerous,” Eck said. “I had a house to take care of, children to take care of, and when you first start doing meth, you can do it all.”

Eck and Quattlebaum’s meth-based love could turn violent. Quattlebaum would beat Eck, and even shot at her a few times. Eck once cracked Quattlebaum’s skull with a glass ash tray.

But the high was worth it, they said.

A meth high lasts for hours. Serious users can string together a high that lasts for weeks.

“I might lay down for two or three hours and then pop back up and go for four or five more days,” Quattlebaum said. “I might do that for a couple of weeks.”

It was a rambling life. Quattlebaum made meth “every couple of days,” sold enough to make the next batch and gave the rest away.

Selling “was difficult, because everybody’s broke,” he said. It’s “a poor white man’s drug.”

Quattlebaum bounced from house to house, each packed with people getting high and having sex. He kept a bag of clothes and a toothbrush in his car.

“Just going, ruining our freaking lives,” he said.

While meth can delay exhaustion, exhaustion always wins.

When Quattlebaum and Eck crashed, they crashed hard. Quattlebaum sometimes slept for three days, getting up only to eat and use the bathroom.

“After you do it for so long, it’s like your body hurts,” Eck said. “You’re depressed. And I remember laying there thinking, ‘I don’t even want to live if I don’t have any dope.’”

In her case, Eck was crashing one morning after a night of using. Her children got up and went to school. The youngest, a 3-year-old boy, watched Barney on TV and ate cereal.

The boy found Eck’s cigarette lighter and set a couch cushion on fire. He tried to blow it out, then turned the cushion upside down and walked away.

The mobile home burned to the ground, Eck said.

She and her son made it out. But eventually, Eck lost custody of her children to their father.

Eck moved in with her mother, but her dependence on Quattlebaum and his meth continued until his arrest.

In April 2003, agents from the Lexington County Multi-Agency Narcotics enforcement team raided a house where Quattlebaum was cooking. They found more than 400 grams of meth.

Eck jumped out a window and tried to hide in some bushes.

Quattlebaum pointed her out, she said.

Eck got out of jail on bail. Quattlebaum never left.

Eck was suddenly methless. But one of Quattlebaum’s disciples, Eric Wayne Cureton, was there to take her in.

“I’m still hooked on dope, meet another man who is hooked on dope, and I’m just happy to have some,” she said.

THE ANSWERS?

Peggy Eck never wants to see meth again. And she won’t — not for a long time.

On March 2, 2005, Eck was sleeping on top of .45-caliber pistol, a child on either side of her.

Lexington County narcotics agents tried to break down her door before she let them in. They found toxic chemicals and meth waste under a garden tub.

But Eck wasn’t dealing with local cops anymore. She was now a target of a new local-federal investigation called “Operation Speedtrap” that snared 20 people, including Cureton, who’s now in prison.

Eck’s bail was set at $1 million.

That was her breaking point.

The amount eventually was lowered, and she got out of jail after Cureton’s parents posted the value of their house as bail.

She passed every one of her court-required drug tests.

She got a job at a construction company — she wouldn’t say which one — answering phones and doing paperwork. Co-workers knew her as the cheerful lady with children, not as the woman who battled drug demons.

For months, she lived a normal life.

But on April 17, a federal judge sentenced her to 12 years in prison for manufacturing methamphetamine.

She waited four months to begin her sentence, working and spending as much time as possible with her children.

On July 18, she and her parents drove to Coleman, Fla., where she reported to prison.

Eck already has started a Bible study with fellow inmates.

“You can say what you want, and the government can say what they want, I still say it’s going to be all right, regardless,” Eck said before leaving for Florida. “God has given me an awesome peace about this.”

Quattlebaum got a 22-year sentence for manufacturing meth. He went first to the Lexington jail, then, in August, to federal prison.

He hopes to be sent to the prison in Indiana that’s across the street from the Ford dealership where he once worked.

On May 25, Eck wrote Quattlebaum a letter detailing her journey to religion.

Quattlebaum hasn’t found God.

“Everybody, when they come to jail, finds God,” he said in late July. “Not that I don’t believe in God, but he must be so busy over here at the jail — I think he’s in A-pod somewhere. You don’t come here, find religion, and then God bails you out. To me, that’s a mockery.”

Quattlebaum said Eck’s letter smelled like a perfume factory.

For weeks, he kept it folded in the front pocket of his jail jumpsuit.

Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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