You Do the Meth

Police raids bust up drug labs. But they also bust up families.

Someone was at the front door. Miranda's two-year-old daughter rushed toward it, figuring that her father was home. But then the door burst open, narrowly missing her, and the toddler saw that it wasn't Daddy after all.

It was a SWAT team.

Armor-clad police officers stormed inside, weapons drawn. They pushed a shocked Miranda to the floor and fastened her hands behind her back with zip ties. While her three children — her daughter and five- and nine-year-old sons — sat beside her, the SWAT team quickly scouted the rest of the two-bedroom basement apartment. After that, narcotics operatives from the North Metro Task Force took over, led by Detective Rob Lopez. He'd received a tip several months earlier that folks had been scoring methamphetamine from this residence, located in a shabby stretch of low-lying apartments near U.S. 36 and Federal Boulevard in Westminster. He'd sent a wired informant there to buy meth — once from Miranda and once from her husband, Vince. Each time, there were children at home.

Police commander Lori Moriarty is now leading a nationwide effort to help drug-endangered children.
Anthony Camera
Police commander Lori Moriarty is now leading a nationwide effort to help drug-endangered children.
On drug raids, Colorado law-enforcement agencies found not just dangerous chemicals, but children who'd been living in the labs.
On drug raids, Colorado law-enforcement agencies found not just dangerous chemicals, but children who'd been living in the labs.


To see a slide show related to this story, click here.
For video of a North Metro Task Force raid click here.

Combing through the apartment on this evening in December 2004, Lopez and his colleagues found half a gram of meth in a vitamin bottle and a fifth of a gram in a plastic baggie. In a sealed box in a closet, they discovered meth pipes and other drug paraphernalia, plus digital scales and various plastic baggies presumably used to sell meth; elsewhere, they found two stashes of marijuana.

The detectives asked about Vince, and the oldest boy said that his father was at the apartment building next door. They found him there, along with 26 grams of meth in a throat-lozenge container.

As the three children were handed off to representatives of the Adams County Social Services Department, Lopez read Miranda her rights, which she waived. Flustered and defensive, she admitted that she and Vince sold meth out of their home four to five times a day, making $20 to $50 per deal. She smoked meth, too, she said. Lopez asked if she realized what she was doing to herself, to her family. There was more to life than this — didn't she see that? But it was impossible to know if any of that got through.

Lopez then talked to Vince, who was scruffy and skinny, with a goatee; Lopez was scruffy and built, with his long hair in a ponytail. Under different circumstances, in a different life, the two wouldn't have looked out of place sitting down together for a beer. But now Vince said he sold meth to supplement his income — and used it himself. He was already on probation for a previous misdemeanor drug charge, so he was probably facing jail time. Vince seemed resigned to his fate, maybe ready to turn things around, but Lopez didn't buy it. "When you have them at the jail, they're willing to give up the world," he says. "In this instance, I just thought it was more of the same."

As a narc, it was Lopez's job to find the drugs and bust the perps. He wasn't operating a daycare center. The three kids might go to friends or relatives, but who knew if those new caretakers would be addicts? Or they could stay in the social-services system and bounce from one foster home to the next. Either way, they were just collateral damage in the drug war.

"So I dumped Vince off in jail and turned around and went home," Lopez remembers. "And that's usually where it ends."

Lori Moriarty will never forget the moment she realized that her North Metro Task Force team was doing something terribly wrong. She has the instant on film.

The jittery hand-held camera tracks the suited-up and helmeted officers as they pour out of the unmarked police van into the spring sunlight and swarm a suburban house in Thornton. "Police! Search warrant!" they holler through their respirators as they use a battering ram to knock the front door off its hinges. Suspects are pushed flat to the carpeted floor, then carried out of the house as the camera follows officers upstairs. There's a glimpse of a cop pointing a rifle at a man on a bedroom floor. In another bedroom, an emaciated woman sits near a bare mattress and a pile of clothes, looking up fearfully at the officer standing over her. The officer is pointing to something on the ground next to her, just out of sight. The camera comes closer, and what he's pointing at becomes clear: a baby.

Moriarty had the task force tape this April 2002 meth-lab bust to record the first time her SWAT team wore respirators on a raid. She had no idea they would also record their discovery of a fourteen-month-old boy. Watching a respirator-clad officer carry the almost-naked baby out of a house where meth was kept in a toy box and unfinished product hidden in baby bottles hit Moriarty like a ton of bricks. "That was the awakening moment for me," she says. "We had a guy in a self-contained breathing apparatus and a child in a diaper. The baby was in there 24/7, wearing nothing, and we were in there seven minutes and wearing protective outfits. This was abuse."

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