You Do the Meth

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

Moriarty was used to such tough situations; she'd staked her career on them. She grew up in Adams County vowing never to work with the pain and abuse her Westminster-cop father dealt with every day, only to step into his shoes and put on a Thornton police badge in 1987. As a detective, she cracked ten-year-old cold cases, drive-by shootings and high-profile murder-kidnappings, and skyrocketed to commander in seven years. "She rose pretty rapidly through the ranks because of her capabilities," says Thornton police chief Jim Nursey. "She had people skills, communication skills, sincerity and a passion for the job."

In 2000, those capabilities led to Moriarty becoming head of the North Metro Task Force, an alliance of drug detectives from Adams and Broomfield counties. It was a daunting assignment: She'd never been an undercover or drug cop, and now she was commanding a male-dominated team of longtime undercover narcs engaged in one of the highest-risk areas of law enforcement — and the stakes were about to get higher. In 1998, police had busted 31 methamphetamine labs in Colorado; in 2001, the number of busts reached 455, with 73 of those by the North Metro Task Force alone. Meth cases were overwhelming police departments and inundating the courts. The West Coast meth problem had hit Colorado, and Moriarty's team was at the center of it all. "It went bonkers," says former Westminster police chief Dan Montgomery. "The advent of the methamphetamine labs created a whole new dimension in the North Metro Task Force."

Moriarty was up for the challenge. As the head of an undercover task force, she took the unprecedented step of spreading the word about her unit. "We are trying to benefit the community and make them feel safe," she notes, "but if no one knows how we are doing that, how do they feel safe?" With her statuesque presence, silver hair and intense blue eyes, she was a natural for the media. She told her officers that there'd be no more eating Wendy's hamburgers or nonchalantly wearing respirators on their heads like yarmulkes while sifting through noxious meth labs. Although everyone else seemed to think a gun was the only equipment drug detectives needed, her task force was the first in the state to learn, as a unit, about hazmat suits. To handle the mounting number of meth labs, she designed new investigative protocols and coordinated with local fire departments and hazmat teams to drop the typical length of a meth raid from sixteen hours to ten, then to four.

Denver Family Crisis Center medical director Kathryn Wells (left) told Lori Moriarty that putting kids in drug homes was child abuse; Tonya Wheeler (right) showed her that some meth addicts could recover.
Anthony Camera
Denver Family Crisis Center medical director Kathryn Wells (left) told Lori Moriarty that putting kids in drug homes was child abuse; Tonya Wheeler (right) showed her that some meth addicts could recover.


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

But this baby — he was an unknown quantity. "Child abuse? That had nothing to do with undercover drug investigations," Moriarty says now. "In fifty years, there had never been a drug investigation that identified children as victims." Several months earlier, her team had found an eight-year-old at a meth lab, and after arresting his entire family, Moriarty didn't give it a second thought when a woman driving by said she knew the boy and would take him — even though Moriarty had worked on many child-abuse investigations. But now, looking at the baby, she realized what she'd overlooked — and what her counterparts were overlooking in drug-endangered homes everywhere.

"How many times had we gone to a house where there were toys and cribs and children's clothes, and we would arrest everyone and never even ask about the kids?" she says. "What about the times we would set up a drug deal and have someone meet us somewhere and bust them for a kilo of cocaine? How did we know they didn't leave children back at their house?" The meth epidemic brought the problem into focus for Moriarty. Never before had drug-lab dangers been so obvious; never before had there been such an equal-opportunity narcotic affecting as many mothers as fathers. But kids were equally at risk at cocaine dens and marijuana farms, Moriarty realized, where there might be fewer fumes but just as much potential for neglect, abuse and filth. That year, the National Clandestine Lab Database reported that of the 8,911 narcotics labs seized nationwide, 2,078 involved children. And those were just the kids lucky enough to get noticed.

"For decades, we had missed opportunities to do interventions for these children," says Moriarty. "Unless it was a slap-in-the-face case of child abuse, we'd missed it."

She wasn't going to miss it anymore.

Vince can't remember the first time he smoked meth. "It was just one of those things that kind of happened," he says, probably sometime in 1999. "I was in a bar with my uncle, and the next thing I know, I was getting high. Smoking it. I thought it was cool, I guess. I saw all the attention other folks were getting because of it, and I wanted a piece of the pie."

Before that, he'd been anti-drug — no pot, no cocaine, no nothing — his entire 22-year-old life. He'd stayed clean through a childhood spent in and out of foster homes in Arvada and Lakewood. The varsity football player also avoided the narcotics trap when he dropped out of Jefferson High School a few credits short of graduation, and when Miranda, his blond-haired, blue-eyed high-school sweetheart, got pregnant with their first child and dropped out, too. Living together in one family member's house or another, the two soberly made ends meet thanks to Vince's jobs in mailrooms and tire shops.

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