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There’s a lot of money to be made in meth dealing, and law enforcement officials say business appears to be booming in Billings.

Investigators and prosecutors say they’re being aggressive and doing the best they can to break up dealers’ operations, and records show that more drug-related charges are being filed — but according to Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, law enforcement is still “losing” the battle in Billings.

“We do the best with what we have,” said Sgt. Brian Korell, supervisor of the City/County Special Investigations Unit. “We’re very effective and pretty efficient.”

A recent search of a suspected dealer’s home by the task force — the front line in investigating meth dealers in Billings and Yellowstone County — turned up $7,500 in cash.

“You probably don’t have $7,500 in your house. I certainly don’t,” Korell said during an interview in early August.

“This is really the dirty underbelly of Billings,” he said.

And $7,500 is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of cash a dealer can make selling meth imported from Mexico.

According to Korell, meth can be bought wholesale from cartels in Mexico for $200 to $300 an ounce. By the time that same ounce arrives in Billings, it goes for $2,000 to $2,400.

A gram, or about 1/28 of an ounce, can sell for $100 to $125 on the street.

“I remember (meth) being bad in the late ’90s, but not like this,” Twito said.

Back then, the vast majority of meth used locally was produced locally. That’s changed. In the mid-2000s, state and federal regulations started making it more difficult for meth cooks to buy in bulk the over-the-counter medications that can be used to make methamphetamine.

Now meth is almost exclusively brought to the region from Mexico.

And the crystal methamphetamine hitting the streets in Billings, unlike yesteryear’s home-grown “crank,” is usually 95 percent pure, plus or minus three percent, Korell said.

“There’s just a lot more dope in town,” he said. Last year, the task force seized about 16 pounds of meth. As of July 1, officers had seized 11 pounds of the drug in 2014.

The ‘Bakken nexus’

Law enforcement officials say that the Bakken oil patch has an influence on meth use and increased crime within the surrounding regions.

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John has described Billings as a “pass-through” for meth distribution to the oil fields in Eastern Montana and North Dakota.

One such distributor was 50-year-old Washington man Robert Farrell Armstrong, one of 18 defendants in a single federal indictment.

At the end of August, U.S. District Judge Susan P. Watters sentenced Armstrong — also known as “Dr. Bob” — to 20 years in federal prison for his role in a distribution ring that stretched from his home state, through Montana and Billings and into North Dakota.

Since January 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has generated 105 drug-related indictments through Project Safe Bakken, a multiagency task force focused on addressing crime in the Bakken, according to Mike Cotter, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana. He anticipates another 100 drug-related indictments in Montana over the next 12 months.

In the Bakken, meth sells for as much as $300 a gram and $48,000 a pound, he said.

Federal prosecutors in Montana have charged, on average, 150 defendants a year in drug-related cases since 2010, Cotter said. He estimated about 80 percent of those cases involved meth.

“There’s a Bakken nexus, no question,” Korell said of increased meth use in Yellowstone County. “But we’ve got our own problems here. There’s dope destined for Billings, Montana, and it doesn’t leave Billings, Montana.”

‘Pretty small fish’:

Moving up the food chain

According to Korell and other officers, it appears there are more dealers moving smaller quantities of methamphetamine in Billings.

Dealers, on average, can sell a gram of meth for about $120 — but that includes the weight of the plastic bag that amount of meth typically comes in, so users are actually only getting 0.8 grams for $120, Korell said.

“These guys are all about getting one over on everybody,” he said. “It’s all about making a buck.”

Korell described a number of methods used to crack down on dealers, including surveillance of suspected dealers and using undercover informants to make controlled meth buys.

“We use a lot of informants, whether it’s to purchase drugs or to obtain information,” Korell said, sitting in an office at the Billings Police Department. He declined to be interviewed at his office or to say where it is. He and the two other police officers and two sheriff’s deputies who make up the core of the task force dress in street clothes and drive unmarked vehicles.

Dealers are also encouraged to “flip” on — or reveal — their dealers who are then encouraged to “flip” on their dealers.

Korell said one of the task force’s best investigations started with an informant’s quarter-gram purchase of methamphetamine.

“That’s pretty small fish,” he said. “In just a couple of flips, we ended up writing a search warrant for a guy in the Heights and ended up getting five pounds of meth.”

“People don’t want to believe that we live in a community (where) there’s a house with five pounds of meth in it, but it probably wasn’t the only one.”

Another way Korell said the task force goes after dealers is through forfeitures — the legal process through which law enforcement seizes cash and property during investigations.

“We’ll take your stuff,” he said.

Cash, two vehicles — a Cadillac now used as a travel vehicle and a green pickup used to transport evidence — and even a house are among the things police have legally seized from dealers.

The latest forfeiture, Korell said, was a gun safe. “A guy had $10,000 and 20 pounds of marijuana in it. We took his gun safe, and we converted that to official use.”

Some of the drugs might be kept for training aids for K-9 units, but most are incinerated after they are no longer needed as evidence.

Keeping pace

“We really have to go after the people that distribute it,” Twito said. “And I don’t care if it’s the big fish that the feds want (who are) bringing in pounds or it’s the guy selling tiny bags of white crystalline substance on the street corner.”

Federal prosecutors traditionally get “first crack” at charging drug dealers, he said.

“We certainly get a better bang for the buck having cases go federal,” Korell said, explaining that dealers generally get longer sentences and serve more of those sentences behind bars in the federal system than in the state system.

In federal prison, inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences behind bars, compared to state prison in Montana, where inmates become eligible for parole after serving one quarter of their sentences.

Twito, Korell and Cotter all said that law enforcement is doing the best with the resources available.

The City/County Special Investigations Unit was recently named rural drug task force of the year by its federal funding provider, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which includes 31 task forces in Montana, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

And additional resources are being added to fight methamphetamine distribution within the region.

Cotter said that in a recent meeting, FBI director James Comey agreed to permanently station agents in the Bakken region.

“Based on our current drug intelligence, the coordinated law enforcement response (local, state, federal) is, as you put it, keeping pace with the problems we now face,” Cotter said in an email.

Korell said that investigators are “always a little behind the curve” in terms of keeping up with how distributors import and conceal meth and how they transfer and launder money.

“They don’t have rules they have to follow,” he said, he said of meth distributors. “We’re handicapped.”

“Now it’s a different business model, the way the meth is getting into our community. And we’re losing,” Twito said. “They are better businessmen at this point than law enforcement is in terms of keeping up with it.”

“We need to focus our energies on methamphetamine, whether it’s in the state system, the federal system, locally, regionally, whatever — we need to get a handle on this and figure it out. And we all have to come together to do it.”

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City news reporter for the Billings Gazette