Methamphetamine from Mexico is flooding Appalachia's Mountain Empire region

The Mountain Empire region in Appalachia covers a rural area in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The region includes twin cities with the name “Bristol”; the one in Virginia is an independent city and the other one is in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

The Bristol Herald Courier reports that two men from Bristol in Tennessee are currently serving multi-decade sentences for their efforts to bring Mexican-produced methamphetamine to the Mountain Empire; as addiction problems in the region are enflamed by powerful drug cartels.

Investigators say that for the few years that Shawn Wayne Farris, formerly of Cathedral City, California, and Sean Maidlow, formerly of Pomona, California, lived in the Twin City, they supplied the region with a large amount of meth produced in Mexican “super labs”.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Abingdon, Virginia, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigators began probing the pair’s drug trafficking operation in Bristol in early 2017. Investigators said the organization was responsible for transporting crystal meth from southern California to the region encompassing parts of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee.

In recent years, meth production has transitioned from clandestine domestic “shake and bake” labs to super labs operated by Mexican drug cartels.

Sullivan County Deputy District Attorney General Gene Perrin told the Herald Courier in an interview that over the years, they witnessed the gradual introduction of drug cartel methamphetamine into Sullivan County. It began slowly, but it continued to pick up speed, he explained.

Gene Perrin coordinates with local narcotics officers and with others across the region. He assisted with the Farris and Maidlow investigation after local narcotics officers observed their activities in Sullivan County.

With the nation in the grips of an opioid epidemic, law enforcement agencies have turned their focus away from meth. As a result, says Perrin, meth has become one of his biggest concerns in the Mountain Empire region.

The rise and decline of the “shake and bake” labs

Starting in 1995, the United States saw a rapid growth in the number of “shake and bake” or “one-pot” meth labs. Thousands of meth lab discoveries were recorded in the Northeast Tennessee / Southwest Virginia region between 2000 and 2010.

The growth of “one-pot” labs reached epidemic proportions. Anyone could produce meth with easily obtainable household goods and consumer products, such as pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient.

Gene Perrin says the most efficient “cooks” typically produced one gram of meth for every gram of pseudoephedrine.

A cook in the Sullivan County area could buy a box of pseudoephedrine from the store and use it to produce approximately 3 grams of meth. The meth would sometimes be cut and that diminished the potency, but more product could be sold that way.

However, a combination of factors led to an explosion of methamphetamine sourced from drug cartels.

Legislation enacted in 2005 in Tennessee and other states made it a requirement to show identification to purchase pseudoephedrine, which is used to treat nasal and sinus congestion. It also limited the quantity of pseudoephedrine that a person could purchase.

Perrin explains that most of the cooks had to use smurfs, referring to individuals that would go and purchase the pseudoephedrine. The smurfs would then either sell it to the cook or trade it for meth.

Once the cook secured enough chemicals, he would follow the “one-pot” method, which often meant using a plastic bottle. This method was especially dangerous. Fires and explosions were common in the region, which resulted in many people being sent to the hospital.

After going through the “shake and bake” process and hoping the whole thing wouldn't blow up on them, cooks produced 2 to 3 grams of methamphetamine.

In that era, vice detectives would only discover small amounts of meth at a time, since a cook could sell in quantities of a couple of grams.

The small, makeshift labs only produced methamphetamine in a powder form. To convert it to crystal meth, or “ice”, one had to follow additional steps. The benefit of this added effort is that ice is much more potent than powder.

The number of “one-pot” labs gradually decreased as drug cartel meth moved into the Mountain Empire. Meth from Mexico already comes in crystal form, and is more plentiful. As a result, drug cartel meth is flooding the streets in the Appalachian Mountain Empire.

From Mexico to California to Appalachia

The overwhelming majority of the meth in Sullivan County arrives from Atlanta, via the interstate highway system. Law enforcement officials say a number of people from the Mountain Empire travel to Atlanta to bring back methamphetamine. Perrin says that about 10 to 20 kilos of it comes into Sullivan County on a weekly basis.

Washington County (Virginia) Sheriff Blake Andis says that methamphetamine is the drug of choice in the area. He adds that the majority of the methamphetamine they are currently seizing comes from drug traffickers bringing it into the area for resale from places like Atlanta, Georgia.

Once it reaches the Mountain Empire, cartel meth is quickly distributed among local dealers and then on to the end user.

Now, virtually all of the meth trafficked into the region is produced on an industrial scale by drug trafficking organizations based in Mexico. These cartels smuggle their products across the southwest border to cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas and Atlanta, for distribution throughout the country, according to the DEA.

This active distribution network resulted in record seizures along the southwest border, with a nearly 250% increase in meth seizures between 2013 and 2018. In 2018 alone, nearly 43 tons of meth were seized at the border, according to the DEA.

Court records show that the Farris organization obtained meth from sources in California. Shawn Wayne Farris originally moved to Bristol from California due to a family tie. Records show he was convicted for meth possession and manufacturing several times in California.

John Ratcliff of Tennessee, who is now incarcerated on federal drug charges, told authorities that Farris and Maidlow were the largest meth distributors in the Mountain Empire. Ratcliff says he worked for both men, collecting drug proceeds and introducing them to drug distributors. Ratcliff told authorities that Farris drove meth from California, and Maidlow had it mailed to Bristol.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons states that Shawn Wayne Farris is currently in the Gilmer federal prison in West Virginia, and Sean Maidlow is in the Elkton facility in Ohio. Farris is expected to be released from prison in 2044 and Maidlow in 2033.