The investigation started in mid-May. Someone tipped off the Montana Drug Task Force to a couple of labs cooking methamphetamines somewhere in the Flathead Valley. Agents combed through local pharmacies' pseudoephedrine logs looking for red flags--people who were buying unusually high amounts of over-the-counter cold medications. According to court documents, that's when Jonathan and Rachel Kemppainen landed on MDTF's radar.
At the time, the couple was living in a trailer on Jonathan's parent's property in Columbia Falls. Just days after officials focused their investigation on the couple, an informant claimed Jonathan was making meth via the one-pot or "shake-and-bake" method in a dog kennel on his parent's land.
The investigation broke open on May 30, just two weeks after the initial tip, when a woman named Donna Edwards reported her vehicle stolen. That same day, agents investigating the Kemppainens drove by their trailer and found Edwards' car at the property. While following up on the stolen vehicle, one of the agents spotted the kennel described by the informant and asked to search it. According to court documents, Jonathan grabbed his bicycle and fled the scene.
Later that day, with a warrant in hand, agents discovered empty lithium batteries, cold medicine boxes and Drano—all of the necessary ingredients to make meth—among other things at the Kemppainens' property. Rachel was arrested that night; Jonathan the next day. Both were charged with unlawfully operating a clandestine laboratory. They pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for a jury trial in mid-October. If convicted, each faces a $25,000 fine and up to 40 years in prison.
Law enforcement officials believe the days of large-scale meth labs in America are over, and most meth production has switched to smaller operations like the one allegedly run by the Kemppainens. In 2010, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency says 80 percent of the labs it closed down were using the one pot or shake-and-bake method.
The so-called shake and bake method gets its name for being a quick and inexpensive alternative to traditional meth production. Originally, it took up to six hours and large volumes of chemicals to produce low-quality product in a relatively large space. The shake-and-bake method uses fewer of the same chemicals and requires only a two-liter bottle and a few hoses to produce a small amount of purer product, in less than an hour.
Particularly frustrating to authorities is the fact that a shake-and-bake operation can spring up basically anywhere. In 2011, a woman was arrested in a Tulsa, Okla., Wal-Mart for trying to make meth in the store with materials she had shoplifted. A couple months earlier, a man was arrested in the same store for carrying an active shake-and-bake lab in his backpack.
While faster and cheaper than the traditional methods, authorities liken the shake-and-bake method to making a bomb. The chemical reactions involved in the production of the drug create high amounts of heat and, under intense pressure, can easily explode if mishandled. An Associated Press survey released in 2012 revealed that hospitals in states with the most reported meth use show up to a third of patients in burn units were injured while producing meth.
"[People] are turning to shake-and-bake because it's easier and it's mobile," says Charmel Owens, director of the Ravalli County Drug Free Communities Task Force. "Once they're done they can discard the containers wherever. The potential danger to the environment is really high."
The Montana Drug Task Force reports that in-state meth production isn't nearly the problem it was a decade ago in western Montana. This year, MDTF has discovered five labs in the region and at least four of them were shake-and-bake operations. That number pales in comparison to the height of the meth problem in the mid-2000s when MDTF was reportedly closing nearly a lab a week.
MDTF officials credit the decline to increased education and a 2006 state law that regulated sales of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine. The overall number of large-scale operations dropped significantly, but the demand was met in different ways. MDTF officials say Mexican manufacturers started to enter the U.S. market and, in recent years, the shake-and-bake method gained popularity.
Authorities say western Montana meth users still seem to prefer to buy product rather than produce their own, although that trend may be changing.
"We're seeing a slight increase in (overall meth use) in the last year," says Owens. "But we're also seeing more production, so I suspect we're going to have to revisit it as a priority again."