(distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune)
SALT LAKE CITY, July 26--Pioneer Park was named for the clean-living founders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The neatly groomed common of shade trees and footpaths is six blocks from Temple Square, world headquarters of the Mormon faith.
It is also a prime location for scoring drugs.
"They're here if you want them," said Kathy Kennedy, 48, an admitted alcoholic and former heroin addict who has dabbled in cocaine and methamphetamine.
Unemployed for years, she was killing the afternoon in the park, as she does most days. "There's every kind of drug. This isn't different than any other city."
Salt Lake may be the last place one would expect to find a thriving narcotics culture. After all, the teachings of the Mormon Church, which remains Utah's dominant institution and is the wellspring of its law-and-order politics, forbid even coffee and cigarettes.
But the drug scourge has not spared the Utah capital, for reasons that Mormon leaders concede may be beyond the church's powers of spiritual persuasion. They include the same earthly temptations, family failings, and youthful rebelliousness that bedevil any community.
"I wish we knew why these things happen," said Harold Brown, management director of the church's social services programs. "We have our share of problems. We wish we didn't."
Over the past few years, authorities in the greater Salt Lake area have reported sharp increases in the trafficking of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine (also known as crank or speed), and so-called club drugs like ecstasy and GHB. The proliferation of meth laboratories has been especially dramatic.
"Meth is all around," said Kennedy, who moved here from Oregon last fall. Bone thin and bleary eyed, her face pitted with sores, she pointed toward a distant corner framed by maples and elms. "You can buy meth right down there. You can buy anything."
Utah ranks among the top 10 states for total meth labs, and No. 1 for "speed" cookeries per capita, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In the early 1990s, the DEA and local police agencies raided about a half-dozen labs a year in the Beehive State. They busted 266 in 1999, mainly in the Salt Lake region, and are on a pace to at least equal that number this year.
The typically closet-sized labs are turning up throughout the city and county, from downtown hotel rooms to suburban garages to foothill shanties along the emerald Wasatch Mountains.
Outside Salt Lake, meth makers favor the deep recesses of Utah's national forests. The state has also posted record confiscations of speed smuggled into the country by Mexican dealers.
"I didn't think there would be this much of a problem here. All I knew about Salt Lake City was the religion and things like that," said Keith, a Salt Lake DEA investigator who joined the federal bureau in 1998, after 15 years as a Dallas police officer. He asked that his last name be withheld because he works undercover.
The 38-year-old agent, who was wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, fought off a yawn. He had been up since 4 a.m. to kick in the door of a suspected meth lab. The target was a small house in a quiet, blue-collar neighborhood within a mile of the DEA building.
"There's a lot more meth here than in Dallas," said Keith, taking in the building's third-floor view of church spires, the skyline's signature feature. "It was surprising."
The magnitude of the meth epidemic also surprised Lisa Jorgensen, a state children services worker assigned to the Salt Lake police. Her job is to rescue youngsters from drug-infested homes. In Salt Lake County, 65% of children taken from their parents by the state come from meth dens, according to the Utah Department of Human Services.
"They live in just deplorable, chronic, horrible neglect," said Jorgensen, who was hunched over a computer at the downtown police station. "We get 20 to 25 cases a month."
The DEA has expanded its Salt Lake staff to root out the meth labs. Federal prosecutors have also cracked down. They are zeroing in on meth peddlers who use Utah's sparsely inhabited highway corridors to ship the drug from Mexico.
Since 1996, the U.S Attorney's Office in Salt Lake has prosecuted nearly 1,000 Mexican nationals for drug crimes, most involving meth.
"We're the crossroads of the West [for] Mexican meth," said U.S. Attorney Paul Warner.
Meth aside, Utah is not afflicted with the level of drug-related offenses found in much of the metropolitan West. Its violent crime rate is roughly 35% below that of Western states and the nation as a whole. Nevertheless, the Utah trend for all drugs has been troubling.