The Dallas Morning News
(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.

Seizures of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and GHB are up by substantial margins, the DEA says. Ecstasy and GHB top the list, soaring from 3,034 doses two years ago to 13,586 in 1999 and 120,827 in the first five months of this year.

"We hate to see it," said Salt Lake police Capt. Roger Winkler. He was standing in a windowless file room at the police station. The wall was plastered with mug shots of drug suspects arrested in Pioneer Park. "Utah has always been above this. It hits home." Ecstasy and GHB have exploded despite a Salt Lake club scene that is virtually dormant by non-Utah standards. The Mormon influence translates into tough limits on alcohol sales. Most bars require customers to buy memberships before imbibing. They are often restricted to serving low-alcohol beer.

But there is a sprinkling of nightspots in and around Salt Lake's hotel district, where construction is booming in anticipation of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The blue laws apparently have done little to keep ecstasy and GHB out of the hands of young revelers.

"People can always find a connection," said Jan Hansen, a 20-year-old college student who was sipping a latte at Cup of Joe, a downtown coffeehouse. A jazz band was playing.

"Lots of things are frowned on here, but people still use them," said Hansen, a Salt Lake native. He sported a silver stud in his lower lip and a pair of earrings. "I've tried 'ex.'"

His buddy and fellow student, Garrett Smith, 21, also told of sampling ecstasy. "At my high school here, there were only 20 good Mormons," Smith said, speaking above a saxophone wail. "The rest were, like, jocks who just wanted to get stoned."

Salt Lake's drug counselors know the type. They have seen the demand for treatment spike 20% since the mid-1990s, driven largely by meth users under age 35. Clinic operators say that while most speed addicts are lower-income white people, the meth plague has cut across the socio-economic spectrum.

"I don't know why we're seeing proportionately more meth here than other places," said Dr. Bruce Jacobson, director of the Cornerstone clinic near downtown. "We wonder about that ourselves.

"Obviously, we live in a more conservative area. But I can't say with any confidence or certainty what the influence of the Mormon Church is on the drug problem here."

Barbara Hardy, who heads Salt Lake County's drug abuse programs, considers the church a mixed blessing in her mission. Its anti-drug strictures, she says, have undoubtedly steered countless young people away from narcotics.

Then again, Hardy added, the church's preeminence may have fostered a false sense of security. Utah's population of 2.1 million is 70% Mormon, a figure that has been fairly constant for four decades. About 60% of the Salt Lake region's 1.2 million residents belong to the church.

"It's easier here to look the other way and say the drug problem doesn't happen," said Hardy. "Denial is a wonderful thing."

Church spokesman Dale Bills sat down to discuss drugs in a paneled conference room at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, a Renaissance Revival monument to the religion's patriarch. The gem of marbled columns and stained-glass ceilings was once the Hotel Utah. It is across Main Street from Temple Square, whose six-spired worship hall is Salt Lake's tangible heart and soul. Tourists strolled the grounds behind high iron gates.

"Our message is the same, the doctrine is the same, the principles are the same," said Bills, referring to the church's stance on drugs. "We set a high standard, but not all kids are perfect."

The church offers its own drug treatment programs, including 57 weekly group-counseling sessions in Utah. "It's sort of our take on A.A.," said James Goodrich, the church's welfare director for northern Utah.

Attendance is modest, however; 15 to 20 people turn out at each meeting. Brown, the Mormon social services executive, said the church has yet to see a marked upswing in demand for help.

"It has not been reported to me that we have any dramatic increases," he added. But he acknowledged that admission rolls at secular clinics might paint a darker picture.

Don Mendrala, now in his fourth year as chief of the DEA's Salt Lake office, says he had envisioned a much brighter picture when he transferred here after stints in St. Louis and Chicago.

"I thought this would be a nice, quiet community," he said. His desk phone was ringing. Night had begun to fall, a busy time. "I'd been completely unaware of the problems."

The phone bleated away. Mendrala had to iron out the details of a pre-dawn raid set for the following morning. "We want to get 'em while they're sleeping," he said.

It was another meth lab. Not far from Pioneer Park.

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