VERSAILLES, Ind. -- Police spread across southeastern Indiana to nab 29 "smurfs" in a multi-county drug bust Tuesday.
These smurfs aren't lovable blue cartoon characters. They're key to the widespread methamphetamine trade in that part of the Tri-State.
"Smurfs are the people who go out and buy the pseudophedrine and supply the pseudophedrine to the meth manufacturers. Without these individuals, you can’t have the meth, so they're a significant part of the process and they need to be prosecuted," said Dearborn County prosecutor Aaron Negangard.
WCPO rode along as officers and deputies from Ripley, Dearborn and Switzerland Counties rounded up 19 of the 29 suspects in the first nine hours. In the process, they uncovered a small meth lab and recovered a quantity of marijuana.
Our camera was there when Billy Shaw and his wife Chailley were taken out of their West Street house by Ripley County deputies Adam Hunger, Alex Hafft and Joe Mann.
Both suspects left in handcuffs denying they’d done anything wrong. A young child in the home was placed with other family members.
The operation was huge -- law enforcers from 10 agencies gathering at the Versailles firehouse before heading out.
"This is the most extensive and exhaustive investigation and arrests that will happen in the last two decades in Ripley County," said Prosecutor Ric Hertel.
Soon Hunger was back on the road tracking another suspect. Within minutes, Donald Clark Jr. was located, handcuffed and taken into custody.
That’s the way it went all day -- a steady stream of new occupants for the jail.
Indiana has a big meth problem, Hertel said.
"Indiana has been one or two in the nation in the last five years making methamphetamine and the top five the last 10 years," he said.
He said most of the meth being made in that region stays there.
"I think it's being used in this area and small amounts are going beyond southeast Indiana and the Cincinnati area," he said.
"It seems like it's been picking up a lot more again," Deputy Hunger said.
Tuesday's operation stemmed from a meth lab bust in March. Prosecutors took a different tack Tuesday – going after the smurfs rather than the cooks.
Negangard said 27 arrests would a "significant" dent in the local meth operation – at least until the cooks recruit more smurfs.
Cooks try to get the smurfs addicted to meth so they bring back more pseudophedrine on a regular basis, Negangard said.
"So it actually spreads the problem."
Prosecutors Hertel and Negangard say the best way to curb the meth problem is to make pseudophedrine a scheduled drug that can only be obtained with a prescription.
"In states where they have done that, the meth problem is virtually non-existent," Negangard said.
"It's extremely dangerous to have this many people using meth in our area because when they go back and use meth they're neglecting their children, they're impaired, they're prone to violence."
And they're committing other crimes, Hertel said.
"There's a plethora of problems with a meth addict and they need to be taken off the street," Negangard said.
WCPO Web Editor Greg Noble contributed to this report.