By Jared Ritz
Three men mill about two large barrels billowing toxic black smoke and flames. They nonchalantly throw bags and boxes of all sorts into the containers, looking on as plastic melts, plants smolder and paper smokes.
They are watching their last two years of work go up in flames and they are loving it.
"All that hard work ... this is the end result of it," said Jerry Nystrom, team leader of the Tri-Agency Task Force.
Monday afternoon was the time chosen for the task force, a law enforcement bureau with six counties and two Indian reservations within its jurisdiction, to get rid of all evidence acquired since the last burn. The Havre-based agency hadn't destroyed evidence since the summer of 2000.
The disposal happens at Unified Landfill, east of Havre in Blaine County. The agency's three members hauled the evidence out to the landfill themselves.
All dangerous and volatile chemicals used to make some drugs were removed beforehand by a hazardous waste disposal unit from Idaho.
The destruction process takes about three hours, and if the burning seems a little excessive, there is a good reason for it, an agent said.
"We don't want people coming out here after-hours thinking they can dig up some dope," he said.
The Tri-Agency Task Force doesn't want to take that chance, and afterward it was apparent that this batch of illicit substances was gone from human use forever. The one person who had even a slight chance of getting high from them was the man driving a front-end loader downwind.
The nonburnable items were separated as the agents sifted through the bags and those things were thrown in a pile.
After the fires went out, the ash remains of everything from pill bottles to multiple pounds of marijuana were added to the pile of pipes and tins. All was then crushed and buried.
The day's grand total: 5.4 pounds of marijuana, with an estimated street value of $17,361; 1.4 ounces of cocaine, valued at $3,964; and 2.47 pounds of methamphetamine, worth $111,403. The total value, plus other drugs confiscated like heroin and prescription drugs, came in at nearly $135,000.
The drugs were collected at busts small and large. The agency deals with a lot of large drug busts, but also works on smaller possession and distribution cases. Nystrom said that busts have ranged from a quarter-ounce to four pounds of marijuana, and that drugs of all kinds are dealt with by the task force.
"It's all-inclusive," he said.
Some of the evidence was found by the Hill County Sheriff's Office, Havre Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies from the other five counties in the task force, but they give it to the agency to dispose of.
Nystrom said he knows that the drug problem in Havre is a large one, but added that progress is being made. The agency has developed better communication with other law enforcement agencies in the area to try to keep drugs in check.
"We are working real closely with the FBI agents now. That's helped us out tremendously," he said, adding that other federal agencies like the Border Patrol and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are being called upon more often by the task force.
"We're all sort of teaming up to fight the same problem," Nystrom said.
He said that this is the last mass destruction of evidence. The agency now plans to burn evidence when cases close and all appeals are exhausted, rather than stockpiling it in the office.
Nystrom said he enjoys destroying the evidence.
"It's putting the final close on the case," he said. "It gives you the feeling that you did something right, something good for the community."