ROME, Ga. - When they charged 49 convenience store clerks and owners in rural northwest Georgia with selling materials used to make methamphetamine, federal prosecutors declared that they had conclusive evidence. Hidden microphones and cameras, they said, had caught the workers acknowledging that the products would be used to make the drug.
But weeks of court motions have produced many questions. Forty-four of the defendants are Indian immigrants - 32, mostly unrelated, are named Patel - and many spoke little more than the kind of transactional English mocked in sitcoms.
So when a government informant told store clerks that he needed the cold medicine, matches and camping fuel to "finish up a cook," some of them said they figured he must have meant something about barbecue.
The case of Operation Meth Merchant illustrates another difficulty for law enforcement officials fighting methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that can be made with ordinary grocery store items.
Many states, including Georgia, have recently enacted laws restricting the sale of common cold medicines like Sudafed, and nationwide, the police are telling merchants to be suspicious of sales of charcoal, coffee filters, aluminum foil and Kitty Litter. Walgreens agreed this week to pay $1.3 million for failing to monitor the sale of over-the-counter cold medicine that was bought by a methamphetamine dealer in Texas.
But the case here is also complicated by culture. Prosecutors have had to drop charges against one defendant they misidentified, presuming that the Indian woman inside the store must be the same Indian woman whose name appeared on the registration for a van parked outside, and lawyers have gathered evidence arguing that another defendant is the wrong Patel.
The biggest problem, defense lawyers say, is the language barrier between an immigrant store clerk and the undercover informants who used drug slang or quick asides to convey that they were planning to make methamphetamine.
"They're not really paying attention to what they're being told," said Steve Sadow, one of the lawyers. "Their business is: I ring it up, you leave, I've done my job. Call it language or idiom or culture, I'm not sure you're able to show they know there's anything wrong with what they're doing."
For the Indians, their lives largely limited to store and home, it is as if they have fallen through a looking glass into a world they were content to keep on the other side of the cash register.
"This is the first time I heard this - I don't know how to pronounce - this meta-meta something," said Hajira Ahmed, whose husband is in jail pending charges that he sold cold medicine and antifreeze at their convenience store on a winding road near the Tennessee border.
But David Nahmias, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said the evidence showed that the clerks knew that the informants posing as customers planned to make drugs. Federal law makes it illegal to sell products knowing, or with reason to believe, that they will be used to produce drugs. In these cases, lawyers say, defendants face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
In one instance, Mr. Nahmias said, a store owner in Whitfield County pulled out a business card from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent and told the informant that he was supposed to contact the agent if someone requested large amounts of the materials. When the informant asked if he would call, Mr. Nahmias said, the owner replied, "No, you are my customer."
"It's not that they should have known," Mr. Nahmias said. "In virtually or maybe all of the cases, they did know."
Like many prosecutors, Mr. Nahmias describes methamphetamine, a highly potent drug that can be injected, ingested or inhaled, as the biggest drug problem in his district. While only about a third of the meth here is made in small labs - the majority of the drug used in this country comes from so-called superlabs in Mexico - those small labs can be highly explosive, posing a danger to children, the environment and the police departments that are forced to clean them up. Their sources, he said, are local convenience stores.
"While those people may not think they're causing any harm, the harm they cause is tremendous," Mr. Nahmias said. "We really wanted to send the message that if you get into that line of business, selling products that you know are going to be used to make meth, you're going to go to prison."
Operation Meth Merchant started, Mr. Nahmias said, with complaints from local sheriffs that certain stores were catering to the labs. Prosecutors paid confidential informants - some former convicts, others offered the promise of lighter punishment for pending charges - to buy products in stores in six counties beginning in early 2004, and drop hints that they were making drugs.
Defense lawyers said some of the defendants probably did know what they were doing when they sold the materials. But on several tapes, provided by the government to the lawyers, who played them for a reporter, it was not always clear that the people behind the counter understood.
One recording captures an informant who walked into the Tobacco and Beverage Mart in Trenton, Ga., and asked for Pseudo 60, a particularly potent brand of cold medicine, which contains pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient of methamphetamine. The clerk, Mangesh Patel, 55, said the store no longer carried it. "Police guy came here said don't sell," Mr. Patel said. "Misuse. Public misuse."
The informant replied: "I know what they're doing with it, because that's what I'm going to do with it."
"Yah," Mr. Patel replied, "public misuse."
When the informant found another bottle of pills that he said might work, Mr. Patel told him he could sell only two, under orders from "the police guy." The informant asked if his friend could come in and buy two more. "Yeah," Mr. Patel replied, "But I cannot sell two to one guy."
Defense lawyers say the Indians were simply being good merchants and obeying what they believed was the letter of the law. Several refused to sell more than two bottles of cold medicine, citing store policy. They were charged, prosecutors say, because they allowed the "customers" to come back the next day for more. Prosecutors say that should have made it clear to the clerks that the buyers were up to no good.
In some cases, the language barriers seem obvious - one videotape shows cold medicine stacked next to a sign saying, "Cheek your change befor you leave a counter." Investigators footnoted court papers to explain that the clue the informants dropped most often - that they were doing "a cook" - is a "common term" meth makers use. Lawyers argue that if the courts could not be expected to understand what this meant, neither could immigrants with a limited grasp of English.
"This is not even slang language like 'gonna,' 'wanna,' " said Malvika Patel, who spent three days in jail before being cleared this month. " 'Cook' is very clear; it means food." And in this context, she said, some of the items the government wants stores to monitor would not set off any alarms. "When I do barbecue, I have four families. I never have enough aluminum foil."
According to court records, prosecutors first identified Ms. Patel as the woman who sold two bottles of cold medicine to an informant in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., because her name appeared on the registration of a van parked outside. But the driver of the van worked for a company, owned by her and her husband, that installs security cameras, and Ms. Patel produced records showing that she was picking her son up at a day care center in Tennessee at the moment she was said to be in Georgia.
Her misidentification has fueled the belief among the Indians that investigators were operating on cultural bias. This corner of the state is still largely white; Indians began moving here about 10 years ago, buying hotels and then convenience stores, and some whites still say, mistakenly, that "Patel" means "hotel" in Hindi.
"They want to destroy all Indian businesses," said Ms. Ahmed, whose husband is in jail. "Because they hate us, or I don't know."
Mr. Nahmias said he was willing to consider evidence of language barriers when the cases went to trial later this year. But he denied singling out any group. "We follow the evidence where it goes," he said.
Still, the case has set off ripples from the green ridges here to the Indian state of Gujarat, the traditional homeland of Patels, where newspapers have carried articles about the arrests.
"We go into temple and they look at you - it's a bad image right now," said Dilip Patel, who owns one of the stores involved. "If I have to go to the City Hall to do some paper, they see me 'Patel,' they look at me I'm a hard man, I'm a bad guy."
Malvika Patel's husband, who has Americanized his name from Chirag to Chris, says his wife's arrest made him think about selling his three stores and leaving the country.
"We are from so much cleaner society where we are from in India," he said. "We didn't even know what drugs were."
Ms. Patel says she has tried to shield herself from the ugly aspects of life here - she does not read newspapers because she wearies of all the crime. Maybe, she said, that was a mistake. "I think you need all this bad knowledge now if you want to live here."
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