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Meth labs on rise in St. Johns County?

Deputies say they've busted 3 labs so far in 2016

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Deputies in Northeast Florida said the relatively low cost of meth and the focus on fighting other drugs may be the reasons more labs have been popping up lately.

The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office dismantled a methamphetamine manufacturing operation in St. Augustine on Wednesday, arresting four people involved and charging them with meth possession.

The woman involved, 47-year-old Angela Price, was also charged with the manufacturing of methamphetamine.

Deputies are still looking for a fifth person connected to the meth labs, which were found at a home only blocks from an elementary school.

The sheriff's office said its narcotics unit had the people involved in the meth lab bust under investigation for some time, and the investigators took part in undercover buys.

Investigators processed dozens of bottles and other material used to make meth for more than six hours Wednesday.

While it’s unusual for the narcotics unit to discover a meth lab of that size, the sheriff’s office said the number of meth labs found in St. Johns County has grown this year.

“The last couple of months, we seem to be in an upswing of labs,” said Sgt. Mike Hartsell of the clandestine lab team. “We’ve had quite a few in the last couple of weeks.”

The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office reported 16 meth lab busts last year. This year, the county has had three.

Duval County has had zero meth lab busts in 2016, and in Putnam County, there have been five so far this year.

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said the increase in meth labs is partly due to the simplicity of putting one together.

“For the most part, when it started it was imported from Mexico because they had large labs in Mexico that were bringing the crystal meth to the United States,” Smith said. “As some of the chemicals to make crystal meth started to become banned, people have found easier ways to make it.”

Smith said even the popularity of the TV show “Breaking Bad,” about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth maker, has caused people to try out labs on the road or in their homes.

“It’s a little bit more common in rural areas, because of the odor that occurs when it is cooked,” Smith said. “If it’s in a more urban area, it’s easier to detect.”

St. Johns County deputies said they do know who that fifth suspect is, and they are in the process of getting a warrant for his arrest. As soon as they do that, they will release his identity.