Investment properties, Airbnbs and even caravans are being used as drug labs across Sydney, exposing suburban neighborhoods to organized criminal gangs and a very real threat of poison explosions.
The dangerous trade is also spreading further into the city’s outskirts, police chiefs say, after two multimillion-dollar labs were uprooted in the last week.
Pensioners on Oakhurst’s Southee Circuit peered through lace curtains as heavily armed police officers stormed a brick house in their quiet corner of Sydney late last month.
HAZMAT firefighters and specially trained police officers in yellow coveralls followed, lugging buckets of chemicals onto the front lawn.
There were few signs the nondescript rental property contained a secret lab, $2 million in methamphetamine and $10,000 in cash until police cars arrived.
“The cook was brought to the UK from overseas to set up a laboratory and extract methamphetamine,” said John Watson, commander of the Drugs and Firearms Squad herald.
“Two men were arrested and more than two kilograms of methamphetamine were manufactured, but we were able to prevent it from getting onto the streets.”
The drug squad is now finding labs clandestinely set up in Airbnbs, short-term vacation rentals and rental apartments, rather than being set up in permanent locations, Watson said.
The Oakhurst facility was just a five-minute drive from the largest lab the team found in 2022. It was associated with $21 million worth of ice cream, wads of cash and cars with secret compartments and took a full week to dismantle last October.
In April of this year, the force was called to a lab in a high-rise apartment building in Parramatta. The cooks had 60 packets of baby wipes soaked in methamphetamine oil so they could sell them without raising suspicion.
Some labs travel across the country packed in the trunk of a car, set up for a few days or weeks, and then move on.
“We’ve even had converted caravans and trailers that have put people in the back of stopped or tracked vehicles that were just mobile labs,” Watson said.
“Boxing labs” are so common that they’re one of three scenarios the drug squad trained country cops to uncover last week.
Watson said the well-known clandestine labs are the “heart” of a new breed of drug syndicate; no longer organized along ethnic lines or dominated by outlaw biker gangs (OMCG) as in previous years.
“There’s no real ethnicity, it’s not necessarily OMCG running the labs… They’re syndicates, limited only by imagination, united with a common purpose of making these drugs,” Watson said.
For drug chefs, the goal hasn’t changed: stay off the radar for as long as possible.
Residents at the Southee Circuit lab keep to themselves, locals said, and Watson wants the public to know how often he hears that.
“These people don’t invite anyone, they don’t talk to neighbors,” said the commander.
“Perhaps one hears touching noises inside that indicate something mechanical, a kind of crunching noise that occurs constantly at odd hours. Maybe you can see someone loading vans with sewage and plastic buckets.”
“Bad salt” was still scrawled in a drug chef’s handwriting on a bucket confiscated in Oakhurst. Tea-colored liquid sloshed as officers transferred it to a forensic container.
Such drug lab waste is corrosive enough to “rotate your fingers,” Detective Inspector Warren Lysaght told officers who later went to a massive training facility to learn how to fight drug trafficking.
Lysaght spent Friday teaching rural police officers how to identify and stabilize drug labs until special forces arrive from Sydney.
“Five years ago they were mostly in the greater Sydney area, but we’ve seen a real pattern of movement into outlying areas,” Watson said.
“They feel like they’re not as well known to law enforcement in those areas, or maybe the labs are so remote and distant neighbors don’t spot them.”
For the final test at the Orchard Hills training facility, officers must enter a house containing a simulated active laboratory. You’ll push past glass jars that seep onto the kitchen bench, open up caustic chemicals and electrical wires, while keeping an eye out for any possible explosions or toxins.
Children’s toys and clothes are scattered around the room between a huge methamphetamine condenser and white powder stacked in rows on the dining table.
Watson said it’s not uncommon for families, including children, to also live in the labs. Sometimes cooks or their family members present to the emergency room with chemical burns.
“It’s not uncommon for secret labs to catch fire or explode. They’re inherently dangerous,” Watson said.
“Our hearts and thoughts are with these children… It is devastating for investigators to learn that these children have been exposed.”
Six days after the Oakhurst raid, heavily armed police stormed Eric Crescent in Lidcombe where another laboratory was found in the kitchen. The police’s Dangerous Goods and Chemicals departments followed to dismantle the equipment.
Lysaght and Watson are aiming to have officials from all parts of the state on the training course by the end of the year, before the labs move entirely out of Sydney.
“It’s about making it difficult for them to leave Sydney,” Watson said. “No matter where they go in NSW, they won’t be able to hide from us.”
Airbnb works with the police by sharing information in response to valid legal requests and claims to have a team that works directly with the police.
“We take reports like this very seriously and value taking decisive action to ensure our community is protected,” said Susan Wheeldon, the company’s manager for Australia and New Zealand.
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