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Tu-Uyen Tran, Forum News Service, Published February 21 2014

4 more arrested on meth charges in Grand Forks area; 3 accused of making meth, one of selling

GRAND FORKS – An East Grand Forks, Minn., felon’s purchase of cold medicine at a local pharmacy led drug enforcement agents to what they say is another meth-making operation in the area.

James Michael Richter was arrested Wednesday with Joseph Stanley Austreng and his wife, Joyce Elane Austreng, a Grand Forks couple who agents say supplied Richter with pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in cold medicine and in meth.

Richter and Joseph Austreng were found with what appears to be a mobile meth lab in Richter’s Jeep, a court complaint alleges.

Separately, another Grand Forks man, Dirk Ryan Becker, was arrested Thursday on suspicion of selling meth.

That makes eight meth-related arrests this week. Four Grand Forks women were arrested Tuesday on suspicion of making meth at a home near Schroeder Middle School.

No drug agents could be reached for comment.

Court documents indicate that agents with Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force and the Pine to Prairie Drug Task Force, which operates in Minnesota’s Polk County, have been involved in an investigation for the past couple of weeks. But the documents do not indicate if the cases are related.

Meredith Larson, a Grand Forks prosecutor assigned to Becker’s case, said she can’t comment on investigations.

All four suspects face serious drug charges.

The most serious of the charges against Richter, 46, and Joseph Austreng, 26, carry maximum prison sentences of 40 years and minimum sentences of four years in Minnesota. The most serious charges against Joyce Austreng, 20, and Becker, 42, carry maximum prison sentences of 20 years in North Dakota.

During the course of Joyce Austreng’s arrest, agents also arrested Justin Edward Baker, 29, accusing him of possessing marijuana with intent to deliver, among other charges. The maximum sentence prison is 10 years.

Mobile meth lab

Here’s how the Richter-Austreng case happened, according to court documents filed in Polk County District Court in Crookston, Minn., and state district court in Grand Forks:

Two weeks ago, East Grand Forks police visited several local pharmacies and learned that Richter and the Austrengs had bought pseudoephedrine several times. On Wednesday, they learned from Grand Forks drug agents that Richter had bought more in Grand Forks.

Richter was already on probation for meth dealing and other crimes, so police decided to conduct a probation search at his home in East Grand Forks.

While doing so, they stopped him and Joseph Austreng from leaving in a Jeep. With several officers on the scene, Richter said that everything they wanted was in the Jeep. A search revealed the ingredients and equipment of a mobile meth lab.

More items that could be used in making meth were found in the home where Richter’s mother lives.

During police interviews, both men admitted to making, selling and using meth. Both agreed to urine samples and confirmed they would test positive for the drug.

Austreng said he learned how to make meth in Michigan and had “cooked” the drug four or five times using cold medicine that he paid others to buy for him. With a box of 48 pills, he said he could make about one gram of meth, and the most he ever made was about 10.5 grams.

Austreng has a criminal record that includes mostly misdemeanors in North Dakota and Iowa.

During questioning, Richter said Austreng also made meth with Austreng’s wife.

A search of the couple’s home in Grand Forks turned up items that could be used in making meth along with a gram of meth. Questioned by police, Joyce Austreng admitted that she has bought pseudoephedrine for making meth several times and that she is also a user of the drug.

Accidental suspect

While searching the Austrengs’ home, which shares a bathroom and kitchen with a room where Baker lives, drug agents entered Baker’s room, according to court documents.

They say that’s a normal part of searches meant to ensure their safety. But, in “clearing” Baker’s room, they spotted marijuana paraphernalia.

Baker was “very cooperative” and allowed agents to search his room, where they found 18 ounces of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and $5,894 in cash. He told the agents that he sold marijuana to friends.

Wired informant

In Becker’s case, he was betrayed by a drug dealer turned informant, according to court documents.

Minnesota drug agents bought a quarter-ounce of meth from the dealer Wednesday night and, after being arrested, the dealer agreed to help them. Based on interviews with the dealer, agents revealed that the dealer had bought meth from Becker about 10 times in the past couple of weeks and owed Becker $1,100.

The agents wired the informant with a microphone and gave the informant money to repay Becker. Early Thursday morning, the informant went to Becker’s home in Grand Forks and bought another quarter-ounce of meth.

Searching the home in the afternoon, agents reported finding on Becker baggies that they believe contain meth.

Joyce Austreng made an initial appearance in court Thursday. Her husband and Richter entered not guilty pleas in court Friday. The court set bond for Joseph Austreng at up to $150,000 cash and, for Richter, up to $100,000 cash. Separately, Becker made an initial appearance in court Friday.

Jennifer Johnson and Charly Haley contributed to this report.