It took less than two hours to train 40 new recruits to help law enforcement root out meth labs in North Dakota. The new division of informants was made up of employees and management of local gas stations, grocery stores and department stores.

The state attorney general's office teamed up with the North Dakota Retail Association and North Dakota Grocers Association to plan eight workshops in major cities across the state — the first of which was held Wednesday. The goal of the Retail Meth Watch Program is to train store employees to spot people who buy products to make meth.

Among the rows of men and women at the Radisson Hotel Wednesday for the first instructional workshop was Mike Allensworth. The 6-year Dan's Supermarket employee currently works at the Mandan store. He was paid by Dan's Supermarket to attend the class and will share the information he learned with his co-workers.

"I think this is a good thing. Everyone in Bismarck and Mandan should take note. We shouldn't take it easy on people making meth," he said.

Before Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem started the Retail Meth Watch Program last month, employees like Allensworth had no idea what ingredients were used to make meth. After the afternoon of instruction by experts in the field, Allensworth not only found out what ingredients are used, but what to do if he's suspicious.

"We weren't doing anything before because we just didn't know," said Tom Woodmansee, president of the North Dakota Grocer's Association. "If we can make it more difficult to buy the products, that's what we want to do."

Some of the most common items to watch are lithium batteries, Heat, camp stove fuel, starting fuel, road flares and products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine — sold over the counter in products such as Sudafed. After a potential meth producer is identified, employees are told to get a license plate number, a vehicle description and any information that can be obtained from a credit card or check.

Employees were warned never to accuse, provoke or confront the suspect, because meth users are potentially dangerous and employee's safety is the priority. Immediately after a suspect leaves the store, clerks were instructed to fill out a suspicious transaction report and contact management or law enforcement. The suspicious transaction report forms were provided to retailers to give law enforcement a detailed description of the suspect and the transaction.

"Hopefully we made it easy for you," said Mike Ness, special agent with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

The new program was developed after retailers and law enforcement in Williston stumbled upon the idea. The city of 12,500 is small enough for store clerks to become familiar with customers, Stenehjem said. So when employees noticed they were continuously selling certain products to the same people, they started contacting the police. More than 24 meth labs were seized in Williams County the first few months of this year, double that of Burleigh County, which had the next highest number of seizures.

The increased vigilance prompted drug makers to do their shopping elsewhere, Stenehjem said.

The Wednesday seminar was the first of eight planned in the upcoming months. The next will be held in Jamestown on July 8.

After the initial seminars, officials plan to do follow-up presentations and answer requests. A videotape may also be made and distributed at cooperating businesses as part of employee training.

"Your involvement and the involvement of all the people of North Dakota is critical," Stenehjem said. "I have clerks tell me that they see people coming in (buying items used to make meth) every night."

(Reach reporter Mike Albrecht at 250-8261 or cops@ndonline.com.)

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