Green flames leapt from a roaring smelter as a gigantic steel container moved through the air carrying cardboard boxes toward the fire. The container dumped its contents into the bright orange pit, blazing at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Black and white smoke puffed out in quick bursts from the smelter.
Thursday's scene was typical of what happens to drugs and paraphernalia Tempe police seize from criminals after the evidence is no longer needed and the court cases are closed.
The Tribune rode along with police while property technicians, escorted by SWAT officers, hauled a truckload of such items to a mine in southeastern Arizona for destruction.
"Our primary directive is to protect the people; the secondary is to protect the load," said Tempe Special Assignments Unit Sgt. Kevin Boontjer during the trip to the mine.
For nearly a decade, Tempe police have driven their seized drugs and paraphernalia to various mines in Arizona in order to burn them. The days of the trips are kept secret, and the drives are only made two to three times each year. SWAT officers escort the property technicians and have tactical plans in case criminals try to steal the drugs.
"We escort it every time," Boontjer said. "We staff it based on the amount of property going."
Boontjer said the officers don't generally know what's in the load they are escorting, nor do they ask. Internal affairs officers supervise the process from start to finish and can even do a random check to ensure all the items are there.
"There's all kinds of drugs," said property supervisor Becky Willis-Zaremba. "There could be prescription drugs, marijuana, cocaine, meth and a lot of paraphernalia - the pipes that they smoke it in, the spoons, syringes, that type of stuff."
When officers arrived Thursday at the large copper mine, they stopped in a security office to watch a safety video.
Drive 35 mph, stay left and protect your eyes and head, the video explained.
The SWAT officers signed release forms, pulled on their gear and began the quiet drive up a hill toward the smelter.
In moments they reached the energetic buzz of the smelting area. Gruff men walked around working, sirens occasionally sounded and an odor of molten rock wafted through the air.
Despite nearly freezing temperatures, a large pile of gray rock emitted an ovenlike heat.
Police property staff emptied the truck and stacked the load of nondescript cardboard boxes inside the smelting containers. The process costs $500 for anything under a ton, police said. The load they burned Thursday was far below that amount.
Boontjer stood ready with an AR-15 assault rifle as the boxes were dumped into the smelters.
"They have to partway fill (the container) because you can't release all the smoke at once into the atmosphere," Boontjer said.
As a result, the smelter took in several loads before all the drugs and paraphernalia were destroyed.
Pile by pile, the boxes were consumed. In a couple of hours, the job was completed and the group drove back to the station.
The officers then hit the streets in search of more drugs and other evidence that will someday see the same fate.