The rented silver Dodge Durango pulled up to Raley's in Galt, and several homeless men got out. They filed into the store, went to the pharmacy, and one by one asked to buy some Sudafed.
Current laws require people to show government-issued identification in order to buy cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine. The men complied and then, carrying their small pharmacy bags, they left the store and got back into the vehicle.
They didn't know that Galt Police Officer Jarrett Tonn had been watching.
He followed and then stopped the van when it violated a traffic rule. Inside the van, the Sudafed pills had already been removed from their boxes and placed in one container, Sgt. Chuck Dedriksen said.
Apparently, the men, all from a Stockton homeless shelter, weren't so sick after all.
Three times in two weeks, the most recent being last Thursday, that same officer made similar arrests. Sgt. Ed Arlt has a feeling the medicine buyers didn't drive all the way from Stockton without planning some other stops, too. And, until Tonn began cultivating sources to tip him off about the buyers, nobody knew if it had happened before.
That's why California lawmakers are considering a bill that would require prescriptions for cold and allergy medicines like Sudafed, Claritin-D and Zyrtec-D. The Senate passed the bill 22-10, sending it to the Assembly for consideration. If it's passed, it would then go to the governor.
That means more trips to the doctor - and more co-payments - or finding another over-the-counter medicine that doesn't contain pseudoephedrine.
"The carnage that we incur vs. the inconvenience that might occur - it shouldn't even be a question. The carnage is real," said the bill's author, Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles.
His bill is modeled after a 2006 Oregon law designed to stop purchases like those seen in Galt, called "smurfing."
In the Galt case, the driver would go to a Stockton homeless shelter and find men who had valid forms of identification, Arlt said.
Of the eight people who have been arrested since May 27 in Galt, three remain jailed on suspicion of violating their parole, jail records show. One man pleaded guilty to felony accessory after the fact.
A woman, who police said was a driver and had two glass pipes in her possession, had just been placed on probation two months earlier for a petty theft conviction. She is due back in Sacramento County court in August.
Whether anyone will be charged in connection with the cold medicine is not known, but police didn't find vast quantities of drugs, or any kind of meth lab. A similar Lodi case in February went nowhere.
Supporters of the proposed legislation say federal limits on medicine purchases apparently aren't working, and that California meth lab incidents rose in 2008 from the previous year. However, 2008's number of 346 meth lab incidents is far lower than 2004's number of 764.
The federal restrictions went into effect in 2006. People may not buy more than 3.5 grams of pseudoephedrine per day, and must show identification. Stores must log the sales.
Supporters of the law also point out that other medicines don't contain the drug in question.
For those who have finally found the drug that works, that means it might be time to start searching all over again, or pay money to see a doctor.
The Sacramento Bee (MCT) contributed to this report.