Thursday, January 23, 2003

Bust in Silverton

Case of mistaken meth lab


Ross Hamilton had just finished delivering flowers, pulling into a parking lot behind the store in Silverton where he works. He was badged by a plainclothes police officer, and "before I knew it he was patting me down. Then he looks me right in the eye and says, `You know why I'm here, don't you?' "

Ross had not a clue, and he is a very smart guy.

A Withrow and University of Cincinnati grad, he is what some people might describe as "intellectually curious." He loves science in general, geometry and chemistry in particular. A straight arrow, his brother calls him.

But he wears his gray hair in a ponytail and is a former rock musician and student of east Indian spiritual teachings. Plus he loves science in general, geometry and chemistry in particular.

Crawling with feds

Chemistry left me with an unreasonable fear of flasks and geometry with a hard-won C-minus. So, I do not comprehend much of Ross's research. He says he is a neo Pythagorean scholar, which really doesn't clear it up for me.

Maybe I'd understand if I'd read his book, The Mystery of the Great Serpent Mound, an exploration of the Adams County site that has received serious academic attention.

But I think I can understand how it would feel to find my yard crawling with federal drug agents, TV vans and reporters. I can guess how much I would hate having strangers pawing through my underwear drawer. I have an idea how ugly yellow crime scene tape would appear if it were wrapped about my house and how I'd feel if my neighbors had been told something dangerous was cooking in my basement.

Authorities thought they'd found a methamphetamine laboratory and suggested the area should be evacuated. The neighbors stayed put, saying Ross is the last guy who'd mess around with drugs.

Scientific habit

"He is absolutely a straight arrow," says his older brother Bill Hamilton, pastor at a church in Fort Thomas and former head of Charter Committee. Ross's closest brush with substance abuse was having a drink once with Janis Joplin in his former life as a rock musician. For the last 20 years or so, he has been supporting his scientific habit by delivering flowers. He reads, lectures, writes and, occasionally, distills essential oils in the basement of his tidy white frame house.

It's that last one that brought the police around.

A sharp-eyed water meter reader saw something brewing on the stove in the basement. "Two flasks," Ross says. "My little alchemy lab. I don't know what a meth lab looks like."

Neither, apparently, did the police. They called in a chemist, who asked questions, looked at Ross's equipment and research notes and told authorities they were barking up the wrong beaker.

Everybody went home. The accused and the accusers were polite. Nobody was roughed up. No crime was committed. But it was humiliating. It was frightening.

In our zeal for homeland security, in our fierce desire to get drugs off the streets, maybe we should picture a philosopher and scientist with a ponytail. And remember that America's cumbersome legal procedures, famously used as a shield for bad guys, also are to protect the good ones.

And it's impossible to tell the difference just by looking.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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