Saturday, July 19, 2003

Butler meth lab dismantled

3 of 4 suspects charged; cleanup takes 12 hours

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Butler County sheriff's deputies, wearing protective gear, prepare to place evidence into a protective container at a house in Butler County's St. Clair Township on Friday afternoon.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
ST. CLAIR TWP. - Police swooped into a vacant house just north of New Miami around 4 a.m. Friday, after a neighbor reported suspicions that someone inside was stealing electricity. What they found was much more serious: a working methamphetamine lab.

The air inside the house "was cloudy, and it smelled like someone was spray-painting," said Christopher Niesen, a New Miami officer who backed up Butler County sheriff's deputies Bill Brown and Corey Watson when they entered 1911 Caldwell St.

Officers quickly realized they had uncovered a clandestine drug lab, and called for firefighters, medics and hazardous-materials specialists. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was notified.

Authorities cut off the house's electrical supply to decrease risk of fire or explosion. They also evacuated five other houses and decontaminated seven people - three officers and four suspects who were inside the house. Crews wearing protective gear remained on the scene for 12 hours, cataloging evidence, dismantling equipment and securing chemicals. Three suspects were charged, and charges were pending against the fourth late Friday.

Butler County Sheriff's Maj. Anthony Dwyer said the lab's discovery suggests that informants' tips about "a meth surge" in the county have been on target. Previous Butler County labs have been incomplete or portable - in car trunks and motel rooms - and were not set up for long-term operation like this one, Dwyer said.

"I'm not aware of a lab with this many components at one location," he said. A fish tank, funnels and a propane cylinder containing anhydrous ammonia were part of the setup in the house's basement.

The bust happened just days after a statewide law enforcement conference focused on ways to combat Ohio's growing problem with meth abuse and meth labs and their potentially explosive, flammable and toxic chemicals.

"Meth has just become an environmental nightmare for the state of Ohio. ... The cleanup and the effects that it has are dramatic," said Kim Norris, spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, an organizer of the conference held this week in Marion. Environmental cleanups of meth sites average $2,000 to $5,000, but can run into the tens of thousands.

"When it's cooking, there's a great risk of fire or explosion," said St. Clair Township Fire Chief Terry White.

Kendra Taylor, a 27-year-old mother of a 7-year-old boy, lives a block away on John Street. "It's pretty scary," she said. That's why she went to a relative's house in another Butler community after learning about the meth lab. "That's really amazing to me, an empty house with all of that going on, and no one knowing about it," Taylor said.

A lot of other Ohioans might be in that predicament, Norris said, because the number of meth labs in the state "has jumped incredibly."

In four years, the number of labs busted in Ohio has more than quadrupled. In 1999, 24 were found; so far this year, the total exceeds 100 - and more are being found in Southwest Ohio than in any other part of the state, figures show.

Meth, a stimulant known as "crank," is concocted from a volatile mix of cold medicines, household chemicals and, often, anhydrous ammonia. A liquid fertilizer stored under pressure at minus 28 degrees, anhydrous ammonia can burn skin and lungs if its vapors seep into the air.

An inventory of the items found at the Caldwell Street residence was unavailable Friday.

Sheriff's deputies said they charged Kevin Triplett, 26, of Dayton, Ohio, and Roger Owens, 32, of Lynchburg, Ohio, with illegal manufacturing of drugs, breaking and entering, and theft of utilities. Michelle Mason, 18, of Lynchburg, was charged with criminal trespassing; that charge also was pending against a 24-year-old Hillsboro woman.


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