LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Kevin Shepard moved into Room 232 at Knights Inn in Lafayette weeks ago with his fiancee and 3-year-old child to escape a house contaminated with mold. On Friday, the family learned that their temporary refuge might be even more hazardous.
It had been used to manufacture methamphetamine.
More than two years ago, the Tippecanoe County Health Department declared Room 232 unfit for human occupancy and ordered the motel’s managers to hire a state-certified company to test contamination levels. But Ron Noles, the county health department’s chief environmentalist, said he’s received no documentation that the managers ever complied with the order.
“I think he tried to skirt the law, save a buck,” Noles said, adding that he wields no power to fine or cite noncompliant property owners.
Shepard said he had no idea the room had been used as a meth lab until the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/RGKMA1) knocked on his door Friday afternoon.
“They shouldn’t have given us this room until it was totally inspected,” he said, noting that management didn’t mention meth when they offered him a new room Friday. They simply cited a need to remodel the room.
Deven Patel, manager of the motel, declined to comment about the situation, but Noles said Patel told him Friday afternoon that he had hired a meth-remediation company to test contamination levels in the room.
The lesson of this and other episodes is clear: The next time you check into an inexpensive motel, you might just want to sniff around under the bed for an odd chemical smell. The guests who stayed in the room before you might have been cooking up a batch of methamphetamine.
Police report that they busted two such motel-room meth operations in greater Lafayette in recent weeks. They removed meth-making chemicals from a room at Prestige Inn in West Lafayette on April 30, and then dismantled an active meth lab in a room at Economy Inn in Lafayette on May 1.
Authorities posted bright red and yellow signs outside Room 78 at Economy Inn, warning the public that the room is “unfit for human habitation” and will remain so until cleaned and deemed safe by a state-certified meth-remediation team.
Manufacturing methamphetamine in a motel room is a serious felony in Indiana, but those convicted of the crime aren’t the only ones who pay.
Property owners, who are among the many victims cooking meth creates, are stuck at times shouldering the burden of expensive cleanup efforts. Damages are even costlier when lost room revenue and a tarnished public image are factored in.
Ryan Weaver, owner of Rossville-based Bio Recovery Specialists, said his line of business – cleaning up former meth labs – has been particularly “lucrative” lately. That has him thinking, he said, that some motel guests who cook meth are getting away with it and leaving safety hazards behind when they check out.
“The sad thing is, we will probably see more and more people exposed to that situation where they have stayed in a hotel room that has been used as a drug lab,” Weaver said.
The incident last month was not the first time meth-making materials were found at Prestige Inn. A previous incident was reported to the Tippecanoe County Health Department in November 2012. In that case, an operational meth lab was found.
Jagdish Patel, who serves as general manager for both Prestige Inn and Economy Inn, declined to comment on how the costs of testing and remediation are affecting his business.
A total of five motel room meth busts have been reported at Tippecanoe County motels since December 2011.
Dozens of active meth labs and chemical dump sites have been reported during that time in houses, apartments, garages, vehicles, alleys, lots and roadsides, according to health department data.
Law enforcement agencies are required by Indiana law to report meth labs to state police, the criminal justice institute and local fire and health departments, but Tippecanoe County Health Department environmentalist Craig Rich said police probably aren’t catching 100 percent of meth labs, meaning some contaminated spaces may not be getting cleaned up.
“That might be something that’s slipping through the cracks,” he said.
Respiratory problems rank highest on the list of health concerns precipitated by living spaces contaminated with meth-making byproducts, Rich said. Depending on how a structure is built, he added, those concerns could extend well beyond the immediate area where the lab was located.
“When you’re dealing with a hotel, where the heating and cooling units are all interconnected, that can spread to other rooms,” he said.
Noles said any suspicion that a place may have been contaminated by a meth lab should be reported to local authorities or the Indiana State Police drug task force. There’s an online form to report suspected meth activity directly to the state.
Noles said a strong chemical odor is among the telltale signs of a meth lab.
Weaver described the smell as “pungent” or “biting.” It doesn’t take long, he said, for the airborne chemicals to inflict severely itchy eyes or a headache.
Trooper Wes Ennis, a member of ISP’s meth suppression team, said the odor is difficult to describe, but distinct.
“Just like marijuana smells like marijuana, meth chemicals smell like meth chemicals,” he said.
In addition to the chemical odor, authorities warn that the presence of meth-making materials should also raise a red flag.
Cold packs with ammonia nitrate, battery packs with lithium strips, pseudoephedrine that often comes in blister packs, tubing, glass jars – these are all used to manufacture the stimulant, Weaver said.
Ennis said if something looks suspicious, people should report it. He’d rather that an officer determines a complaint to be unfounded than let dangerous contaminants go unchecked.
Ennis said he was among those who responded to remove dangerous materials from Prestige Inn.
“They had solvent in jars that there was still meth suspended in,” he said. “So we still had the product and also a solvent, a chemical, on the scene.”
West Lafayette police officers found about four grams of a white powdery substance that field-tested positive for meth, plus several items of paraphernalia and two Mason jars with wet white residue in the Prestige room, according to a probable cause affidavit filed by the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor’s Office. They took two occupants into custody and removed a sleeping 2-year-old from the room.
Because the defendants had apparently not used their room to cook new product, Ennis said, the threat level was fairly low, making cleanup relatively easy.
The Economy Inn wasn’t so lucky.
Lafayette officers arrived at the motel to serve a warrant when they smelled a strong odor commonly associated with meth-making. They entered a room and discovered meth “in the process of being manufactured,” according to a press release. The man who rented the room and two guests were arrested.
When an active lab is discovered in a densely populated area such as a motel, Ennis said, officers will evacuate adjoining rooms as well until they are deemed safe. He said chemicals used to manufacture the stimulant drug pose a fire hazard and are also physically dangerous, burning flesh when touched or inhaled.
“It will do internal damage to your lungs, esophagus, everything else,” he said.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management prohibits the owner of a contaminated structure from occupying it or “transferring any interest in the property to another person,” unless and until the building is decontaminated or demolished.
Ennis said property owners are responsible for costly testing and remediation and that demolition is, in some cases, the most cost-effective option.
The ISP meth suppression team is tasked with removing immediate hazards from a freshly discovered meth lab, but it’s up to county health department officials, Ennis said, to determine if a structure is habitable again.
The owner of a contaminated property must then seek out an IDEM-approved inspector – such as Weaver or Zac Osborn, who owns Indiana State Decontamination – to test contamination levels before and after cleanup.
Osborn said most of the jobs landed by his company have fallen in the $4,000-$6,000 range. One outlier cost more than $10,000.
Weaver said costs for his company’s services vary between $3,000-$10,000 depending on the square footage involved, the extent of contamination and the materials contaminated. He said remediation of a carpeted room with bare wood and wallpaper, for instance, would cost more than a similarly sized space with cinder block walls and a cement floor.
When called upon to decontaminate a property, Weaver said, cleaners remove all contents, including furniture, clothing, electronics, carpeting and ceiling tiles. They then vacuum the walls and spray all surfaces with a military-grade chemical that boils the meth out of the surfaces, he said.
“We will be in full hazmat suits,” Weaver said. Face respirators and double gloves protect his employees from the chemicals.
Two days later, he said, the team will conduct a post-test of their work and send the results to the state.
After the county health department gets test results, Rich said, the property can be released for use. Getting a meth lab site cleaned and securing health department approval can go “fairly quickly,” he added, noting that motel owners could have their rooms back in service in three to four months.
Indiana law requires courts to order convicted meth manufacturers to pay for environmental cleanup costs “incurred by a law enforcement agency or other person as a result of the offense.”
Noles, the county environmental officer, said Room 232 was to be tested for meth lab contamination on Saturday. Results should be back within a few days. Meanwhile, he advised the family moving out of Room 232 to have medical checkups as a precaution.
“He still violated the law and will be responsible for any medical issues,” Noles said of the motel’s owner. Noles said he will speak with the county attorney to see whether further action can be taken as a result of the motel’s noncompliance with a health department order.
This is an AP Member Exchange story shared by the Journal & Courier.