Monday, April 19, 2004

Hotels hotbeds for meth cooks

On-the-go labs subject to explosions

By Kimberly Hefling
The Associated Press

EVANSVILLE, Ind. - Reed Skelton was kicking back on a Saturday night in his hotel room, sipping beer and watching porn when the methamphetamine he was brewing exploded in the bathroom.

The flash fire blew out his room window and severely injured him. In the chaos that followed, 156 guests were evacuated from the Baymont Inn and the hotel's water sprinklers went off, contributing to about $120,000 in damage, said police Sgt. Mike Lauderdale.

As the number of meth labs has spread in recent years from the West Coast and Southwest and infiltrated Midwest states such as Indiana and Kentucky, the labs are being found more in hotel rooms - perfect for "meth cooks" on the go.

They are not just found in seedy motels but in chain hotels that cater to business people and vacationers - much like the Baymont Inn, in a newly developed area on Evansville's west side.

"It does create a mess, and to be honest with you, I'm surprised more people haven't gotten blown up or burned by these things," said Spencer County Sheriff Sheldon Tharp, who has found at least two meth labs in motels in his rural southern Indiana county this year.

To get a room, the "cooks" often use stolen identification or pay someone with drugs or cash to use their ID, said Armand McClintock, who oversees the Indianapolis office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Inside, the fumes from the cooking meth - made mostly with household cleaners such as drain cleaner - can be lethal, and the labs can explode.

The leftover waste is toxic. For every pound of drug made, there are typically five pounds of hazardous waste, McClintock said. The cooks usually get rid of it by pouring it down the sink or toilet.

The biggest danger is the number of weapons the cooks tend to carry and other hazards, Tharp said.

A Doberman pinscher met Spencer County Detective Jeff Meredith when he responded to a call in February at the Scottish Inn north of Dale, 70 miles west of Louisville, Ky., off Interstate 64.

A woman fled the room, but a man on the bed had a sawed-off shotgun at his feet; a handgun was found under his mattress and there was a rifle leaning against the heater, Meredith said. There were no shootings.

"They had more firepower than we had," Tharp said.

General Manager Brad Meyers said the motel, now called the 231 Ambest Plaza Motel, is no longer having problems with meth cooks. He said the staff is more diligent in looking for signs of meth cooking and is reporting suspicious behavior.

One sign is the smell of anhydrous ammonia, commonly used to make the drug. Another is the presence of broken light bulbs, which serve as containers to mix ingredients.

They also started to examine whether local people were frequenting the motel, he said.

"That's something that immediately raises eyebrows," Meyers said. "That person very well could be doing something illegal."

Lauderdale, with the Evansville Vanderburgh Joint Narcotics Task Force, said the explosion last year at the Baymont Inn could have been much worse had the fire hit several jars of flammable liquid in the room.

"It would've taken out the back side of the motel," Lauderdale said.

Reed, 24, was hospitalized with severe burns. After his release, he pleaded guilty to meth-related charges stemming from the explosion and was sentenced in January to seven years in prison, followed by three years in a drug treatment program.

Tom Schroeder, a national spokesman for Baymont Inn, said the explosion appeared to be an isolated incident and did not warrant a change in policy within the chain.

Lauderdale said his task force found four meth labs, including that one, at hotels or motels last year. This year, officers responding to a report of domestic violence found one at the Holiday Inn Express at I-64 and U.S. 41 in Vanderburgh County.

Authorities confiscated 93 labs last year in Vanderburgh County and 1,260 total statewide. That compares with six labs found in Indiana in 1995.

Of the 1,260, 17 were found in hotels or motels, said Sgt. Todd Ringle of the Indiana State Police.

Last year, 309 meth labs in hotel and motel rooms nationwide were reported to the DEA out of the 10,305 total, according to the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center. The DEA numbers are not complete because not all labs are reported to the DEA.

Officers from Lauderdale's task force have met individually with hotel owners and managers to teach them how to respond should find a meth lab.

Across the Ohio River, the Kentucky Hotel and Lodging Association had the Kentucky State Police speak at an annual meeting on the same topic. Last year, 10 labs were found in Kentucky hotel or motels room, according to the Kentucky State Police.

One concern to hotel owners is how to clean a room where there was a meth lab, said Ray Gillespie, executive director of the association. Sometimes, curtains and carpet have to be stripped and the room gutted.

"Apparently, normal household cleaning methods won't work," Gillespie said.

Meyers, of the Ambest Plaza motel near Dale, said it is a problem for hotel owners and the public alike.

"We're all in this together," Meyers said. "If everyone takes steps and encourages their staff to know what to look for, they won't have these kinds of problems because they'll be able to report them immediately."

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