Photo: Leah Shafer (flickr)
The Indiana State Police recorded more than 1,800 meth labs that were discovered in 2013 – a new record. Advances in meth cooking have allowed manufacturers to make the drug anywhere from a backpack to the trunk of a moving car.
But most cooks still do their work in apartments and homes where deadly byproducts can remain long after the lab is gone.
From behind the wheel of his green undercover police pickup truck, Evansville Police Department Detective Brock Hensley points to houses where his unit has uncovered meth labs.
“We could spend all day pointing out meth labs that we’ve worked,” Hensley says with an exasperated laugh.
Henlsey spent six years working on Evansville’s narcotics unit. He says while other drugs have remained an issue, meth has become exponentially more prevalent.
In response, the local city and county police departments joined together to form a Meth Suppression Unit comprised of Hensley and three other officers.
“This is all we do, Hensley says. “We don’t really do any other kind of cases. All we do it meth lab cases.”
Looking into a dumpster behind a suspected meth lab, Hensley sees an indicator of the new “one-pot” system for making the drug.
“This is one of the things we look for. Like when you start seeing a huge amount of two liter bottles like that’s usually a pretty good sign,” he says.
A Legislative Response
State Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon, says meth is a huge issue in her community.
“It seems either a home was being caught on fire, exploded or something literally every week in the Vanderburgh County area,” McNamara says.
After a conversation with an Evansville realtor, she says she began to understand the lasting danger of meth labs.
“It seems either a home was being caught on fire, exploded or something literally every week in the Vanderburgh County area.”
To make meth, cooks use a dangerous cocktail of ether, sulfuric acid, phosphorous, ammonia, iodine and other highly volatile ingredients.
When they’re mixed together these chemicals release toxic gases that cling to their surroundings and contaminate homes.
Property-sellers are not legally required to disclose the presence of a meth lab. However the property owner could be faced with a non-disclosure lawsuit down the road.
So McNamara decided to draft a bill that would make meth lab disclosure a state law. She began by looking into who was in charge of the current state database.
“Through the process, we found out that the criminal justice institute in 2007 was given the authority to create a database and should have been keeping track of meth homes across the state and it had never done that,” McNamara says.
McNamara’s bill would transfer oversight of the database to the Indiana State Police. They currently collect the meth lab data, but don’t publish it.
Indiana State Police First Sergeant Niki Crawford says when her agency first began tracking meth labs, there were only a few hundred busts each year.
“We work 97 percent of the meth labs in the state,” Crawford says. “We work with local agencies to report those and process those labs, so it’s something we’ve been involved in from the very beginning.”
As the numbers increased, she says the Criminal Justice Institute simply didn’t have the resources to keep up.
McNamara’s legislation requires the data be displayed on the Indiana State Police website.
Compromising Between Private Interests And Public Safety
Southwest Indiana Association of Realtors CEO George Postletheweight says his group is backing the bill because prospective homebuyers need to know what kind of investment they’re getting into.
“And it’s not just the impoverished homes. It’s upscale. It happens everywhere,” Postletheweight says. “It happens even in commercial situations. I know we had an incident not too long ago in a storage unit just down the street that was cookin’ in the storage unit.”
The bill doesn’t create a permanent black list of meth lab properties. The state police compromised with relators so now the legislation mandates only certain properties be listed for a limited period of time.
The legislation gives property owners 180 days to clean their property after a bust and prevent it from being listed. If the property does go on the list and the property owner does eventually get it decontaminated, the state police are required to remove the property within 90 days.
”We certainly don’t want to block anyone from selling their property in the future just because it has a stigma of what has happened in the past,” Postletheweight says.
Cleaning Up The Mess
At the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Kyle Endris is in charge of certifying groups that decontaminate properties.
“Before the property can be re-entered or released or sold, it has to be cleaned up,” Endris says.
She also curates a list of certified cleaners property owners can use.
“They’re actually the people that go in and do it all. They don’t just inspect they take the samples and then they either decontaminate it and tear out parts or do a whole demolition,” she says.
Once those groups have cleaned a property they report back to Endris with a final report that she certifies.
She says there’s re-certification, but no one actually goes to the homes to test after a cleaning.
Endris is also now the only one who will keep tabs on all properties that have had a meth lab in them, regardless of the time table in which they were cleaned.
Some property buyers seek out such homes because they tend to sell at a discount. But Detective Henlsey isn’t sold on the idea.
When asked if he would live in a decontaminated house that once contained a meth lab, Hensley laughs.
“Would I? No – Probably not.”
He says he sees enough of them every day.