Drug lab listing can stick with a property, warranted or not

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2010

Rain muddied the driveway leading to the property of Dean Scroggins, weeks after the Brendan McGee shooting. Rain filled wheel marks scarred the dirt path amid the remnants of a shattered gate. Rain pattered down on the junked cars strewn about the lot. Tires had been laid out at the edge of the property to ward off uninvited guests.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Rita Davenport stands in the entrance to her home in Nikiski. The property was listed in a government database of illegal drug labs after law enforcement authorities found materials they said could make drugs in a nearby shed. "How you can wake up one morning and become a victim is beyond me," she said.

During a temperate weekend, Island Lake reflected sunlight onto resident Rita Davenport's storage shed. The elderly Davenport stared across her property, clear of debris, at the waterside structure 20 miles from Scroggin's place in Nikiski.

"I just don't know what I'm going to do," Davenport said, staring off.

Despite their dissimilarities, the site of McGee's death shares a common bond with Davenport's lakeside property. They're both identified as drug houses.

At least according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's National Clandestine Laboratory Register. The register, created four years ago, is law enforcement's attempt to develop a nationwide repository for locations known to have been involved in the illicit drug trade. Addresses get on the list after law enforcement officials find evidence of methamphetamine production or related chemical dumping.

The Kenai Peninsula is home to nine of these locations. Alaska has 44 statewide, according to the most recent list.

A simple arrest places the address on the federally managed register. But getting a property cleared is a daunting endeavor.

The DEA created the list on Dec. 5, 2006, as a "free public service," according to DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. The register is available on the administration's website: http://www.justice.gov/dea/seizures/.

Davenport's house itself hosted no meth production that she knows of. But her storage shed almost became a lab in 2008.

"I just lucked out," she said.

According to Alaska State Trooper Capt. Keith Mallard, Davenport's property came on the list after investigators found chemicals and instruments associated with methamphetamine production there. Troopers had gone to the property looking for a man who had been released from jail. Davenport's daughter had assumed responsibility for the man as his third-party custodian.

The man violated the custodian program, and troopers suspected he was hiding somewhere on the property. Mallard said that troopers looked inside the shed and discovered the beginnings of a meth lab.

Other scenes

Troopers placed 47895 Andrews Ave., the site of the McGee shooting, on the register following the arrest of Scroggins in 2004.

Trooper reports state that investigators followed ATV tracks to Scroggins' property after a report of stolen airplane parts.

One the scene, Scroggins admitted to the theft allowed investigators to examine his property. Troopers went inside a shed and found two firearms, one loaded. Troopers also found a triple beam scale, beakers, tubing and containers of drain cleaner, acetone and iodine pellets, commonly used in the production of methamphetamine.

The register also lists a suite at the Merit Inn on Willow Street, right in downtown Kenai. According to trooper reports, the Kenai Police Department did a welfare check on a baby in January of 2004. Locals had notified police that Jeremy Wayne Woody had toted a 10-month-old home from Kenai Joe's bar in subzero weather. Police responded to the apartment and noted a strong chemical odor in the room.

Investigators found iodine, pseudoephedrine and match sticks and a Pyrex heating dish, commonly used for methamphetamine production.

Next steps

After finding evidence of drug manufacturing, local law enforcement notify the DEA and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The arresting agency arranges for meth and other chemicals to be removed. In Alaska, the troopers usually handle that.

The troopers place a sticker on the residence that explains that the property may not be occupied until it receives proper remediation. Living in a building deemed unfit for habitation is a class A misdemeanor, according to state law.

Troopers check the buildings for a short period of time following the lab's discovery. After a while though, Sgt. Sonny Sabala said that public safety officers remove it from their patrols.

"We don't go around checking to see if people have had their properties cleaned up," he said.

The state department manages its list of the locations, as well. Its register contains two Peninsula addresses that are so far unlisted by the DEA.

But what do you do with a house once it's on the drug house list?

Preferred Realty property agent Heidi Hall has been working with the residents of 54025 Inlet Drive in Kenai, to sell their property. Hall said that the residents bought the property before it appeared on the list. The owners didn't notify them that Kenai police had found two portable box labs and more than 80 grams of crack cocaine on the property in 2006.

"It's not going to be able to sell until it's cleaned," she said.

The list's lack of detail alarms Hall. The list is addresses only, with no details as to what drugs may have been found, the amount or where on the property they were found.

"It could be somebody's Dumpster that was put there," she said. "There's no clarification."

In fact, it used to be that if law enforcement caught a meth cooker parked outside a house with a lab in the vehicle, the administration would list that site, as well. The DEA says that doesn't happen any more, though.

State law requires property owners to notify customers that properties are former sites of methamphetamine labs. Willfully keeping buyers out of the loop leaves the previous owner responsible for up to three times the actual damages incurred, according to Alaska's property disclosure form.

Bills and health

Wells Fargo spokesman Jason Menke said that the being listed on the National Clandestine Laboratory Register doesn't necessarily bar homeowners from mortgaging, leasing or renting out their property in and of itself. But, depending on the amount of environmental damage, property values can drop. Menke said that being a location of a former drug house also could increase hazard insurance.

"Without a clean bill of health, it's going to completely impact the property -- and it should," said Glenda Feeken, the owner of Re-Max Realty.

Although law enforcement removes any hazardous material found on-site,

Methamphetamine production releases hazardous gases that permeate the structure. The by-products can cause respiratory, kidney and liver disease, as well as brain tumors.

Service Master of Alaska Disaster Restoration Supervisor Byron Maltby said that the remediation process costs an estimated $4,000 per day. He said that abating the average family home requires three days of labor. Cleaners wear respirators and full body suits during the procedure. Maltby, in Mat-Su, said that his crew would remove all the porous material from the home, including drywall, paint and insulation. Then the company should encapsulate the structure to avoid further chemical leakage.

Many clean-up companies don't deal with meth lab remediation for many reasons. These include work hazards, insurance and the labor required. Maltby's company got tired of doing full demolitions.

"It's not something we're willing to touch," he said.

Methlab Clean-up Incorporated CEO Joseph Mazzuca said that cleaning a stain from red phosphorus, used to make meth, can prove fatal without the proper protections. He said that scrubbing that particular component with water will release toxic chemicals into the air.

"Everything used to make meth, I don't care how it's made, is a hazardous material," he said.

DEC Prevention and Emergency Response Unit Manager Young Ha said that there's no requirement to remediate a former meth house, and property owners can let it sit as long as they like.

"As long as no one is living there, there's no time frame," Ha said.

And contacting the property owner can be difficult if they're in prison.

Listed forever?

Unless the property was listed erroneously, Payne believes the enforcement administration leaves addresses on the list, but he wasn't sure. Sanders seemed somewhat more definitive. He claims that once an address finds its way onto the list, it's stuck.

"The whole purpose of the register is to make sure that anyone who purchases property knows it was a lab," he said.

DEA spokesman Payne said that the list is updated quarterly, but the latest Alaska register was current on Aug. 18, 2009.

"We're trying to perform a public service in the face of a lot of difficulty," he said. "It's not a perfect system. It's never going to be a perfect system, but it's a start."

However, the DEC posts the list on its website for a minimum of five years. Once the owner can prove the property is cleaned, the department will erase the name within three months after the five-year period. The state agency's list contains alleged drug labs discovered after 2005.

The DEA website issues a disclaimer stating it does not verify the information, and encourages readers to call local enforcement agencies.

"We don't have a mothership database here," said Payne.

Local lawyer Eric Derleth holds the register in low regard. He believes that law enforcement officials could find compounds associated with meth cooking at a residence and use the list as a means of harassment.

"The disclaimer takes away any use from the list," he said. "It's a scarlet letter for the property owner instead of the defendant."

Davenport said that she hasn't had her storage shed cleaned since the bust. According to remeditation companies, the intensive cleaning of the shed often costs more than knocking the enclosure down and building a new one.

"I don't have $10,000," she laughed.

Tony Cella can be reached at tony.cella@peninsulaclarion.com.

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