Landlords clean up after methamphetamine bust

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- A phone call from her upstairs tenants alerted Wendy Rice to the possibility her downstairs renters were not quite what they seemed.

The upstairs tenants were distressed. In a call from Juneau to Rice's home in Washington state on Monday, the tenants said their portion of the two-story house was filled with fumes they couldn't identify and their kids were sick, nauseated.

A former corrections officer, Rice immediately suspected a methamphetamine laboratory. She called the Juneau Police Department.

Her suspicions soon were confirmed. After obtaining a search warrant, the Southeast Alaska Narcotics Enforcement Team raided the lower floor Tuesday. They said they found evidence of methamphetamine production and arrested Vicki Lutich, 26, and Ryan Emerick, 24, on charges of reckless endangerment, second-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and third-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance.

Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant also known as speed. The labs that produce it are dangerous because of the volatility of the ingredients.

Rice has owned the $235,000 home since 1997. She moved to Washington in August with her husband and children. On Wednesday, she flew back to Juneau to clean up the house and the hazards left behind.

On Thursday, Rice and her friend Margaret Hunt wore masks to protect themselves from fumes as they emptied the 1,000-square-foot ground-floor apartment. Outside in the yard, under the glow of Christmas lights, Hunt's son Lester burned couches, linens, curtains -- anything contaminated by the fumes.

''I am devastated,'' Rice said. ''The most minimal cost will be $5,000. Because I accepted these renters, I may lose this house. I am about ready to cry.''

''It's unfortunate that a true innocent landlord is a victim in these things,'' said Capt. Tom Porter of the Juneau Police Department. ''Cleanup is a major problem, but I am not aware of any kind of assistance or compensation.''

Rice, 34, was directed by the District Attorneys office and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to get rid of anything in the apartment that could absorb fumes or residues. Stuffed chairs, food and the Christmas tree were tossed onto the flames. All carpeting will have to be replaced, and even tiles of the suspended ceiling, Rice said.

Police said the meth laboratory was set up in the laundry room. SEANET seized all drug-making paraphernalia in the raid.

Beads of white caulk around pipes and along the baseboard indicated someone had tried to prevent fumes from rising into the upstairs apartment, Rice said.

''The lab has contaminated everything,'' Rice said. ''Metal things we can wipe off. Outside, there are crews that deal with hazardous cleanups. Here, I have to take care of it myself,'' she said, pulling on rubber gloves.

''It's sad that people take advantage of landlords and other people in the building. What they did has caused health repercussions for the tenants upstairs, and we have to come in here and breathe it,'' said Hunt as she helped Rice.

The Legislature in May approved House Bill 3, tightening laws against possessing ingredients for methamphetamine and allowing police to shut down dangerous, clandestine laboratories before they actually produce illegal drugs.

''They have the potentiality of blowing up and killing not just the people making the drugs but people near the scene,'' said sponsor Rep. Tom Brice, D-Fairbanks, as the bill was debated on the floor of the House.

The chemicals banned, if prosecutors could prove an intent to manufacture illegal drug, include ephedrine, found in cold and diet tablets, and the materials used to cook it down for methamphetamine, such as acetone, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, kerosene, or ethyl ether.

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