CHINA GROVE — Sharon Deal sits at the kitchen table of her immaculate home in China Grove.
“It’s been a bad year,” she says.
Last summer, her husband, Bill, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Dec. 23. Almost exactly six months later, Sharon discovered a meth lab in the small rental house she owns across the street.
“It’s not just losing your spouse of 54 years,” Sharon says, pausing for a moment to collect herself. “It’s settling everything and all the legal stuff.”
Then came the meth lab bust.
“At first, you’re so mad they’ve destroyed your property,” Sharon says, “and then they walk away with no financial burdens. I think it’s one of the saddest things when you go into a house and see everything that’s been destroyed.”
And destroyed it was. Sharon and her son-in-law walked in the two-bedroom rental home that morning to find clothing strewn everywhere, plates of food left on the counters, debris seemingly on every surface — and as Mitch Rousey quickly determined — evidence of drug manufacturing.
“It’s really a sad thing,” Sharon emphasizes. “Meth is a really bad drug.”
In 2013, there were 561 meth lab busts in North Carolina, the highest number since reporting began in 2003. In Rowan County last year, there were 10 such busts. In the last three years, that number has doubled in Rowan. As in nearly every other of North Carolina’s 100 counties, meth labs are here.
‘Just plain nasty’
The young couple who rented from Sharon and Bill moved in March 1, 2013. Their 9-year-old son, who attended Bostian Elementary School, lived in the house with them.
“They paid the rent,” Sharon notes. “They were a little slow, but never missed a month.”
In January, the man lost his job.
“It seems then that things really started going downhill,” Sharon says. “We know now that they were using what they were making in exchange for raw materials.”
The couple stopped payments in May, and on June 19, Sharon sent a letter for non-payment of rent. On June 26, she and her son-in-law went into the house for a routine inspection.
Sharon’s calendar that week turns out to be a bit unusual: June 24 — pick up twins (her older daughter’s sons); June 25 — 8:30 a.m. Warrior (she’s an avid golfer); June 26 — new dishwasher for second rental house; June 27 — SBI agents clean out meth house.
The week before, Sharon had seen no activity in the 884-square-foot house, no lights on at night. Her daughter, Laura, and son-in-law live next to her with their children, Aaron and Becca. Laura’s family hadn’t seen anything unusual, either.
“That Thursday morning, we saw the renter and his son come in briefly,” Sharon says. “I don’t know how long they were there. We were going to do an inspection because they were moving out on the 30th. I told Mitch, ‘Let’s just do it now.’ I had not been in the house since before Bill died.”
The last time she was in the house — which she thinks may have been late last summer — she went with Bill to repair the toilet.
“The house was just normal,” she says. “It looked lived in, but it wasn’t dirty.”
The next visit produced a completely different scene.
“We pushed that door open,” Sharon says, “and Mitch and I were both flabbergasted. I was getting madder by the minute. It was just plain nasty, that’s all you could call it.”
The fridge and stove — which belonged to Sharon — were still there, but in terrible shape, she says.
“There was stuff piled everywhere,” Sharon says. “Then Mitch went into one of the bedrooms and said, ‘We need to get out of here.’ ”
Law and eviction
Sharon called 911 to report a non-emergency. While doing a home inspection, she said, she’d found suspicious-looking stuff.
When deputies arrived, Sharon showed them the photographs Mitch took on his cellphone. It was enough for a search warrant. According to the law, the home was still the renters’ property. Late that evening, a superior court judge signed the search warrant. The next morning, the SBI arrived.
A deputy stayed all night at the rental house. Sharon slept fine.
“With the deputy across the road,” she says, “I figured things were in pretty good hands.”
Deputies urged her to start eviction proceedings, so Sharon drove to the Clerk of Court’s office that morning. She learned it would take 10 days for the order to be carried out.
By the time she came home, the road in front of her house was clogged with law enforcement vehicles and personnel, news media and gawkers.
In her research, Sharon found that meth was highly addictive and highly volatile in the cooking stage. The SBI was on her property all day. Mitch stayed with her the whole time.
After law enforcement left, Sharon had a decision to make. If the house was safe to live in after it was cleaned out and tested, would she rent it again?
The cost of repair
Sharon and Bill purchased the house in 1969 and have rented it ever since. It has a tax value of $53,000.
“Anything I do is gonna cost me money,” Sharon notes. “I have to decide how much I want to put into it.”
According to clean-up guidelines, all the carpet had to be removed, as well as blinds and other porous materials.
On Aug. 11, the rental house was finally turned back over to her. Seven days later, under the terms of the eviction notice, workers with Servpro came to clean out the house.
“They started at 7,” Sharon says. “It was just nasty. It didn’t take long. They put on their hazmat suits, and bagged up and removed trash and debris.”
The fridge was black with mold and mildew. Sharon let it go. The drawer on the bottom of the stove was broken. Sharon will buy another second-hand.
Only one room — the room where the meth was made — showed signs of contamination. The walls had to be washed down three times with a household solution. Sharon hopes its levels will be safe when tests results return, and she can paint. Otherwise, she’ll have to replace drywall.
There’s more damage to repair: holes in the wall, ripped vinyl flooring which will have to be replaced. A leak in the bathroom has caused the floor to rot in there. And she’ll have to replace the trap under the kitchen sink — who knows how or why it disappeared?
“If I don’t have to have the drywall ripped out, I’m ready to start repairs,” Sharon says.
So far, Sharon has spent $5,700 for the eviction, court costs, Servpro’s work, and environmental testing. She estimates with more testing and all the repairs, she’ll spend between $10,000 and $12,000 to get the house ready to rent again.
Sharon hopes she can recoup the investment in two years — if the house stays rented.
“It is a good income, once it’s fixed up and rented,” she says of the house.
Along with running a background check on potential renters, Sgt. Lane Kepley of the Sheriff’s Office recommends constant vigilance on rental property. Because she was busy with her husband’s estate, however, Sharon couldn’t check on things until it was too late.
“Word your lease so that you can make multiple visits,” he advises. “There was months’ worth of trash piled up in this residence. As soon as you see signs somebody is trashing your property, you need to nip it in the bud.”
The sergeant recommends checking a potential renter’s criminal history, credit references, and references from family and friends.
“You need to really, really check into people before you rent,” he says. “You can do all the investigation in the world, but sometimes, somebody can slip in and do things. Do what you can to prevent it from happening.”
After two months, Sharon has accepted the situation with this rental house.
“When it gets fixed up, it’s a nice house,” she says. “It’s a shame the shape it’s in. I was so angry at first and it just runs over you. Then it was two months, almost, to get to the point I can even start this process. I’m resigned to the fact that’s the way it is.
“From now on, I will always do a background check. If a job needs to be done, I want to get out there and do it. But at least we’re moving on this.”
There are vinyl letters above the arch between the living room and kitchen. They’re mostly peeled away, but you can still make out what they say: Bless this house, and all who enter.
Signs of meth
Signs of a meth house include:
• Powerful odors that may smell like cat urine, ammonia, vinegar or rotten eggs
• Residents who exhibit paranoid behavior
• Residents who usually stay inside, but always smoke outside
• Residents who have frequent visitors at odd hours
• Residents who burn, bury or dump their trash
• Blackened or covered windows
• Open windows on cold days or at other seemingly inappropriate times
• Dead vegetation, burn pits or “dead spots” in yard
• Trash containing the packaging of the ingredients used to make meth