More than a decade ago, Holmes County Sheriff’s deputies responded to their first call about a methamphetamine lab at a mobile home north of Charm on state Route 557.
“We didn’t know what we had,” said Sgt. Joe Mullet, who was a firefighter for the East Holmes Fire District at the time.
That’s no longer the case.
Holmes County’s meth task force has spearheaded the cleanup of dozens of meth labs in Holmes, Tuscarawas, Carroll and Harrison counties since it was organized in 2010. Mullet, who heads the group, is considered to be the area’s leading expert regarding meth lab operations and is certified in dismantling and removing labs.
Mullet and his team — which includes Sgt. Tim Stryker and Junior Troyer, a firefighter and reserve deputy — are busy. In 2013, 161 meth labs were reported in the four counties. More than 200 labs have been reported already this year.
Meth has become an epidemic statewide, especially in rural counties, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said earlier this year.
When meth first appeared in Ohio, it required a full-blown laboratory to cook meth. Now, “cooks” need just a 2-liter pop bottle to make meth. The figures for 2013 and 2014 are for each pop bottle meth lab found, and there may be as many as four or five in one house, Mullet said. Last week, police found 77 in a Newcomerstown home.
“I have no doubt this is going to be a record year,” he said. “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Cleaning up a meth lab is not without risk.
Mullet said labs have a 50 percent failure rate and can cause fires and explosions. “If they explode, they can take out a wall.”
He recalled a recent case in Holmesville when a lab blew up and the person suspected of operating it was burned.
Mullet takes precautions when dismantling labs and has never had one blow up on him. “You can see them start heating up as you dismantle them,” he said.
The makers understand the risk as well.
Mullet was called to clean up a lab in Uhrichsville in the past year, and he recalled talking to a woman who was involved in operating it. “The lady is telling us what you’ve got to do to dismantle it and clean it up,” he said. “She was right. They know what the risks are.”
R When the Holmes County team is called to a meth lab, task force members start out by talking to the first responders already on the scene to assess the situation. Then they suit up in a fire-resistant suits, boots and gloves. They can’t have any exposed skin in case the lab catches on fire while they are dismantling it, Mullet said.
The suits cost $1,900 each and can be reused, as long as they are not exposed to chemicals, which can damage the suits.
If the meth is still cooking, Mullet and his team have to finish the cooking process to neutralize it.
One of the items they use to neutralize the meth is cat litter. It helps turn the meth into a solid. Once it becomes a solid, it can be disposed of in a trash receptacle. “It’s no longer a hazardous waste,” he said.
After the clean-up process is completed, the team sends a report to the county where the lab was located, along with a list of the expenses involved. “The defendants have to reimburse us, if they have the money,” Mullet said.
Mullet joined the Holmes County task force when it was organized in 2010. At that time, it was headed by Sgt. Roger Sprowl, who was certified to deal with meth.
Mullet received his initial training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., and his advanced training in Kansas City at the Clandestine Laboratory Investigators Association.
To keep his certification, he has to take training every year and know how to cook meth himself. “We have to cook meth in our classes,” he said. “If you can’t finish the cook, it will blow up.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Meth addicts can’t hide their addiction from their family and friends.
Their appearance will change from all the chemicals used in its production, said Richard L. Haun Jr., chief deputy for the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office.
“In the first three months, people will see a difference,” he said. “Addicts have rotting teeth, sores and weight loss. It goes down from there.”
Anyone can become an addict.
“Meth is not prejudiced,” Mullet said. “It doesn’t care if you’re young or old, rich or poor, or about the color of your skin. It doesn’t discriminate against anybody.”
Users have told him that using meth is like going to an amusement park and riding a roller coaster. After riding one ride, you want to go on a bigger coaster for the thrill, he said.
“They want the bigger ride,” he said of meth addicts.
Meth costs $100 a gram, and addicts can spend $200 to $300 a day if they’re a serious user.
“I’ve never found a cook who is not a user,” Mullet said.
Often, there are children living in homes used as meth lab, and they are breathing in toxic chemicals, Haun said.
“The kids is what does it to me,” Mullet said. “That’s what keeps me doing it. If you don’t break the cycle, it will keep going and going.”
Haun added, “That’s when tragedy strikes, when you don’t break the cycle.”
‘HERE TO STAY’
In 2011, Holmes County joined a drug task force formed by Tuscarawas, Harrison and Carroll counties. By joining forces, the four counties are able to share the expense of battling meth.
“It’s not cheap fighting meth,” Mullet said.
The team has a trailer to haul around its supplies used in meth clean-up operations. The trailer cost $10,000 and the equipment costs between $50,000 and $60,000. The four-county drug task force purchased the trailer, and Holmes County provides the supplies, he said.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation also assists with equipment. “They are wonderful to work with,” Mullet said.
When law enforcement in a particular county puts pressure on meth cooks, they just move to another jurisdiction.
“We hit it real hard, and they went away,” Mullet said. “Then they came back. They move around a lot.
“Meth is here to stay for awhile, unfortunately. There are some very smart meth cooks out there. They’re hard to get.”
Both Mullet and Haun urged the public to have patience with law enforcement as they deal with labs.
Haun said they have to have probable cause before they can move against a suspected lab. It can take as long as a year to gather evidence in one case.
They said the public can play an important role in this effort. Mullet said calls from the public help build evidence against a suspected lab.
“Call immediately if you see something,” he said. “Sometimes people will wait a week to call the police, and the information is stale.”
“Everybody has to be our eyes and ears,” Haun said. “We can’t be everywhere.”