Kaitlyn Werk had only been in her new house on Cleveland Street for a few days before things got weird. The back door she always locked seemed to open on its own, and the light in the unused storage room was notorious for flipping on when Werk wasn’t looking.
Werk, 20, had four roommates, and the first days they spent in the house were filled with friends and booze, a finale to a summer spent partying before another fall semester at the University of Montana.
Anyone could have unlocked the door to exit for a smoke break. Anyone could have found the storage room and taken a private tour. On this particular night, Werk was drained from a day spent floating the Clark Fork River. She didn’t have the energy to worry about ghosts.
When Werk woke up on Aug. 24, 2015 at 3 a.m., a stranger was standing over her bed watching her.
“My friend Stephanie used to live here,” the woman said to Werk when she opened her eyes. “I’m just checking the place out.”
Still half asleep, Werk could only see the outline of the small woman, maybe 90 pounds, standing at her bedside. Werk tried to stay calm. Maybe this woman was a friend of her roommate’s. Maybe she was just a drunk, lost college kid.
“Do you have an attic? I think there are people outside looking for me.”
Werk drowsily pointed the woman in the direction of her walk-in closet, or maybe the bathroom, and explained that she had just moved into the house and didn’t know where the attic was.
“Take a look around,” Werk said. “Let me call my roommate and see if he knows.”
As the woman wandered into Werk’s bathroom, Werk called Blake Osborne, the only other roommate sleeping in the house that night, and begged him to come downstairs.
Werk ran to meet him at the bottom of the basement stairs, starting to snap out of her sleepy haze.
“What’s going on?”
“There’s someone in my room.”
Osborne, 22, and Werk ran outside to call 911. Within minutes, Osborne said the Missoula police arrived with four patrol cars and five cops.
After a full search through the house, complete with yelling and flashing lights, the cops came out empty-handed. They told Osborne and Werk the back door was open, so the woman must have escaped.
Sleep was out of the question, so Werk called her mom to tell her the story. She advised her daughter to go into her room with Osborne and make sure the woman didn’t steal anything.
Before the roommates could check inventory, the Missoula police called Werk and said they picked up a woman in the neighborhood who fit the description Werk had given after the failed search.
When the cops showed up with the suspect, Werk hid behind a truck and got a good look at her. They had the wrong person.
Osborne and Werk went back inside, preparing to go back into the basement. Osborne grabbed a spare shower curtain rod from the laundry room.
“Just in case anybody pops out at me,” Osborne joked. He thought the house was safe. After all, the police had just searched the place up and down.
With the lights on in Werk’s room, she and Osborne found that nothing was stolen, but all the sweaters in her closet had been thrown on the ground. There was a pair of someone else’s wedges at the end of Werk’s bed, and a scarf in the corner she had never seen before.
Osborne glanced around the room before dropping to his hands and knees to look under the bed. Like a dad pretending to look for a monster but expecting to find nothing, he slowly lifted the bed skirt and peeked under, jolting as Werk screamed above him.
When Osborne swung his head up from under the bed, he was face to face with a woman who looked “like a meth billboard times 10” coming out of Werk’s sheets, clawing at his face.
Osborne’s first thought was to grab the woman and sit on her. It would have been easy. But as he pushed her away with the shower rod, he noticed the scabs and open wounds scattered across her arms and face. Osborne decided to avoid touching her at all costs.
Werk was already in the other room calling 911.
After a short shoving match, the woman threw Werk’s laptop at Osborne, giving her time to kick out the screen of the window and crawl outside to escape.
When the cops arrived again, they searched the house with Werk and Osborne, who found sunglasses and jewelry on the kitchen table next to a fresh glass of water. There was also a purse and jacket by the back door.
“Is this stuff yours?” Osborne asked Werk.
In the purse, Osborne said the police found a small bag of meth, syringes and pill bottles with a woman’s name on them. Osborne said the police recognized the name and said she was a “known tweaker.”
The police were unable to find the woman until she was caught stealing and arrested at Wal-Mart months later. One of the employees who caught her is a close friend of Osborne’s.
Osborne said police also found holes drilled into the air vents of the house and a trash can tucked away in a cubby that held respirators, soldering tools and a red substance that smelled like sulfur — scrapings from match tips is a common ingredient in meth.
They also found garbage and people’s belongings in the house’s crawlspace between the basement and main floor. That explained the voices Osborne and Werk’s roommate Kevin Curran heard but could never find when he was living in the house alone earlier that month.
Police later told Werk the woman, like many meth addicts, probably returned to the house because she had done meth there in the past.
As Werk would soon discover, meth hadn’t just been smoked in her house, it had been manufactured there. Werk had no idea her new, five-bedroom house was once host to a meth lab and, according to Montana law, her landlord had no legal obligation to tell her it was. It’s almost impossible to prove if Werk’s landlord knew about the meth contamination.
Because of Montana’s haphazard laws regarding meth-contaminated properties, people all over the state are unknowingly living in homes that have toxicity levels hundreds and even thousands of times over the legal limit. It’s these homes that go uncleaned and unnoticed for years that can cause serious harm.
Werk and Osborne’s parents asked their landlord, John Hirsch, if there could have been a meth lab in the house. Osborne said the landlord seemed “freaked” by the accusation. Hirsch said even if he knew the house was contaminated with meth; there wasn’t much he could do for the tenants.
Osborne’s dad immediately called Lee Yelin, president and founder of Water Rights, Inc., to test the house for meth contamination.
Yelin has been sampling and cleaning meth-contaminated properties for years and his results have helped many families successfully pursue agencies that failed to disclose the presence of meth toxicity in court.
When Yelin walked into the Cleveland Street house on Aug. 28, Osborne said he took one look around and determined the home was once a lab.
“I can smell it and all the signs are here,” Yelin said according to Osborne.
The test came back positive for 1.9 micrograms of meth per 100 square centimeters of surface material. The legal limit of meth toxicity allowed in a house in Montana is .1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters.
Although Osborne and Werk’s house was contaminated 190 times the legal limit of meth toxicity, Yelin said this amount is rarely harmful.
“I wouldn’t let my grandkid in there until I cleaned it and painted it,” Yelin said. “But that unit doesn’t scare me at all.”
According to a 2009 study by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, meth toxicity in a home begins to affect people’s health at about 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, which is why 1.5 is the legal limit of toxicity in California. Yelin said many states have their limits set at .5 while others allow each county to decide their limits.
Montana’s limit is set so low because the other laws around meth-contaminated homes are so lenient, Yelin said. But cleaning a meth contaminated home down to .1 micrograms of meth per 100 square centimeters is costly and unnecessary when meth toxicity isn’t harmful until 150 times that amount.
It is also difficult to clean these homes, Yelin said, because he can’t legally use various chemicals and cleaners that other states can, including household bleach. Yelin said he and his crew usually use Dawn dish soap, and vinegar with steel wool to decontaminate a meth house.
When Osborne, Werk and their three roommates discovered their home was contaminated with meth, they found a new house and broke their lease with Hirsch.
The five are in the process of suing their former landlord for their security deposits with the help of ASUM Legal Services, but they can’t sue him for leasing out a meth-contaminated home.
“According to the law, if he is going to withhold any amount of our security deposits, he needs to give us a list of what the damages are and give us a 24-hour period to remedy those issues,” Osborne said. “He never did that or gave us any money back.”
Although Yelin said many people are often successful in getting their money back — landlords would rather pay people to shut them up than deal with the $30,000 hassle of cleaning a meth-contaminated house — Osborne and Werk’s landlord probably won’t be charged for not disclosing that the house was toxic.
According to Montana House Bill 60, if a property has not been deemed by a law enforcement agency as a meth lab, it does not have to be listed on the Department of Environmental Quality’s website that lists meth-contaminated homes in Montana.
Even if the contaminated home has tested positive for meth, Yelin said the only agencies who have authority to put the property on the DEQ’s website are law enforcement. If a home is not on the DEQ’s list, the landlord does not have to tell their tenants the property has been home to a meth lab. Yelin said this includes close to 90 percent of all contaminated homes in Missoula County.
House Bill 60 says a property owner shall “notify in writing, before agreement to a lease or sale of the property that is known by the owner to have been used as a clandestine methamphetamine drug lab, any subsequent occupant or purchaser of that fact if the property has not been remediated by a certified contractor to the standards established by the DEQ.”
But if the house was never busted by law enforcement, or even if it was busted, but before 2005, it’s not on the DEQ’s list and it’s nearly impossible to prove that a landlord knew the property was once a meth lab. Once a home has been cleaned, it is removed from the DEQ’s list.
Yelin said in most states, if a home tests positive for meth, it is shut down and boarded up until it’s cleaned.
In many cases, Yelin said meth-contaminated properties will be rented out for years before it causes a problem. Meth has to be digested or dissolved through skin in order to impact a person’s health, so it rarely affects adults.
“A lot of these properties are rented and everything is fine. It’s been 12 years since the bust, five different renters and everything is going along fine,” Yelin said. “Then somebody comes in with a toddler and the toddler gets sick. Everything goes in their mouths. That’s the only time we start hearing about these good lawsuits.”
In one Montana Supreme Court case, a family moved into a new home that was busted as a meth lab in 2002. When the family discovered their home was a former lab, they moved out, left all their contaminated possessions behind and sued Lewis and Clark County law enforcement.
Although the law enforcement agency legally didn’t have to put the home on DEQ’s website because it was busted before 2005, the jury ruled in favor of the family, awarding them almost $600,000 in restitution and damages.
Renters currently live in Werk and Osborne’s old meth-contaminated home, which is not on the DEQ’s list of toxic homes.
Yelin said the biggest issue with Montana law is that homes where meth has been smoked out of foils and pipes over a long period of time are not reported and listed on DEQ’s website.
Those homes are some of the most toxic, yet only former meth labs are reported.
“Until we start putting the properties where people smoke on the list, we’re never going to get a handle on this,” Yelin said. “We don’t see as many labs in Montana because most people are buying it and bringing it into the state as opposed to making it.”
Yelin said the most toxic home he has ever tested was just off Russell Street and had 365 micrograms of meth per 100 square centimeters. That’s 3,650 times the legal limit. That home is still not listed on DEQ’s website.
“It is a huge epidemic that everybody is ignoring,” Yelin said.
Meth cases prosecuted in Missoula County are up 15 percent from 2014, and 137 percent from 2013, according to the Missoula County Attorney’s Office 2015 report.
Jason Marks, chief deputy county attorney, said the obvious reason there are more meth cases in Missoula is because of the increase in availability of meth in the community.
Although the recent effort to stop production of meth in the U.S. was largely successful, Marks said the drug is now being trafficked into the country.
“Now we have a flood of meth coming in from Mexico,” Marks said. “The regional Task Force is very focused on this issue, which is why we’re seeing a lot of cases.”
While many adults living in meth-contaminated homes remain unaware and unharmed, Osborne and Werk were not.
Werk said she woke up in terrors thinking someone was in her room for most of fall semester. She would turn her lights on and search her entire bedroom. Osborne said Werk still won’t do laundry in the basement unless another roommate is home.
“As soon as the case is over,” Osborne said, “I’m going to make sure everybody in this valley knows that landlord’s name and knows what a shitty person he is, because he rented that house back out after he knew it was a meth lab, and we know he didn’t do the mitigation necessary to clean it up.”
But Hirsch said he did clean the house. After Osborne and his roommates left the house, Hirsch said he paid thousands of dollars to have the home decontaminated before leasing it to the current tenants. He did not provide documents to confirm this.
Hirsch also said he feels badly about what happened to the students and agrees that Montana’s meth laws need to be changed for everyone’s sake.
“It certainly is a horrific problem,” Hirsch said. “There are some challenges and things that certainly need to be addressed on how it’s treated. It affected me miserably as well, between the thousands of dollars and a lot of heartache and sleepless nights.”
Osborne still hasn’t gotten his security deposit back, though, and said he thinks Hirsch assumes Osborn, Werk and their roommates will eventually give up the fight.
“We’re not going to,” he said.