Welfare check leads to meth lab

SALEM – Salem police officers, Columbiana County drug agents and federal drug agents uncovered a suspected meth lab Thursday morning in a South Howard Avenue residence less than two blocks west of city hall and police headquarters.

The trip to the house at 205 S. Howard Ave. began as a welfare check on two young children and ended with the removal of numerous chemicals and materials used to manufacture the drug methamphetamine.

Three of the five adults living in the house, including the mother of the two children, were taken into custody on active arrest warrants, with further charges expected at a later date, possibly through the county grand jury.

Stephen Smith, 34, and Christopher Merighi, 33, both of whom police said originally came from New Jersey, were wanted by Austintown Police and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office on outstanding warrants for larceny/theft. They were taken into custody after showing up at the house while officers and agents were there.

Tyia Patchen, 24, originally from Portage County, was taken into custody on an outstanding warrant from Boardman Police for theft. She had accompanied her children, ages 6 months and 2 years old, to Salem Community Hospital, where they were evaluated since they had been inside the house where the clandestine lab was located. Columbiana County Children Services took the children from her.

An elderly couple had also been living there, with Adult Protective Services assisting. They were reportedly related to one of the men taken into custody.

Salem Police Det. Dave Talbert said his department received a tip Wednesday evening and involved Children Services besides contacting the Youngstown Drug Enforcement Administration office and the Columbiana County Drug Task Force due to suspicions that drugs could be located there.

Once everyone was contacted and lined up, Salem Police and Children Services went to the residence around 10:01 a.m. Thursday to check on the children and were invited inside.

Talbert said the children were checked and a consent to search was secured from the residents present at the time. Chief J.T. Panezott said that during a search of the second story room where the mother and children stay, some syringes were found and officers did a quick walk-through to make sure nobody else was inside the residence.

They walked up the steps to the attic with lab certified agents from the DEA and smelled acetone, a household chemical which can be used with other household chemicals or materials to make meth.

Panezott said as soon as they got to the top, they saw materials that can be used in the manufacture of meth, such as plastic jugs with hoses sticking out, and immediately stopped, evacuating the house. Members of a DEA clandestine laboratory team went back inside to ventilate the house by opening windows in the attic.

According to Panezott, the DEA agents said it was not an active cook so it was not necessary to evacuate the whole neighborhood at that time. The Salem Fire Department was on the scene in case a fire developed.

A search warrant was obtained from Columbiana County Common Pleas Court and the DEA team suited up with their air masks, fire retardent suits, gloves and boots to remove the chemicals and further search the residence.

Det. Lt. Brian McLaughlin of the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office and director of the CCDTF said this was the first discovery of a meth lab that he knew of in the city of Salem, although he said he believed there may be more. Panezott also said it was the first one in recent history, with McLaughlin saying the closest one discovered in the area was on Westville Lake Road. Most of the rest have been in the southern part of the county.

Panezott said there’s been some meth in Salem and rumors of meth users in town.

“People shouldn’t be surprised – it’s a problem all over the country and only a matter of time before it came here. We’re going to do what we can to deal with it,” he said.

He explained that the worst thing that can happen with a meth lab is an explosion. He said the chemicals used “can be lethal if ingested or inhaled.”

Special care must be taken to clean up and remove everything “so we’re not contaminating the surroundings,” he explained, a job the DEA would handle.

Talbert said anyone who sees what they think could be a meth lab should call police and not touch anything.

Panezott praised the work of his officers in responding, to some putting in overtime after working all night and some coming in when they weren’t scheduled, to help with other calls.