Trial starts in case of massive meth lab
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A man and his niece are on trial this week, charged with operating one of the largest methamphetamine labs ever uncovered in Kanawha County.
Raymond D'Arco, 53, and Shawnette Lovejoy, 26, were arrested in March 2008 after authorities spent months watching their activities at 514 Falcon Drive in Sissonville. Lovejoy was eight months pregnant at the time of the arrest.
Both pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, operating a clandestine drug lab and possession of the precursors to manufacture methamphetamine.
In testimony Tuesday, several officers with the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department said the secret basement lab, concealed behind a hidden door, was one of the most elaborate they had ever discovered.
Sgt. E.S. Drennan and Sgt. Jeffrey Meadows, two of the first officers on the scene on March 10, 2008, said the odor of meth could be smelled as soon as the door was rammed open by a SWAT team. Other officers testified they smelled the distinctive smell of meth on the street outside.
"It's the most chemicals I've ever found in a place in all the ones I've investigated," Meadows told the jury.
Assistant Prosecutor Ben Freeman said when officers discovered the secluded lab, they immediately cleared out of the house because of the danger.
Cpl. L.S. Deitz characterized it as a "red-phosphorus" lab, the most common kind police find in the county. But he said the scale of the Falcon Drive facility was so large, specialists called in had to don the highest level of protective gear with oxygen tanks.
"Those suits are heavy and hot, and in a matter of minutes you are drained," Deitz said. "We don't want to wear them unless we have to.
"This is the only lab I've ever been involved with where I had to wear that suit, but there was no way around it," he said.
In a "covert" basement room, officers found an elaborate set-up, including an extensive number of items they recognized as common in meth labs, including: glass jars, beakers, plastic tubing, coffee filters, a coffee pot, scales, iodized salt, iodine, bottles of "Heet" brand gas line antifreeze, Coleman fuel, muriatic acid, acetone, homemade gas, a propane torch, kitty litter, heat tape, a cooler and a refrigerator.
A ventilation system had been rigged up with a fan and dryer hose to exhaust the fumes out of the house.
Hanging above the door, which was camouflaged to look like the rest of the wall, and hidden behind shelving was a shotgun loaded with one shell, the officers said. The home had a surveillance camera on the front porch and a television monitor in the meth lab, they testified.
They also confiscated a chemistry textbook and another book called, "Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture," by Uncle Fester.
Jurors were told that book is often found in home meth labs. Available on the Internet, it provides instructions for making meth and other drugs, the officers said.
Meadows told the jury the home was cluttered with junk outside and inside. He described it as "pretty dirty" and "nasty."
Deitz also said the amount of meth-making materials carried out of the home was large, including multiple bottles of Heet, peroxide and iodine. Those materials, which took hours to remove, were placed on a plastic sheet in the yard and photographed.
Jurors saw that picture, which was one of more than 60 taken by officers and displayed in the courtroom.
Deitz testified such meth labs are usually the effort of multiple persons, one "chief cook" who may supply a small amount of the drug in exchange for needed ingredients. He said that can explain the heavy traffic in and out of a meth lab home.
Police had been watching D'Arco's home for months, beginning in 2007, after receiving four anonymous tips about activity there. They also tracked his purchases of ingredients at local stores.
Drennan testified that he observed the house more than 30 times before authorities believed they had enough evidence to make arrests and search for a lab.
Ed Rebrook, defense attorney for D'Arco, told jurors in his opening statement, "There are two sides to every coin. Just as there are two sides to this case.
"If the facts were as the prosecutor says, we would not be having a trial," Rebrook said. "He would have pleaded guilty."
Dennis Bailey, who is representing Lovejoy, said she cannot be tied to the meth lab at all.
"The heart of the matter here is that the only evidence the state has to put forward is Shawnette Lovejoy was with the wrong people at the wrong time," Bailey said.
"Her fingerprints were not on anything," he said. "Quite simply, she's not guilty. It's very probable that she didn't even know it was in the secret room. Nobody could have known."
The defense is expected to present its case beginning Wednesday.
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at email@example.com or 304-348-4832.