Hood River County Detective Gerry Tiffany quickly backed away from his search of a mobile methamphetamine lab on Wednesday after getting a whiff of deadly gas.
The unmistakable odor of Anhydrous Ammonia followed his discovery of a propane tank in the trunk of a vehicle that had been impounded two days earlier. He said because the tank was not intended to hold the chemical commonly used as a fertilizer, the fittings of the container had corroded and it had begun to leak.
“It was like a bomb waiting to go off,” said Tiffany, who immediately called in help from the Mid-Columbia Interagency Narcotics Taskforce because he did not know what other items the trunk held.
While waiting for the MINT members, who are the certified responders to scenes involving drug chemicals, the area around the county shops off 18th Street was cordoned off by the Hood River Fire Department. Sheriff Joe Wampler also ordered the evacuation of a nearby house and church located downwind from the vehicle.
Officer Dan Nelson from The Dalles City Police Department and Chris McNeel, a Wasco County deputy, then suited up in biohazard gear and headed into the restricted area. The ending to the drama was anti-climatic as they carefully placed the tank into a barrel of water for cushioning so that Wampler could transport it to an unpopulated area and shoot it to free the gas trapped inside. No further chemicals were found during a subsequent search of the vehicle although the identity of two suspects was recovered.
On Monday, Tiffany found the first part of the “box lab” in a plastic bag that had been dumped near the car after four occupants, three men and one woman, fled from police. He said the incident began when the 1991 four-door Oldsmobile crashed into a row of hedges at the Columbia Gorge Hotel about 5:45 that morning.
Both county and city law enforcement officers responded to the call from a hotel employee that the sedan had been used in an attempt to steal a mountain bike from the parking lot. By the time police arrived, the driver and three passengers had left the area. Garry Lynn Bauman, 28, of Salem was later arrested just west of Ruthton Park after officers noted that he matched a witness description of one suspect.
According to reports, Bauman admitted to being a passenger in the car although he denied knowing any of the other occupants or the owner, also from Salem. He was lodged in NORCOR and charged with possession of a controlled substance after two bindles of meth were found in his backpack. While attempting to locate the identification of the other occupants, officers found other drug paraphernalia and meth residue inside the car.
However, because the trunk was locked, Tiffany had to wait until Wednesday to obtain the necessary search warrant to examine its contents.
An investigation is underway and the case has been turned over to Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell. On Thursday, Sewell said the identity of two suspects has been confirmed but they and the third unknown individual remain at large. He said the two fugitives join Bauman and the owner of the vehicle — who cannot be reached for questioning — in a long criminal history of drug-related crimes.
Tiffany said the new trend among meth manufacturers is to have labs that operate out of vehicles. He said that methodology is now preferred because it is easily movable and can be put together for little money from items that are readily available at any discount store.
He said other motorists are then placed in peril in the event of an accident because the gas has an extended “danger zone.”
“If there is a wreck and the container is punctured then anyone within 160 yards could be affected,” Tiffany said.