A hazmat team comprised of members of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Unit removed dangerous chemicals commonly used in the production of methamphetamine from the East County Annex on Monday.
The chemicals were stored in the evidence room of the Precinct 4 Constable’s Office in the rear of the annex, located on Highway 59 in New Caney, and were discovered during an inventory by the new administration and an investigator with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
Newly elected Precinct 4 Constable Rowdy Hayden said the chemicals were discovered during an initial inventory of the evidence room.
“During the inventory process we discovered chemicals that were used in a meth lab, which were in the evidence room,” Hayden said. “Some of the chemicals had already started reacting with each other, so we notified the Montgomery County (Sheriff’s Office) SIU and the DEA.”
Writing on the containers indicated the items were taken into evidence around the year 2000, he said.
“(SIU and DEA officers) came to the office, brought their hazmat team, and properly disposed of the chemicals,” Hayden said. “It was a safety issue having such volatile chemicals in here.”
Lt. Philip Cash, who heads up the MCSO SIU, is a long-time member and now supervisor of an enforcement group called HIDTA, which stands for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Cash donned hazmat gear then removed and examined the dangerous components found in the evidence room, before separating them into containers for safe transport to an approved disposal facility.
Cash said while at one time there was no protocol for disposing of hazardous materials, in recent years, many agencies had begun calling hazmat teams to scenes for removal, if the materials could simply be documented and were not required as physical evidence.
Both bases and acids were found in a safe inside the property room, Cash said, and had been there so long that some of the materials had eaten through paper and cardboard and begun to rust the inside of the safe.
If mixed, the two would have a “very violent” reaction, Cash said.
“There was a chemical smell in the room that I strongly associate with a meth lab,” the veteran narcotics lieutenant said.
Cash stopped short of criticizing the administration of former Constable Travis Bishop, saying it was important to note that a methamphetamine lab had been taken off the streets of East Montgomery County, which was a definite positive.
Hayden said he was surprised at the discovery and concerned to realize the chemicals were stored in a room adjacent to the office that until recently was occupied by Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace James Metts.
He said there are procedures in place for oversight of county offices from one administration to another, but not for seized items.
“There’s no checks and balances for the transfer of an evidence room,” Hayden said, “So Chief (Barry) Welch and I devised a program that wouldn’t jeopardize the custody of the evidence.”
The prior administration was prepared to hand over the evidence, but Hayden and District Attorney Brett Ligon agreed to have the DA’s office act as a third party law enforcement agency during the transfer, by handing the keys immediately to an investigator from Ligon’s office.
The two agencies began conducting a joint inventory the day after Hayden and Ligon took their oaths of office, which was when the shocking discovery was made, abruptly halting the inventory.
“We secured and sealed the room to prevent danger to any of the employees due to the volatile chemicals in question,” Hayden said.
As for the remaining evidence, Hayden says any case already closed will be presented to a judge for a destruction order and subsequent proper disposal.
Like Cash, Hayden chose not to directly comment on Bishop’s handling of evidence.
“I don’t want to harp on what the former administration did or didn’t do, but I can tell you what my administration is going to do,” he said. “We’re going to establish policies and procedures to keep something like this from happening again.”
As the hazardous materials were removed from Hayden’s office on Monday morning, a locksmith arrived to further secure the facility.
Locks were re-keyed, with keys that cannot be duplicated on Hayden’s office and the property room.
The property room also has 24 hour video surveillance and Hayden is working with Ligon’s office to create a security system that will not allow anyone to access the room alone, but will require two people and eventually have a fingerprinting system installed as well.
Hayden said he and his staff are reorganizing their new office and have already begun to implement their most important policy.
“Our number one job is to protect the citizens of Precinct 4,” Hayden said.