'Shake 'n' bake' meth labs becoming a problem, police say

A black trash bag changed an otherwise uneventful morning for Rusty Abernathy.

Abernathy began his day -- as he did every day -- by walking near his business, Rusty's Floor Covering, at the corner of 44th Street and Meritas Drive, and picking up trash on the side of the road to throw into his Dumpster.

But one busted bag was different.

"It looked like a two-liter with pink cold medicine inside Draino, and as soon as I saw that I said, 'Oh,' and held it out away from me," Abernathy said. "If that black bag hadn't been busted open I would've just thought it was just trash."

Abernathy had found a portable methamphetamine lab -- or, as narcotics officers call it, a "shake 'n' bake" operation. The meth-making devices provide a quicker way of producing the illegal substances.

"(Shake 'n' bake is) when they put all their ingredients into one vessel and shake it, air it. It's what we see mostly in Columbus when we're working at a dump site or what's considered to be a meth lab," said Capt. Gil Slouchick, who heads the Special Operations Unit at the Columbus Police Department. "They'll set up shop and they're doing a shake 'n' bake. We'll find this in homes, in cars and hotel rooms. I remember one we did where we went in and they had five canisters off gassing."

The popularity of shake 'n' bakes is growing, and with it the expense of cleaning up the chemical concoctions left behind. About two portable meth labs are found each month. It's an easier, quicker method of producing the drug, but just as dangerous.

"What you'll do is you'll take your meth and you'll shake. And you've got a liquid in there, and you'll get a bi-liquid," Slouchick said. "Your trash will sink to the bottom and your meth oil will sink to the top. And what they'll do is take like a turkey baster and stick it in there and draw all the meth oil off. They'll put the meth oil in another jar. And then they'll gas in hydrous ammonia into the meth oil.

"As it bubbles up you'll get a white substance and of course when all your dope is done you've got a white pasty substance that you dry out in a coffee filter. And then you have meth."

Slouchick said most of the portable meth lab discoveries contain no meth, only hazardous materials.

Any location can become a dumping ground for the remains of meth ingredients, and each cleanup requires expensive materials and caution. When officers respond to a dumping site, they use disposable hazardous material suits that cost $45 each. The equipment necessary for these suits can cost about $4,000.

"They have to have the gloves. They have to have the equipment," Slouchick said. "It's expensive, and I don't know how much the state pays to have a cleanup crew come in and dispose of it because you have to dispose of it properly and package it, and take it to a storage area that's cleared to be a storage area, and then is taken to a hazardous waste dump site."

Sometimes police call in another team to answer questions about the chemicals they're dealing with, but often police are able to start the cleanup process on their own. Assistant Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Robert Futrell said his team analyzes the by-product to identify any special cleaning needs, when necessary.

"If they have products that they don't know what they are or if they don't know to handle it, we can do that," he said.

For Abernathy, the discovery was disturbing. However, he said he's not worried about his close contact with the hazardous material.

"I watch a lot of TV, and they used to show those cops, they would smell it. They don't do that anymore because a lot of them died," Abernathy said. "As soon as I saw that Drano I held it out at arm's length and threw it in the dumpster. The only reason I did what I did because I had to meet a customer and I didn't want some little kid to come out there and mess with it while the cops were getting there."

It's drugs near his business that worry him.

"I've found all kind of stuff in the back of my building. These bums, they go to the back of the building, roll out a piece of carpet," he said. "I've found a big bag of marijuana and a pack of beer out there."

Slouchick, however, warns citizens not to touch anything they suspect might be meth-related.

"I don't think he knew what he was moving, and fortunately nothing happened," Slouchick said of Abernathy. "But these things are very volatile. Our guys are trained to handle this stuff. You could knock it over, mix a couple of the chemicals and start a fire. So those are our biggest concerns -- starting fires and exposure to vapors."

As for the people making the meth, Slouchick said they show no sign of caution when dealing with hazardous materials.

One man set his house on fire while using the shake 'n' bake method. Another house under investigation was so toxic that an officer had to be transported to the hospital.

"These people basically don't care about their health," he said. "We pulled one guy out of a house where they were making meth, and his skin was grey. We were in for about two minutes, but he had been living there and his skin was grey. He looked like 'The Walking Dead.'"

As officers continue to combat the rising number of these expensive operations, Slouchick urges citizens to call police if they believe they've found a shake 'n' bake operation, and to never use the drug produced.

"There's nothing in meth that's natural," he said. "It's all chemicals, and all chemicals that are bad for you."

CORRECTION: Hydrous ammonia was misidentified in this story, which has been corrected.