To call a “one-pot” meth cooking operation a meth lab is really an overstatement.
It’s someone shaking up a bunch of chemicals in a Mountain Dew bottle.
Imagine what’s produced in the elaborate setup of fictional chemist Walter White’s methamphetamine lab in the television show Breaking Bad as (harmful and addictive) cuisine from a five star restaurant.
What’s cooked in a one-pot set-up is the meth equivalent of a sandwich from a gas station.
Pills are ground up, batteries are stripped of metal, lighter fluid is thrown in. Everything is put into a plastic bottle and shaken up into a reddish slurry. When the bottle is opened the concoction may stink of rotten eggs. At the end, if it works, you get a little bit of powder that can be smoked on a piece of tin foil.
ONE-POT AT THE SHADOWLAND
The recent case of two people who have pled to 10-year felonies and one other who is awaiting trial in connection with a one-pot meth lab at the Shadowland Motel in Traverse City shows how insidious this kind of drug can be.
And it’s not just in Traverse City. Thirteen people have been proscuted in Antrim County since late last year in cases involving on-pot meth. In recent weeks, refuse from numerous one-pot meth cooks have been found littered around Wexford county. the remains of onepot meth labs each week.
This kind of meth making is easy to get into.
It’s made of ingredients that can be purchased at stores.
It takes the kind of knowledge anyone can find online.
And it doesn’t require any particular skill.
But it does involve dangerous chemicals and dangerous consequences. For someone teetering on the edge of society, it’s a cheap ticket to addiction, jail, and a miserable life.
Jared Allan Blaha, 35, Sheila Jean Nelson, 39, and Lonna Joyce Fisk, 37, found that out when police paid a visit to the motel room they were staying at in December. (Brandon Wabanimkee, 32, was also arrested in the raid. See related story.)
A VISIT FROM A FRIEND
The seeds of the Shadowland Motel case were planted on Nov. 8 when a 33-yearold home healthcare worker from Kalkaska looked up a friend at the motel because she needed a place to stay. She later became the informant who broke the case.
“I was staying with my cousin; me and my cousin had a dispute because I had put a lock on my bedroom door, because they kept going in and stealing stuff from me,” the woman explained in court, at an April 2 preliminary hearing in the case.
The woman went to the motel to find her friend Sheila Nelson, a woman described in her court file as homeless. Nelson lived on disability and drifted from motel to motel with her boyfriend, Jared Blaha.
The Kalkaska woman knew Nelson and Blaha were at the Shadowland because she’d been in touch with Nelson on Facebook.
Blaha and Nelson were in room 246, which they rented for November and December, splitting the $600 per month rent. The Shadowland rents rooms by the month or by the week.
Before the Shadowland, Nelson and Blaha lived at the Sun ’N Snow Motel, in Cadillac. Before that, they lived in a tent.
A TRIP TO THE PHARMACY
The woman from Kalkaska was let inside the room and almost immediately she was enlisted to help purchase one of the ingredients that go into making one-pot meth.
Throughout her testimony, she insisted she didn’t know at that time what her friends were up to. Maybe she thought they needed Sudafed because someone had a cold.
“I gave her a ride to Walgreen’s. She had asked me to pick her up some allergy medicine. I didn’t realize what for,” she testified under examination by Grand Traverse County assistant prosecutor Christopher Forsyth.
She drove Nelson to the pharmacy in Acme where she purchased some cold medicine while Nelson got some lighter fluid and batteries.
Buying Sudafed, or as it is known generically, pseudoephedrine, is no small deal. You need to have an ID. Your name is taken down in a log, and is then put into a database. The cops keep track of that database. People who run one-pot meth labs are always looking for new people to buy Sudafed.
“I went back to the pharmacy counter and I asked the pharmacist for the allergy medicine, and they asked me, ‘What kind?’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t really matter to me,’ and they ended up giving me the 120 milligrams extended release, which I guess is the wrong kind.”
The woman testified repeatedly during the hearing that she didn’t know what kind of Sudafed is used to make meth and she bought the wrong kind. Finally, Judge Michael Haley interrupted her, after he had had enough, and said, “Yeah, you’ve said that.”
A “ONE-POT” METH COOK
Back in the motel room, the Kalkaska woman got what amounted to a crash course in making meth.
Though the woman insisted she didn’t participate or smoke it, and that she spent most of the time watching rented DVDs on her laptop, she said she asked some questions and observed the operation.
Defense attorneys attacked the woman’s credibility. They noted how seemingly well-versed the witness was in her testimony about manufacturing meth, about how she knew all of the ingredients and what was done with them.
To be fair, however, there are only a few ingredients, and from what was said in court, the process is not complex.
At one point the woman described how Nelson had bought the batteries.
What kind of batteries? “It’s the ones that you can’t, like, send through the mail and stuff,” the woman testified. “I can’t remember the exact name of them.”
Her memory was aided in cross examination, when, prodded by defense attorney Randy Smith, she recalled that the recipe called for lithium batteries.
She also remembered that it was Blaha who scraped the lithium out of the batteries so it could be put into the stew that would make the meth.
ENOUGH OF THE SHADOWLAND
The woman stayed in the motel room for two nights. She was joined by her boyfriend on the second night. The meth-making was successful on the first night and failed on the second.
Since the woman was not charged with a crime, the Northern Express is not printing her or her boyfriend’s name, though defense attorneys implied that both of them were mixed up in drug dealing themselves.
After two nights at the Shadowland, the woman testified that she had had enough and left the motel.
The woman said the next time she saw Sheila Nelson was the day after Thanksgiving on Black Friday. She had returned to Traverse City and drove with Nelson to another pharmacy.
This time, the woman said, she came up with an excuse not to buy Sudafed.
ANOTHER TRIP TO THE PHARMACY
The woman said that by Thanksgiving she had gotten her living situation straightened out and was no longer looking for a place to crash.
The only reason she returned to see her friend, she testified, was because she wanted to sell some jewelry she had received as a gift from her boyfriend. She said she wanted to do this without her boyfriend finding out.
“So I had contacted Sheila and asked her if she would go ahead and sell it for me,” the woman testified. “That way, (my boyfriend) wouldn’t know about it and I would give her some money out of it.”
Once they sold the jewelry and cashed the check, it was back to Walgreen’s, but the woman said she insisted she couldn’t buy the Sudafed.
“She had asked me numerous times to pick up the Sudafed again, but I kept telling her that I had lost my ID,” she said.
The woman from Kalkaska left, but the two friends talked on the telephone a few days later. She placed a call to the Shadowland Motel and got Nelson on the line.
The woman told Nelson she knew someone who “might be interested in your product.”
Nelson told her they were “maxed out” and could no longer buy Sudafed. Nelson again asked her to buy some for them. The woman repeated that she had lost her ID.
The woman made that call from the state police post in Traverse City.
Despite efforts from the defense attorneys to get the woman to reveal how it was that she became an informant, the woman never went into detail as to how she wound up at the state police post making a call with a Traverse Narcotics Team detective listening in.
She said under cross-examination from defense attorney Philip Settles, that “it all evolved around my boyfriend...” She later said: “What I understand, he got pulled over with oxy’s,” according to the transcript.
Defense attorney Randy Smith, representing Jared Blaha, asked the witness if she had shaken a bottle while she stayed with Blaha and Nelson at the motel.
The woman said Nelson wouldn’t let Blaha shake her bottle, and Blaha wouldn’t let Nelson shake his bottle, “so I don’t know why they would let me shake a bottle.”
Smith asked the woman whether she was working for TNT because she had been busted by police for giving away pills. She denied that.
Judge Haley stopped the questioning, saying it was enough for her to say that she was helping out TNT to help out her boyfriend.
STAKE-OUT AT THE SHADOWLAND
A couple of days after the phone call, around five undercover officers working for TNT sat in cars outside of the motel room, looking at door number 246 through binoculars.
It was Dec. 3 at around 8:30 p.m. It was dark. The officers saw two people leave the room, later identified as Lonna Joyce Fisk and Brandon Wabanimkee.
Detectives followed the pair to the Rite Aid at Eighth and Garfield.
Fisk went in the store first, followed by a couple of detectives, and Wabanimkee went into the store a few minutes later.
One of the detectives walked by Fisk as she browsed in the cold medicine section.
The officer, Cody Kastl, a TNT officer of three and a half years, said Wabanimkee appeared to just browse around other parts of the store.
Fisk went to the pharmacy counter and Kastl said he heard her ask for pseudofedrine, or Sudafed. Fisk showed her ID, signed a registry, paid and left the store.
Wabanimkee left, too. He didn’t buy anything.
The detectives got a look at the pseudofedrine log, and found Fisk’s name. They left the store and followed the couple back to the Shadowland.
The detectives had enough to get a warrant to raid the room. The warrant was signed later that night by District Court Judge Thomas Philips.
The TNT officers returned to the motel early the next morning to execute the search warrant.
The officers testified they believed it would be too dangerous to enter a motel room when there is likely a meth cook taking place so they called the state police meth response team and waited until morning.
That morning, the officers raided the room.
Inside, they found Fisk and Wabanimkee, but not Blaha or Nelson.
There was also no meth in the room. They did find evidence that meth had been smoked in the room, however. They found tinfoil “boats” used to smoke it. They also found pipes and a lighter wrapped in foil.
Fisk attempted to hide some of this evidence as she was taken into custody. In an interview with a detective, she said she didn’t know the people who rented the room very well; she couldn’t remember their names. She said she went there to smoke some “pseudoephedrine or some shit.”
She said she’d been in the room vomiting for a half hour before the raid.
She described to the detective what she saw of the meth-making process -- the reddish, gritty mixture in the pop bottle; the smell of rotten eggs when the top was taken off.
CHARGES DISMISSED AGAINST ONE
A search of the dumpster at 7-11, on US 31 across from the motel, led to a plastic grocery bag that contained some of the onepot meth detritus police expect to find, such as empty pseudoephedrine packages and other chemicals.
That’s what police thought connected Wabanimkee to the crime. He was spotted heading to 7-11 the evening before the search. Police believe he put that plastic bag into the dumpster.
Wabanimkee’s attorney, Paul Jarboe, argued that wasn’t enough evidence for the charges to stand. Wabanimkee had originally been charged with the same charges as the other defendants, including operating a meth lab and conspiracy. As a habitual offender, he could have faced up to 40 years in prison.
Jarboe noted that Wabanimkee wasn’t connected to the purchase of the Sudafed or to possession of the meth in the room.
Judge Haley agreed that the evidence against Wabanimkee was too thin and dismissed the charges.
Wabanimkee insists he never touched the meth refuse, but had gone over to 7-11 to buy alcohol.
CRACK, METH AND PILLS
Sheila Nelson and Jared Blaha fled the area after the raid and were arrested months later in Indiana.
In jail in Traverse City, Nelson and Blaha talked to detectives in March.
Both of them denied making meth. Blaha admitted he did some drugs, however. Deputy Ian Pegan-Naylor, the officer in charge of the investigation, wrote in a police report:
“I asked Blaha how much meth he had used that night. He stated ‘probably a dangerous amount.’ ... Blaha admitted to drinking, smoking weed, using crack, meth and some kind of pills.”
Fisk, who was represented by attorney Janet Mistele, and Nelson, represented by Settles, pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine, a 10-year felony. Fisk is scheduled to be sentenced May 31; Nelson on June 13.
Blaha’s attorney, Smith, filed a motion arguing that the search of the Shadowland Motel room was unconstitutional because the description of what police and prosecutors said they were after was too broad. A hearing is scheduled on that motion May 31.