Lawyers argue meth case
Charges against an Elkins woman who was arrested along with four other local residents for allegedly operating a methamphetamine lab in an Elkins home Dec. 29 were dropped Wednesday in Randolph County Magistrate Court.
Magistrate George “Mike” Riggleman found no probable cause in the case of 44-year-old Angela Faye Miller during a joint preliminary hearing for four of the five defendants.
Miller, 31-year-old Michael Leon Bennington of Buckhannon, 51-year-old Brian Keith Hammer of Elkins, 47-year-old Barbara Ann Spiva of Elkins and 28-year-old Phillip Ander Moyers of Elkins were each charged with one felony count of operating or attempting to operate a clandestine lab and with one felony count of manufacturing or delivery of a controlled substance Dec. 29 after police allegedly found materials commonly used to make methamphetamine in a residence located at 462 Wilson Street.
Following the 3 1/2-hour hearing Wednesday, Riggleman found probable cause in the cases of Bennington, Hammer and Spiva, binding them over to Randolph County Circuit Court.
Moyers’ preliminary hearing is slated for 10 a.m. today.
Riggleman also refused to grant a bond reduction or modification in the cases of Bennington, Hammer and Spiva; bond for each of the three is set at $50,000 cash only.
Randolph County Sheriff’s Deputy B.L. VanMeter and Trooper M.J. Wilson with the Morgantown detachment of the West Virginia State Police testified Wednesday that on Dec. 29, they’d gone to the residence on Wilson Street with the intent of serving a search warrant on Samantha Armentrout.
The officers said they were in search of 22-year-old Armentrout because she had violated the conditions of her bond by “absconding” from a drug treatment facility in the southern part of the state. (Armentrout was recently indicted on a number of felony charges, including assault and wanton endangerment involving a firearm, related to a May incident during which she allegedly accidentally shot a man in the back.)
Both officers testified that they’d been in search of a maroon or red Pontiac vehicle in which Armentrout was alleged to have been riding. While patrolling for the vehicle, the the officers said they saw a vehicle consistent with that description pull in behind 462 Wilson Street; two people got out and ran away, but the officers were unable to identify either individual, they testified.
When VanMeter knocked on the front door, Spiva answered and informed him that the residence belonged to her.
“I asked her if Samantha Armentrout was at her residence and she advised she didn’t think so,” VanMeter said. “She told me if I wanted, I could come in and look for myself.” VanMeter said he saw Miller at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor of the condominium-style residence and “two male subjects” he later identified as Bennington and Hammer coming down the stairs.
Meanwhile, while Wilson was searching for Armentrout upstairs, he found a Mason jar with white residue caked on it, and rubber tubes, drain opener and other “common precursors to methamphetamine” on the bathroom floor in front of the toilet, he testified.
Wilson called WVSP Trooper First Class D.R. Wolford – a clandestine laboratory technician – to the scene to obtain samples and determine if meth had been made in the area. At some point while he was upstairs, Moyers – who had been hiding in the “attic crawl space” – came down, Wilson added.
Earlier in the hearing, VanMeter had said Moyers was “the significant other of Mrs. (Barbara) Spiva.”
The trooper testified that he also found what he believed to be already-used precursors to meth in the basement of the house, specifically ice compresses, empty Coleman fuel containers and plastic tubing.
Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Parker asked Wilson how much refuse related to cooking meth had to be removed from the condominium.
Wilson said he and Wolford filled a 50-gallon tub and “several” five-gallon buckets.
“So this was a significant amount of methamphetamine precursors?” Parker said.
“It’s the most I’ve ever seen, sir,” Wilson replied.
Wolford later testified that “16 or 17” of the samples obtained from the condo tested positive for methamphetamine.
Wilson also shared the results of National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, scans he’d run on Miller, Spiva, Bennington and Hammer. The scans showed that neither Hammer nor Bennington had purchased any over-the-counter allergy and cold medications containing precursors to meth within the last three months. Wilson said Miller had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase pseudoephedrine on Dec. 18 and Dec. 24.
“She was denied because she’d reached her limit,” the trooper testified.
During cross-examination, all four clients’ attorneys repeatedly raised the question of whether or not the prosecution had any tangible evidence specifically linking their respective clients to the meth and meth precursors.
For instance, Richard Shryock, Miller’s attorney, made the point that Miller wasn’t a resident of the condo by asking Wilson to read aloud the address he’d listed on the criminal complaint he’d filed against her.
“Do you have any evidence that, individually, Angela Miller knew what was upstairs in Barbara Spiva’s house?” Shryock asked Wilson.
“No,” Wilson replied.
Timothy Prentice, Bennington’s attorney, asked if Wilson had “any physical or forensic evidence tying Mr. Bennington to that stuff?”
“No,” Wilson answered.
James Hawkins, Spiva’s attorney, said it appeared as though police had simply arrested everyone in the house.
“So, everyone there was arrested whether they were involved in criminal activity or not?” he asked Wilson.
“Yes, sir,” the trooper replied.
“And anyone else there would have been arrested, too?”
“Yes, sir,” Wilson said a second time.
During his closing argument, Hawkins said that merely being at the scene of a crime or witnessing a crime was not enough to incriminate anyone.
“There has to be some evidence of participation,” Hawkins said.
Shryock piggybacked on Hawkins’ argument.
“By Deputy VanMeter’s logic, if the UPS man, or the FedEx man, or the gas guy was at the residence, he would be sitting there right now, too,” Shryock said.
Noting Wilson’s earlier testimony that Miller had been blocked from buying pseudoephedrine, Shryock said that evidence would have been relevant only if a charge of conspiracy to manufacture meth had been filed against his client.
Dorwin Wolfe, Hammer’s attorney, said the lack of evidence linking the defendants to the drugs and precursors should be cause for the case to be dismissed.
“All we have here is evidence that days or weeks or months prior (to Dec. 29), a crime had been committed,” Wolfe said. “The only thing cooking in that house was a chicken dinner.” (VanMeter had earlier testified that he saw a freshly cooked chicken and container of macaroni on the kitchen table. “It looked like they were about to sit down and eat,” the deputy had said.)
“This is like finding whiskey bottles in the closet and arresting everyone for drunk driving or public intox,” Wolfe continued.
Wolfe’s client, Hammer, pleaded guilty to one felony count of possession of pseudoephedrine to be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine in Dec. 11 in federal court.
“Interesting case,” Riggleman remarked at the hearing’s end. “First, I want to say something about the chemicals involved in making meth. They are volatile. They can be volatile, and they can be very dangerous. That fact that this was within 1,000 feet of the middle school concerns me.”
“For Mrs. Spiva, bond is denied, probable cause found,” he continued. “I’ve heard a lot of arguments today about how long people were in that house. Nobody knows but the people in that house.”
“Miller, no probable cause. Bennington and Hammer, probable cause, and their bonds will remain the same.”
When asked to explain the rationale for his ruling, Riggleman told The Inter-Mountain that Miller’s location in the house had been the deciding factor.
“She was downstairs,” Riggleman said, referencing the only floor on which no meth precursors had been found. “The two men had been upstairs (where meth precursors were found). (Spiva) was downstairs, too, but it was her residence.”