NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Police and the state's HazMat Response Team methodically cleared a School Street apartment Tuesday of volatile chemicals that police said are ingredients used to make methamphetamine. The male tenant, meanwhile, said he "dabbles in chemistry" but had no intention of making illicit drugs.
Members of the Vermont State Police and the Vermont Department of Public Safety's HazMat Response Team entered the apartment in protective gear Tuesday afternoon several times, removing containers filled with chemicals as well as laboratory glassware. The residence, which has at least two apartments, had toys and children's bicycles on the porch and small front yard. Some of the chemicals removed could be used to make methamphetamine, authorities said.
Justin Holton, the 21-year-old tenant who claimed ownership of the chemicals to members of the media Tuesday afternoon, remains free. Police said at an afternoon press conference that they will prepare a case and submit it to the county prosecutor, who will decide if any charges will be filed.
"In reference to any law violation, we're going to leave that to (Bennington County State's Attorney) Erica Marthage and her recommendation after she takes a look at the entire case and everything we present her," said VSP Lt. Reginald Trayah, commander of the Shaftsbury barracks and head of the VSP Clandestine Lab Team.
Trayah, who did not enter the apartment, said he reviewed video footage of the scene. "It appeared to me that there was some chemicals and glassware there that was consistent with the manufacturing of clandestine labs. That's all we're really looking at right now," he said.
Bennington Police initially responded to the 215 School St. apartment on Monday shortly after 8 p.m. following a complaint of chemicals that could be made into illegal drugs, Lt. Lloyd Dean said. Officers obtained a search warrant and found items of interest that made them suspicious. The officers immediately retreated from the apartment and secured the scene. The Bennington Fire Department responded and the street was evacuated because of the unknown chemicals and potential danger, Dean said.
Bennington Police consulted with the VSP Clandestine Lab Team and decided to secure the apartment overnight until a state hazardous materials team could arrive and clear the chemicals from the apartment. On Tuesday morning, authorities blocked off the section of School Street between Pleasant and Gage streets as the hazmat team prepared to enter.
Four members of the VSP Clandestine Lab Team made a tactical entry into the apartment early Tuesday afternoon to conduct a security sweep and ensure nobody else was inside. Members of the police team and the state hazmat team then entered the apartment again to record video of the scene for a state chemist who waited outside. A third entry was made by the hazmat team to remove the chemicals.
Everyone who entered the apartment wore sealed body suits, gloves and masks.
Several dangerous chemicals were removed from the apartment, according to Chief Christopher Herrick of the Vermont HazMat Response Team. Members of his team analyzed each chemical outside the apartment using an infrared spectrometer, which Herrick said can analyze chemicals at the molecular level.
"There were a number of different chemicals in there. Some of them are consistent with materials that have been used in the past to make illicit drugs. A few of those, for example, were iodine, acetone and sodium hydroxide," Herrick said.
The chemicals could be used for other purposes, but the collection of them is suspicious, Herrick said. "I guess anything's possible. But, found together like they were is similar to incidents in the past where folks have used these chemicals to make methamphetamine."
Still, Dean said several "key" ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine were not found inside the apartment. The investigation is ongoing, though, he said.
In a brief interview, Holton said he had a number of chemicals inside the apartment he shares with his pregnant girlfriend and four small children. Among them are methanol, acetone, sodium hydroxide and turpentine, he said.
"I dabble in chemistry," Holton said. "None of those are illegal to have. None of any of this is illegal."
"I bought them from various chemical supply warehouses. All legal," he added.
Holton said he routinely conducts experiments in his homemade chemistry lab and kept his chemicals sealed and locked. "Everything is capped and locked in closets, out of reach of anybody," he said. "I do a lot of things. I love understanding the dynamics of chemistry. I practice chemistry all the time."
Holton said he was questioned by police Monday evening, but said he was not sure if police would question him again following removal of the chemicals Tuesday from the apartment. The search by authorities should vindicate him, he said.
"I can kind of understand where they're coming. I can. I can really understand where they're coming from, just because of the way it looks, I guess," he said.
Holton said police told him he was free to leave the police station Monday night, but he could not return to his apartment. "Obviously, I can't go home. That's what I'm waiting on. I just want to make a sandwich," he said.
Dean said he would not comment on Holton's remarks to members of the media. "I am aware of what the gentleman has said," Dean said. "Two sides to every story."
Holton does have criminal convictions, according to Dean. "I do know he has a past involving drugs," he said.
Although all of the bottled chemicals were capped, authorities said the chemicals they found were not stored as safely as Holton described. "They were not safely secured in any manner. They were not in a place where there was child-proofing available. So, children could have access to those chemicals," Dean said.
Herrick said Holton's chemical stash was dangerous, but said he could not speculate about Holton's intentions.
"I'm not sure what kind of hobbyist he is. I'm a professional and I work with chemicals all the time and these aren't chemicals that I would have in my house. So, what he was doing, I can't say," Herrick said. "Our job as the hazmat team is to safely collect them, do it in a manner that would preserve their integrity as evidence, and let the law enforcement folks figure out what they were doing with them."
Marthage said Tuesday that her office has dealt with Holton before for drug and alcohol issues. She said she could not provide immediate details about any charges or convictions, though.
Marthage said she may begin to review the current case as early as today. "There's been conversations but I haven't formally reviewed any paperwork," she said.
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