It had to be one of the oddest crime scenes in recent memory: a subterranean drug lab, 12 feet underneath a Walmart parking lot at Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue in Amherst, that was being used to cook methamphetamine.
As cars whizzed by on Sheridan, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the region, and shoppers pulled in and out of the sprawling lot to stock up on groceries and other necessities of daily life, police say someone had set up a rather elaborate meth lab.
The brazenness of it all intrigued Amherst Highway Superintendent Patrick G. Lucey enough for him to pay a visit to the site Tuesday. It is the workers in his department who are, after all, responsible for clearing debris from the town’s storm drains.
“When I heard (about) this yesterday, and they told me they had this down in one of our sewers, I was completely astounded,” Lucey said of the underground meth lab. “It’s like, are you kidding me?”
No one would have ever guessed what was going on down below.
To get to the lab, the culprits would have had to slog through a storm sewer tall enough to stand up in that runs all the way across the parking lot.
Water trickled underfoot as they would travel through the dark tunnel to a spot about 800 feet from the storm sewer entrance.
In an apparent attempt to stay dry, they used wooden pallets as makeshift flooring for the lab.
On Monday, local firefighters and members of the State Police’s contaminated crime scene emergency response team climbed down through a manhole wearing hazmat suits. They fished out an assortment of aerosol spray cans, various chemicals, plastic soda bottles, jars of clear liquid and suspected methamphetamine, all of which was carefully laid out on a table under a white tent.
On Tuesday, town workers were tasked with cleaning up the mess.
Using air packs, the workers were lowered by a winch into the same hole, where they broke apart and hoisted up sections of the wood pallets that had served as the meth makers’ floor. “If this had plugged up the sewer, it would have caused problems,” said James J. Zymanek, director of emergency services for the town.
Lucey, who won election last November to his first term as town highway superintendent, is a retired captain with the Amherst Police Department. He is not, however, a part of the current police investigation in Monday’s discovery of an underground meth lab in the town. As a retired police officer, Lucey has previously taken part in investigations of suspected drug labs, though never a purported meth lab and certainly not one that was ever established 12 feet underground below a shopping center parking lot.
It was not only a brazen operation, but a potentially dangerous one, too.
“It could have been very dangerous. It was very dangerous. Forget cooking and making their lab, just the gases themselves and the environment that they were working in was a very dangerous situation,” Lucey said of the suspects, who had yet to be identified or captured by police Tuesday.
“Certainly, they weren’t thinking,” he added.
Fumes from the cooking method used to make meth are toxic and can be fatal if a sufficient amount of it is inhaled. Also, some of the substances used to make the drug are caustic and can cause chemical burns.
“I gotta believe it’s sort of dangerous, with the gases and stuff that are in the sewers. I mean, they really were taking a chance,” Lucey said.
“I know a lot of the engineering people, they’ll wear oxygen masks when they go underneath or go into these sewer lines,” he added.
Indeed, oxygen was pumped into the storm drain Monday, as a precaution, for emergency responders who were lowered into the sewer.
Amherst Sewer Dept. workers clean up after inspection of a storm sewer that lead to a culvert that accessed storm drains on the East side of a Walmart Parking lot in Amherst. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)
On Tuesday, Lucey tried to trace the path of the underground storm drain. He went to where the meth makers most likely entered the culvert – a concrete edifice covered in graffiti that looks like it could be a hangout for young people up to mischief. Amidst multiple rocks, moss and an exposed pipe, a seemingly new pair of gray and black sneakers could be seen in the murky water leading into the culvert.
Lucey expressed awe at how deep into the storm drain the culprits were willing to travel to keep their underground operation hidden.
“Why they went in so deep, I don’t know. I mean, certainly, they could have gone in 30 feet,” instead of the 800 feet from the culvert entrance that they traveled, Lucey said.
Carefully working his way down into the shallow ravine, Lucey took a closer look inside the culvert.
“They must have had their own lighting system, too, because, as I look in here now, it’s dark,” he said.
He also noted that the meth makers had made their own flooring inside the cylindrical storm drain. “They did have a working surface,” he said. “They just weren’t playing in the water, basically.”
In the future, he plans to alert his highway workers to be on the lookout for telltale signs of drug labs in other culverts.
“Where there’s the opportunity and motive, it can happen,” he said. “But this was definitely something new that I really didn’t expect.”