Couple free after police botch meth bust in Abingdon, Va.
ABINGDON, Va. – On a lonely stretch of road on the far outskirts of Abingdon, a brown single-wide trailer is hidden behind a tree line up a bumpy gravel drive. The yard is littered with overturned scooters, stray tires and a miniature plastic John Deere tractor.
The Trout Road address is marked in only one place: a scrawl in permanent marker on an inside corner of a broken mailbox across the street. No one is home.
In this trailer, police said, they stumbled on a methamphetamine lab while searching for stolen construction tools in June. There were three young kids inside.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office arrested a couple, Christopher Dean Mitchell, 28, and Amanda Jane Tignor, 27, at the home that day. Each was charged with one count of manufacturing methamphetamine and three counts of manufacturing methamphetamine in the presence of a minor.
At the time, Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman said the two were looking at up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
But they now are in the clear: They will not be convicted and they will not go to jail.
Washington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dennis Godfrey declined to prosecute the case because, due to a “miscommunication between police departments,” no one collected any evidence.
Washington County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the backwoods trailer on the morning of June 16 to question the couple about some recent break-ins. They uncovered several incriminating items that led to a search warrant. That search led to the meth lab.
According to the criminal complaint filed in the Washington County General District Court, the deputies found a meth-making smorgasbord: boxes of pseudoephedrine, iodine and muriatic acid along with heat, spent coffee filters and several match boxes minus their strike plates, which contain red phosphorus. The criminal complaint goes on to say three children, ages 6, 4 and 18 months, were in the home. The elder two belonged to Tignor, and the toddler to an unnamed visitor.
Because dismantling and securing a methamphetamine lab is costly, up to $10,000, the sheriff’s office called in some specialists from the Virginia State Police.
Virginia State Police First Sgt. John Ruffin said there was some discussion on-scene about whether the prosecution would be handled at the federal or state level. There are different standards of evidence for each, and the standards for federal prosecution are somewhat lower, often requiring just a photograph rather than collected chemical samples.
Photographs were taken, but samples were not.
“Basically, the right hand just didn’t know what the left hand was doing,” Ruffin said. “And it all fell through the cracks.”
The two state police officers, part of a Drug Enforcement Administration task force, presumed the sheriff’s deputies were collecting the evidence. The deputies thought the same of the state police.
Later, investigators determined that the Tignor-Mitchell case did not meet the standards for federal prosecution and would be tried in Washington County court. Only the criminal code of Virginia specifically requires that samples of two or more chemicals or precursors from a list of 23 be collected and sent to a state lab. There were no such samples.
“It wasn’t there,” Godfrey said. “There wasn’t anything.” He called it a “once in a million” mistake.
Before July 2005, manufacturing methamphetamine was legal in the commonwealth of Virginia; it was, however, illegal to have the finished product.
Methamphetamine production was at its peak in the area in the early 2000s, before the new legislation was passed. During that time, Ruffin said, most manufacturing cases were tried in federal court because “federal law was the only one with any teeth to it.”
The July 2005 Virginia law also spelled out a minimum 10-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of cooking meth with children present. Since that legislation passed, and since the state began requiring retailers to keep medications containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine behind the counter, meth manufacturing has been on a steep decline.
Law enforcement authorities also haven’t busted that many labs since those law changes, and are still in the habit of collecting just enough evidence for federal prosecution, Ruffin said.
“It’s all about a conviction,” Washington County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jack Davidson said of the difference between state and federal trials. “It all comes out in the wash.”
The children were scooped up by the Department of Social Services at the time of the bust, but what’s happened to them since then remains unclear.
Scott Rasnake, child protective services coordinator for the Washington County Department of Social Services, declined to comment on the case in specifics, citing privacy concerns. But he said that a dismissed case does not automatically mean the accused would get their kids back. “The criminal aspect, that’s law enforcement,” Rasnake said. “The civil aspect is what we do. A child could not be safe and there be no criminal charges.”
The phone book lists no number for the Trout Road address. There were no signs of life when the Bristol Herald Courier visited the home on two afternoons, once in September and again last week.
Piles of junk and cinder blocks in the small yard appeared unmoved between visits, but it’s clear that kids once played there. A blue and yellow swing set sits off kilter on the sloping lawn, flanked by a rusty trampoline and a backyard shed.
The 10 commandments is stuck to the front door, posted in a string of 10 little white and blue crosses.
Both Sheriff Newman and 1st Sgt. Ruffin said they were frustrated, even angry, when they learned of the botched lab bust.
Ruffin said the state police has reorganized its evidence collection protocol: Every case will be treated as though it’s going to state court where the threshold for evidence is more stringent. If it goes on to federal court, then they’ll just have more than enough.
As for Tignor and Mitchell, Godrey said they’re totally off the hook the charges filed in June. But, police aren’t giving up on them.
“We’re not out here as law enforcement, busting these labs to not bring these people to justice,” Newman said. “If they dodged the bullet this time, we’ll certainly keep our eyes and ears open. You can bet on that.”
By CLAIRE GALOFARO | Police Beat Reporter - Bristol Herald Courier
Published: October 18, 2009