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Meth Menace: Lab shuts down storage units

Rachel Molenda
Mike McCown, owner of My Space Mini Storage in Cross Lanes explains how he found a meth lab in one of his storage units.

See also: Meth Menace Part II - Costly cleanup 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After his daughter heard the gunshot and two vehicles sped away, Mike McCown, owner of My Space Mini Storage, trotted down the hill from his home to Unit 127, where he discovered spatters of blood and what police say was an illegal methamphetamine lab.

"There was blood everywhere," McCown recalled last week, then pointed to the bullet hole that pierced a nearby unit. "There were stolen guns, drugs and money. It's been a nightmare ever since."

McCown never imagined that someone would rent one of his 50 storage units to manufacture meth. There's no water, no electricity. My Space Mini Storage fronts Washington Street West in Cross Lanes.

"It's a good property," McCown said. "Gated, [surveillance] cameras, the whole nine yards. We never had any issues other than the time the Dominos pizza driver had a flat tire, came off the road and hit one of the units."

In December 2012, McCown rented Unit 127 to Rodger Wooten for $55 a month. Wooten had a criminal record -- felony grand larceny, breaking and entering, operating a clandestine drug lab -- but McCown didn't know about Wooten's troubled past. 

"I would have never rented to the guy if I knew who he was," McCown said last week.

At about 8:30 p.m. on June 6, Wooten and his girlfriend drove up to Unit 127 and opened the storage unit door.

Minutes later, another man drove up and confronted Wooten, according to the sheriff's report. A fight broke out. The man kicked Wooten's girlfriend, according to a video of the incident. 

Wooten grabbed an AR-15 rifle. He fired the rifle. The other man retreated, jumped in his car and drove off. Wooten and his girlfriend closed the storage unit door and left.

McCown, his employees and Kanawha sheriff's deputies arrived a short time later. They cut open the lock, lifted the door. Inside the storage unit, they found rubber tubing, rock salt, hydrogen peroxide and Coleman lantern fuel - all materials used to make meth. There also was a rifle case, generator, hot plate, and glass jars and containers brimming with toxic liquids.

"We could also smell a distinct odor associated with the manufacture of methamphetamine," Cpl. C.E. O'Neal wrote on the incident report. "I was very familiar with Rodger Wooten due to receiving several methamphetamine tips on him in the past and also arresting him for operating a methamphetamine lab in a residence just down the road..."

Hours later, sheriff's deputies tracked down Wooten and arrested him. Wooten was charged with operating a clandestine lab, wanton endangerment, grand larceny and illegal possession of a firearm. The rifle was stolen, and Wooten was barred from carrying a gun because of his previous felony convictions.

Wooten has since been released from jail after posting bond. He's awaiting trial.

And McCown was left to clean up the mess Wooten allegedly left behind.

"This individual is going to walk down the street, and I'm going to have to spend thousands of dollars for [meth] testing and cleaning," McCown said.

After the meth bust, health officials ordered McCown to close 14 storage units - not just Unit 127 - that were housed in the same wing. The storage unit renters weren't allowed to retrieve or inspect their belongings until the units were cleaned and decontaminated.

"Some people got very upset with me, but there was nothing I could do," McCown said. "I had to say, 'Sorry, I had no control over it. Some idiot screwed up your stuff.' "

He hired Simon Environmental, a Jackson County company that specializes in meth cleaning. The firm's workers cleaned many of the items stored in the units, but anything porous that could soak up meth fumes had to be carted to a Dumpster.

"I paid extra to have as much of the people's stuff cleaned as possible," McCown said.

The meth lab incident cost McCown about $30,000 in lost rental income and cleanup expenses. That's significantly more money than he makes in a year from his mini-storage business. McCown has applied for $10,000 from the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund to help defray costs.

McCown said West Virginia should establish a website that lists the names of people convicted of meth-related crimes. Storage unit owners and landlords could use the website - similar to a sex offender's registry - to identify and weed out criminals before they sign rental agreements.

"They keep talking about the meth epidemic," McCown said. "But they don't talk about the repeat offenders, and how many there are out there."

McCown, 50, purchased land and built the storage units in 2007. He figured it would be a good way to raise extra income for his retirement some day. Now, he's not so sure about his investment. He can't afford more trouble from renters like Rodger Wooten.

"It's hard to have compassion for these type of people," McCown said. "They say it's not a violent crime, but it is a violent crime.

"You have an explosion, and all the people's stuff that's got to be destroyed or has to be thrown away. What if it's a picture of your grandma that you no longer had? It's just sad." Reach Eric Eyre or David Gutman at ericeyre@wvgazette.com, david.gutman@wvgazette or 304-348-5100.


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