For the budget road tripper, occasional stays in a fleabag motel are a given. They’re convenient, cheap and charming in their own special ways. I’ve stayed in my fair share of them. Some had mold beneath the peeling wall paper. One came with hair in the sink. In another, a used condom and wrapper laid rudely in the bathroom wastebasket. More than a few had cigarette burns in the carpet. Paying between $25 and $45 a room, it never was any surprise that these rooms didn’t sparkle or smell particularly well. The trick is to ignore what you see, sleep on top of the blankets and never walk around barefoot, because of course they’re going to be filthy! They’re low-budget motels.
I’ve never been incited enough to write reviews of these places. It seems obvious enough there’s a substantive difference between a Super 8 and a Marriott. But judging from Trip Advisor’s 2011 Dirtiest Hotels list, compiled from user-generated reviews, many are genuinely shocked at what they find inside these architectural equivalents of a skank. One visitor to the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Fork, Tennessee, writes:
“This is a nasty place, would not let my dog sleep there. Paid for the room and went to it. I could not believe how dirty and nasty it was… Ask for my money back they would not refund the money and sent me to the Family Inn on the strip, and it was worse…”
I’ll agree that checking into these rooms are occasions to be grateful that walls can’t talk. While grime is nasty, it’s not going to kill you. Arguably, more harm can come from what you can’t see and the things you don’t know. One unsettling risk is the proliferation of meth cooks, who frequently exploit these rooms to cook up a fast ounce or two, putting other patrons in danger of chemical contamination, explosions or deadly fumes.
“If you’re cooking meth, you’re creating fumes and gases that settle onto every surface. They’re absorbed by blankets, pillow cases, the walls, the carpet,” explains Sgt. Jere Hopson, who oversees covert counter-narcotics operations for the state police in Western Kentucky. “That room is contaminated, but you’ll never know. That’s bad news for small children, because where do they spend most of their time? On the floor. And where do they put their hands? In their mouth.”
I met with Hopson last May at his office housed at a secret location in Bowling Green, KY, about 50 miles north of Nashville. His three analysts, who provide the state with its meth-related facts and figures, were preparing a report showing that meth lab busts were up 31 percent from the same time a year earlier, continuing a three-year resurgence following several years of decline. The report didn’t include April’s figure, which was up from the previous April, or stats from Louisville, which has its own special meth task force.
According to Hopson, accounting for the renewed prolifaration is easy. “Meth Check,” he says, leaning back in his chair.
Implemented in 2006, Meth Check is a statewide system that tracks who is purchasing pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter decongestant found in some cold medicines and the essential ingredient for making meth. The only difference between pseudo and meth is a single oxygen molecule. A succession of relatively simple chemical reactions spins the molecule off the pseudo chain. The result is a jar of pure liquid meth that is then treated with hydrogen chloride gas (a Drano and salt mixture) that crystallizes the drug.
“It looks like snowflakes falling,” he says.
In Kentucky, a person can legally purchase up to 9 grams of pseudo per month, well above the recommended dosage. It is also enough to make an ounce of meth. When a person attempts to exceed the legal limit, the pharmacist, who scans IDs, is alerted, the sale is denied and no laws are broken. Before Meth Check, pharmacists kept manual paper logs that were infrequently audited, but had a major benefit when they were. “We’d find people who went above that 9 gram threshold and get a search warrant,” Hopson says. “Chances were they’d be cooking when we showed up. What Meth Check has done is take stupid out of equation. The computer doesn’t let you break the law.”
Consequently, Meth Check has created a flourishing black market for pseudo, where a standard $7 blister pack might fetch $50. Last year in Bowling Green, a bar manager was arrested after paying her college-aged employees to buy pseudo, which she then sold to cooks. This practice, known as smurfing, has made pseudo more available than ever. And because attempting to exceed the limit isn’t illegal, smurfs often go undetected. In December 2008, while the Meth Check system was down for a week, more than 100 people exceeded their monthly 9 gram limit. “That’s a lot of people who had serious colds that week,” says Hopson.
But what bothers Hopson more than meth are the labs set up to make it. The labs are so toxic that Hopson’s team wears hazmat suits when dismantling them. A small lab requires 32 hours between four officers to clean up properly, including having the chemicals secured and hauled away. State inspectors determine what renovations must be made before they’ll deem the property safe for human habitation. Often, they’ll demand property owners replace walls, flooring, carpet and ceiling.
“These labs are such a danger to public health. They’re literally hazardous waste sites,” he says. “More times than none we’ll find kids at these labs and, well, they’ll want to take a toy or blanky with them but can’t because of contamination.”
But while the state has the authority to seal off residences where meth was manufactured, there is no protocol for how to deal with motels. In fact, once authorities have cleaned up the lab, motel operators aren’t even required to clean the room. “There are lots of these motel labs,” says Hopson. “What motels do as far as clean up, I don’t know. I’m guessing not much.”
There aren’t any figures available for how frequently motel rooms are used for meth production, but Hopson says it’s far more than the number discovered. A Google News search of “meth motel” brings up numerous recent stories. In Bristol, TN, three people were arrested for running a motel lab. A suspicious vehicle at a motel in Kosciuski County, IN, led to the arrest of two Michigan men who’d set up a lab. In Kalamazoo, MI, police found a meth lab in an Econo Lodge.
But there’s more than just the risk of being exposed to dangerous chemicals.
“Say the person next door to you is cooking meth. Unless he’s opened the windows, and in some of these places you can’t, those fumes are accumulating,” he explains. “One static spark is all it takes to blow up that room. Depending on how big that lab is and the kind of solvents being used, it could very well take your room with it.”
A motel in Fort Wayne, IN, caught fire last week that investigators say started with a meth lab. Sixteen people were evacuated. A Mobile, AL, woman was recently sentenced to almost seven years for operating a lab that had exploded inside a motel room.
Even though the risk is real, the odds you’ll be killed in a motel on account of a meth lab are slim. In fact, a deeper review of user comments posted on Trip Advisor, none reported encounters with meth labs or cooks. For Hopson, exposure to chemicals that have leeched into the carpeting or bedding is the greatest concern, especially when it comes to children. “We just don’t know the long-term effects of exposure to these things,” he says. “It’s nasty to think about.”
If chemical exposure and explosions aren’t freaky enough, there’s one more potential risk that should be noted: exposure to phosphine gas, an odorless, lethal and flammable byproduct of meth production. It can kill before you realize anything is wrong.
“Let’s say some mether starts cooking up a batch and finds he’s got some time to kill,” Hopson explains. “He’s got a girl with him so they’re doing the hanky-panky, but there’s a leak in the hose and they’re breathing in this phosphine gas. We’ll find them that way, one on top of the other, naked. It’s just one of those kind of funny things you see.”