CHESTER, W.Va. - Tuesday's arrest of a suspected methamphetamine maker was the first involving a clandestine laboratory in northern Hancock County in more than 10 years, a drug task force official said.
"We've been fortunate not to have that in the county the last few years because it seems like it's all around us," said Hancock County sheriff's Sgt. Robert Connors, an officer of the Hancock-Brooke-Weirton Drug Task Force.
But, Connors cautioned, "it seems like it's coming our way. It's getting closer to us, but it's not an epidemic here as with other counties in Ohio or other parts of West Virginia."
No counties in the Northern Panhandle currently are listed in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's National Clandestine Laboratory Register. At the other extreme is Kanawha County/Charleston, which has 221 entries on the register-dating from 2004 to as recently as November 2013.
The register contains addresses where local law enforcement agencies have reported finding chemicals or other items that suggest the presence of a clandestine laboratory or dumpsite, according to the DEA website.
Officers with the drug task force arrested Eric J. Ulbrich, 40, of 300 Arner Road, south of Chester, early Tuesday morning after finding "several items indicative of methamphetamine production and the operation of a clandestine drug laboratory," Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said.
The arrest came after officers executed a search warrant at the rural property, which is owned by Ulbrich's mother, Connors said. The drug task force had received a tip from "concerned citizens" about suspicious activity at the residence, he said.
Ulbrich was arrested without incident after initially denying, then admitting, that he was manufacturing meth, according to a complaint filed by Connors in Hancock County Magistrate Court. Ulbrich said he was making meth by mixing Sudafed and water together in the kitchen stove, the complaint said.
"Ulbrich stated that his motivation for making this was that the counseling he was receiving was not working and he was 'self-medicating' ... a way that he knew how," the complaint said. "Ulbrich stated that he was doing good (staying off meth) until a few weeks ago."
Officers do not believe Ulbrich was involved with dealing or trafficking, Connors said. "The evidence to this point does not indicate that he was manufacturing for redistribution to others; however, we will not rule out the possibility that others were partaking in his product with him," he said.
Although Ulbrich said he had thrown everything away, officers searching the property found "adulterated lithium battery ribbons, battery package containers, a chemical mask insert, as well as three bottles of what appeared to be used in the manufacture of methamphetamines," the complaint said.
West Virginia State Police officers were called to identify the items, which were collected and photographed. Samples from the three bottles will be sent to the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory for testing, according to the complaint.
Ulbrich is being held in the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville on a $50,000 bond. His next scheduled court appearance is at 9 a.m. Friday.
Connors said the last time the location of a meth lab was confirmed in northern Hancock County was in 2003.
In both cases, the suspects apparently learned their skills in other states-Arkansas and Georgia, Connors said. Although Ulbrich is from Hancock County, he has a prior criminal history with illegal methamphetamine production in Georgia, according to the sheriff's department.
"They seem to make their way to this region," Connors said, "but they never seem to take off."
By comparison, the Columbiana County Drug Task Force has closed down 13 suspected meth labs in the last two years, said Lt. Brian McLaughlin, drug task force director. However, the DEA register currently shows only two in Columbiana County-one in East Liverpool and one in Salem.