Advertisement

Neighbors Plan Better Vigilance After Discovery of Big Drug Lab : Lawndale: Officials say the facility is one of the largest in the area. Stunned residents say they’ll keep a closer watch on their middle-class neighborhood.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shocked by the discovery that one of the county’s largest drug labs had been quietly operating in the midst of their middle-class neighborhood for two years, a group of elderly Lawndale residents is rallying together to take a more vigilant stance against crime.

Maurine and John Ljutich, who have lived for more than 30 years on the shady street where the drug lab was discovered last weekend, are planning to organize nightly citizen patrols throughout the area and revive a defunct Neighborhood Watch group on their block.

“I think we were lax,” said Maurine Ljutich, 66. “I don’t intend to sit by and let something like this happen again. We’ve lived here too long.”

The lab, discovered Saturday by firefighters responding to reports of smoke, was equipped to produce more than 100 pounds of methamphetamines--valued at $1 million--every week, said Robert Gallardo, a supervisor for the state Department of Justice’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement in Los Angeles.

Advertisement

Located in a garage that had been converted into a two-bedroom rental home on the 14700 block of Avis Avenue, the lab contained several 25-gallon containers of highly explosive chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine. Also found on the premises were about 30 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, which is the finished product, as well as several used syringes, Gallardo said.

“The size of the lab and the amount of chemicals and equipment found there make it one of the largest labs in Southern California,” Gallardo said.

Such sophisticated drug labs are more often found in remote areas than in stable residential streets where neighbors are more likely to detect fumes or report unusual activity, Gallardo said. That anomaly is precisely what stunned the neighbors on Avis Avenue, who have been knocking on each others’ doors all week to trade anecdotes about strange odors and lingering visitors they now view with suspicion.

“I never paid any attention to the comings or goings,” said 80-year-old Robert C. Dubois, who lives across the street from the lab. “But now that I think of it, I used to smell odors that I thought were coming from Hyperion (waste treatment plant).”

Advertisement

After firefighters extinguished a small smoldering fire inside the home Saturday afternoon, hazardous material experts began dismantling the lab. Fearing an explosion that authorities said could have destroyed at least three homes, sheriff’s deputies taped off a 100-yard area until the job was completed more than 24 hours later.

About 40 residents were evacuated from their homes. Ed Gherna, 64, whose back yard faces the former drug lab, had about 25 guests over to celebrate his twin grandchildren’s first birthday when sheriff’s deputies arrived. “We were just about to cut the cake when they said we had to leave,” Gherna said.

Most of the residents stayed with friends or relatives. The Ljutiches, along with their bird dog Spots, spent the night in their Mercury Lynx on the next block. “I didn’t want to leave,” Maurine Ljutich said. “They said it might blow up.”

State and county law enforcement officials are jointly investigating to determine who operated the lab, and no arrests had been made by Wednesday.

Advertisement

Several attempts this week to talk with the landlord, identified by neighbors as Charles Nash, were unsuccessful.

According to several neighbors, Nash lives with his wife and two children in an A-frame shingle house in front of the garage that housed the drug lab. A woman who left the home for a brief errand Monday afternoon said she couldn’t speak because she had to pick up something for her son. A man who could be seen inside the home refused to answer the door.

Next-door neighbor James Newberry, 78, who said he sold Nash some property near Redding four years ago, described him as a neighborly and helpful family man who works as a carpenter and does not approve of drugs.

Coincidentally, an ordinance drafted several weeks ago that would attempt to make landlords more responsible for drug-related activities on their rental properties will be considered by the City Council tonight.

Advertisement

Under the ordinance, landlords would be required to take action against tenants who city officials have reason to believe are engaged in the manufacture, storage or distribution of illegal drugs. Any landlord who refused to take action to stop the activity could be charged with a misdemeanor, assistant City Atty. Robert Owen said.

Nancy McKee, coordinator of Lawndale’s Neighborhood Watch Program, said she expects the new law to be an effective tool in helping to eradicate drug activity from the city. But, she added, residents also need to take more responsibility for what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“Maybe if the neighbors had gotten to know each other a little more, there might have been a small chance that somebody would have noticed what was going on right there,” McKee said. “But I have a funny feeling we’re going to have real good participation on that block now.”


Advertisement