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Suspicions raised over meth raid at home owned by Bell mayor

In the early hours one Saturday last month, more than a dozen narcotic agents led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department stormed into a cream stucco house in the city of Bell.

Inside, agents said, they seized the components of a large meth lab capable of producing 20 pounds of the drug in a single batch. Two men were taken into custody and two children were placed under the care of the Department of Children and Family Services, authorities had said. Making the bust more newsworthy: The home -- one of three on the property -- is owned by the mayor of Bell, Oscar Hernandez. The raid occurred in a rental home in the back.

But nearly three weeks later, questions are being raised about the account the Sheriff’s Department released about the discovery.

While the Sheriff’s Department insists meth was found in the house, officials with the county Fire Department’s hazardous materials said their test results showed no traces of meth inside or outside the home.

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They also said there was no evidence to indicate meth had been ever produced there.

“Solvents were detected in the soil of the yard,” said Erick Gonzalez, a hazardous materials specialist for the Fire Department, who added that it is unclear whether the solvents could be used to make meth. Soil samples were dug up and placed in blue barrels for testing and disposal, he said.

Children’s department spokeswoman Susan Jakubowski said no children were taken from the home the day of the raid, a fact sheriff’s investigators now acknowledge is true. Officials blamed the inaccurate information on miscommunication between them and the reporting officer. But they stand by their assertion that meth was found at the home, disputing the Fire Department’s findings.

Agents “found traces of products that are used to make methamphetamine,” said sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore. “It was deemed a ‘superlab’ by the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement because it was a lab that had indeed made meth but was not in production when they arrived there.”

Whitmore said an ounce of meth with a street value of $1,500 was also found inside, but investigators did not know whether it had been produced at the home or elsewhere.

Investigators with the multi-agency task force “cleaned it all out as part of the investigation and the hazmat team was called out to see if there was any chemical residue left, and there wasn’t,” Whitmore said.

He also said that the hazmat unit is not responsible for determining whether a meth lab was present.

The two men arrested, renter Carlos Zetina, 25, and his uncle Rogelio Zetina, 49, have been released on $75,000 bail but have not been charged, according to the district attorney’s office.

Hernandez said he’s suspicious of the raid -- and about how the initial news of it was disseminated to the media.

He said he thinks political opponents might have been involved but offered no proof.

“Oscar is very popular and there’s some people who hate him,” Bell Councilman Luis Artiga said.

Whitmore said his department was simply doing its job. “It’s important to listen to the experts as to what was found at any particular site,” he said. “All these people do is track down meth labs; that’s their job. We don’t believe the mayor had any knowledge of this.”

Hernandez, however, feels that message is not getting out. He said his family has been ostracized because of the raid.

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ruben.vives@latimes.com


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