Meth case could end in mistrial

Monday, January 10, 2005

The question of a mistrial was to be decided when the trial of Jay Rex "Jaybird" Etchison, 39, of Oak Grove resumed today, Jan. 7, in Berryville.

Etchison is charged with possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to manufacture methamphetamine, a Class B felony. The charge arises from a series of events between April 10 and 14, 2004, which ended at a residence on County Road 579 where county deputies found components of what appeared to be a meth lab in the trunk of a car, being driven by Etchison, which was parked at the scene.

Initially the jury contained an alternate, but one man was dismissed Wednesday afternoon after he learned he knew some of the persons peripherally involved in the series of events.

Testimony got underway late Wednesday morning with testimony by Deputy Jason Hunt centering on the April 14 serving of a search warrant and getting consent to search, and paperwork involving the various items confiscated from the car's trunk, the passenger side of the car, the basement of the residence, and its back porch.

Initially, officers treated the site as four separate crime scenes, with evidence implicating four persons.

Investigator Alan Hoos, who is certified in meth lab technology, photographed items obtained from the trunk of the car apparently being purchased at the time by Etchison. His testimony resulted in admission as evidence photos of a propane tank; a plastic tote containing plastic sheet and tubing, glass jars, and a pour spout lid to a bottle; a blue plastic container taken from a cooler containing coffee filters and lids to glass jars; a plastic bag taken from a cooler containing acetone, starter fluid, funnels, tubing and other items; hand tools; a old manual meat grinder; a yellow plastic bag containing blue-green pills; a 10-pound bag of Ice Melt, or rock salt; a one-pound can of camp fuel; rubbing alcohol; heavy rubber gloves, shop rags; and other items.

Tina Dennis, who lived at the house where the search was conducted, testified regarding Etchison and other's actions during late March through mid-April.

She readily admitted to her own use of meth, saying that about three weeks prior to the search Etchison had cooked meth at her house. She said she had an arrangement with Etchison that she would get some meth of her own in exchange for letting him use her home, but the meth never materialized, and she finally told Etchison to discontinue using her home, which she shared with an older family member, to make the drug.

On the day the search warrant was served, Dennis said she woke up to the smell of acetone to find Etchison sleeping in her bedroom. Such occurrences were not unusual during the time she was involved with methamphetamine, she said.

Several persons were at her house during the day, and, apparently due to her use of meth, she could not fully recall events of that morning. She said the night before she had made several calls trying to get Etchison to come to her house to help her get some heat going.

Dennis described the effects of her use of meth, saying it gave her energy and reduced appetite, but also caused paranoia, agitation, a short temper, and an ability to obsess on a single thing or project for an extended time

Investigator Ralph Gordon followed Dennis on the witness stand, using a PowerPoint presentation to describe how each item taken from the car's trunk could be used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Gordon described the apparent lab components as a Nazi Method lab, using anhydrous ammonia and lithium.

Individually, possession of items found in the truck is legal, but as Gordon described the meth-cooking process, only ammonia was not among the items needed.

Following Gordon's testimony, Public Defender Rachel Runnels recalled Hoos, clarifying the use of letters and numbers on a inventory sheet of items recovered from around the residence.

Runnels then called Phyllis Cooper as an apparent character witness. Cooper said that she knew Etchison through her granddaughter, and that he had been very helpful to her during a period when her health was poor, doing laundry and dishes, and taking out the garbage, as well as other tasks around the house.

Cooper definitively said that on April 13, the day before she was hospitalized and the day before Etchison was arrested, she had several calls on her caller ID's tape recorder from someone named "Dennis." She said when she got out of the hospital, there was yet another message from the same voice on her machine.

Deputy Prosecutor Chris Flanagin, lead prosecutor in the case, apparently attempted to discredit Cooper's testimony, with a question regarding a relative's alleged meth involvement.

"I object, I object, I object," Runnels intervened, moving for a mistrial by saying that Flanagin's attempt to cast mud on her witness with a question about her knowledge of charges in a separate, yet unproven, case, was improper. Terming his actions as misconduct, she said the question was prejudicial, and that she was "unable to unring the bell" which may have been struck with the jury.

Flanagin maintained the question was appropriate, as character had been brought in by Cooper's testimony.

Announcing that juvenile court would be in session on Thursday, Judge Alan Epley ordered that Runnels and Flanagin have briefs regarding the arguments for and against the motion for mistrial to him by 4 p.m. on Thursday.

He said he would make a decision when attorneys arrive at 8 a.m. Friday. If the motion is denied, testimony is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m.

In action just prior to the noon recess, after the jury was excused, two motions to dismiss charges in other cases were granted.

A theft charge against Trina J. Grogan, 25, of Berryville, was dismissed because no eye witness to the alleged offense could be found.

Criminal mischief and burglary charges against Daniel David Compton, 33, of Urbanette, were dismissed as victims of the alleged crime could not be located.

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