Meth suspects could get life

A blaze on May 31 in Building D at the Pine Harbour Apartments in Goose Creek killed three people. A meth lab is widely believed to have played a role in the fatal fire.

Nearly two months after a deadly fire ravaged Building D at the Pine Harbour Apartments, the gutted structure still looms large behind a chain link fence, the charred remnants of people’s lives spilling from its wounds and littering its grounds.

Neighbor Pat McIntosh gets a chill when she hears the building’s loose metal and strips of melted siding whipping back and forth in the night breeze. “It’s eerie to hear it out there.”

Another neighbor, Miranda Wilkerson, takes the long way around when she leaves her apartment so she won’t have to drive by Building D. “I just don’t like looking at it at all,” she said.

The scorched hulk in Goose Creek stands as an ever-present reminder of the raging inferno that engulfed the 16-unit building on May 31, killing three people and displacing 46.

The fallout from that day continued to reverberate Tuesday from a federal courtroom in downtown Charleston to the halls of Congress, where the fire was invoked in a hearing on the dangers of methamphetamine labs.

A meth lab is widely believed to be behind the fatal blaze, though authorities acknowledged that they don’t have sufficient evidence yet to conclusively make that link. Still, they are coming down hard on two reputed meth cooks accused of brewing a batch of the drug in the building that burned.

Bill Nettles, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, announced at a news conference that a federal grand jury had handed down a three-count indictment against the alleged lab operators that could land them in prison for the rest of their lives.

Shonni “Scooter” Abernathy, 39, and Jerald McCabe, 33, are charged with conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine, creating a substantial risk of harm to human life while manufacturing methamphetamine and manufacturing methamphetamine where children reside.

If convicted, the pair faces the possibility of life in prison, a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years behind bars and up to $10 million in fines. The two men were arraigned in U.S. District Court in Charleston Tuesday. They have been in custody since their arrest on state charges last month.

The fire at Pine Harbour took the lives of Abernathy’s daughter, 19-year-old Morgan Abernathy; the cousin she was babysitting, 4-year-old Sammy Garbe; and 69-year-old veteran Joseph Raeth. Abernathy and McCabe had been brewing up fresh batches of meth in the apartment where Morgan and Sammy died, investigators said. Raeth had the misfortune of living just down the hall.

State Law Enforcement Division Lt. Max Dorsey described the three as innocent victims as he told members of Congress about the fire during testimony Tuesday about the meth problem.

“These people did nothing wrong,” he said. “They were victims of circumstance. Their circumstance was that they were in their apartments in close proximity to a meth lab.”

Dorsey told Congress that meth labs have become a troubling epidemic in South Carolina, taxing law enforcement resources and jeopardizing citizens.

The El Paso Intelligence Center has determined that South Carolina is one of the top 10 meth producing states in the nation, and some 302 meth labs were discovered here in just the first six months of 2012, he said.

Dorsey and others described the volatile and dangerous nature of meth labs. And while investigators have not “exclusively” linked the meth lab found in Building D to the start of the Pine Harbour fire, “it most certainly may have contributed to the spread of the fire,” Dorsey said.

“During this manufacturing process, something went wrong and a fire ensued, causing the destruction of 16 units in the complex and the death of three innocent victims,” he said.

Residents and eyewitnesses have maintained that the blaze followed a loud pop or explosion that came from the area where the lab was found.

In Charleston, Nettles stressed that the investigation into the fatal fire remains open and active. He spoke alongside Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt and a throng of local, state and federal investigators.

“The circumstances surrounding this case are tragic, and the Goose Creek community needs to know that this case is a priority for each of the federal, state and local law enforcement agencies involved,” he said.

Harry S. Sommers, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Atlanta office, said the Pine Harbour fire shows that meth not only harms addicts but those around them as well.

“This case is an example of what we all too frequently see with methamphetamine — destroyed families and communities with shattered lives.”

DeWitt described the deaths as “senseless losses” and the fire as “one of the most tragic events to ever occur in the Goose Creek community.”

Abernathy and McCabe have not been directly charged with causing the deaths that occurred, and prosecutors said it is too early to say whether that will happen.

Wilson said a good deal of potential evidence was destroyed in the fast-burning fire. Tests are still being conducted and more charges are still possible, she said.

Wilson said state charges of meth-making are still lodged against both men, but a federal prosecution is more likely because that route would probably lead to stiffer punishments for the pair.

Federal courts also allow “relevant conduct” to be evaluated at sentencing, meaning the fire deaths could be considered when punishment is meted out, regardless of whether the men are specifically charged with causing those deaths, Wilson said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips, lead prosecutor on the case, said the two men could come to trial within a year’s time.

At Pine Harbour, residents applauded the federal indictments and said they hoped the men get the maximum sentence of life. “The punishment seems fitting,” resident Ken Harris said.

Nancy Edwards, who lost her grandson in the fire, agreed. Abernathy was her niece’s common-law husband, and the fire has created great stress and divide in her family.

Her niece, Alberta Pierson, 35, and Morgan’s boyfriend, Michael Still, 19, also face state charges related to the meth operation.

Edwards said she still speaks to her niece when they run into each other, but as far for Abernathy, “He’s nothing to me. I hope he gets what he deserves.”

Edwards said time has done nothing to dull the pain she and her family are experiencing. “About every time I think about it, I start crying.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.