By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Long before local and federal agents converged upon a Christopher Street residence believed to be home of an illegal drug lab last week, neighbors of the ordinary-looking ranch-style house knew there was something odd going on.
Multiple 911 calls involving alleged drug overdoses, covered windows, cars coming and going during all hours raised many eyebrows and questions as to why police weren’t addressing what was common knowledge to nearby residents, that a drug house was part of the neighborhood.
According to City Marshal Thomas Howard, police have also known something illegal could have been transpiring there, but until a well-trained police officer was able to notice something wrong inside the house — a gray haze inside the kitchen prompting a well-being check — there was nothing legally they could do to gain access.
Police first responded home on the quiet side road located off Jefferson Street in the Atkinson Common area of the city around 3 p.m. Tuesday after emergency units responded to a medical aid call at 11:54 a.m. involving a man lying on the ground near the home.
The victim, whom Howard called a member of the family living there, was transported to Anna Jaques Hospital, where he was treated and released. Howard called the victim, around 50 years old, a person of interest in his department’s investigation into the matter but could not reveal more details.
The next morning DEA agents, aided by local police and Merrimac police Chief Eric Shears, returned to the house and were seen removing jugs of chemicals, cans and other items. Items were photographed and then placed on a plastic sheet pinned to the ground just outside the house.
On nearby Plummer Street, the house had drawn the attention of a neighborhood watch group. Last summer, neighborhood watch members circulated an email about the residents, detailing some of the suspicious activity there and calling on more action from police, according to members.
“It can happen anywhere,” Plummer Street resident Jennifer Collins said during a recent phone interview, referring to a situation like Christopher Street.
Another member, who declined to be named, voiced concern that police failed to act even after responding to numerous complaints and 911 calls from neighbors regarding strange activity there.
Howard said police have been patrolling the street regularly and taking neighbors’ complaints very seriously.
“I think the neighborhood has been frustrated and I understand. Having said that, we did everything we could do legally up until the day of the raid of the house,” Howard said.
He added that it was the action of an observant police officer who noticed a potentially hazardous situation, gray haze, that allowed police to gain entry and discover the laboratory.
“The raid was an example of good police work,” Howard said.
Police are continuing their investigation into who was making illegal drugs inside the house and consider the victim of last week’s medical aid call a person of interest. Last week, Howard said he believed at least one arrest was likely.
Howard stressed that all hazardous materials were removed and the house cleaned by a professional company. In other words, the area was safe and there was no danger to the community.
Howard said chemicals and drugs found inside the house have been sent to a laboratory for analysis. While Howard said he has suspicions as to the type of drug being manufactured, he was not ready to say it publicly until lab workers returned their findings.
According to reports, the state fire marshal’s office stated the house was a “possible meth lab.” But other possibilities could include club drugs such as MDMA, DMT or Special K. Last June, police raided a large drug manufacturing center inside a storage unit just off Route 133 in Rowley. Days later, a Georgetown man accused of operating a Special K or ketomine conversion lab inside the self-storage unit turned himself in to Rowley police.
According to the city’s online assessor’s database, the Christopher Street house is owned by Christopher M. Kelleher Trust and was built in 1956. Howard said the house is known to have had many tenants over the years. The building inspector was investigating an illegal apartment within the house.
In the months leading to last week’s dramatic raid, neighbors have long held the belief that something illegal or potentially dangerous was taking place at the house. Reports of cars speeding up and down the street and persons entering the location at all hours of the night were common, prompting noise complaints to police.