BUXTON — It was just before 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday when two Buxton police officers were called to a church on Chicopee Road for suspicious activity.

In a children’s playroom on the second floor of the Buxton United Methodist Church, Officers Eric Sanborn and Warren Day found items consistent with manufacturing methamphetamine. Within hours, 33-year-old Matthew Anderson, a Buxton man who had occasionally attended the church and whose uncle serves on the church board, was arrested and charged with unlawful operation of a methamphetamine lab.

Matthew Anderson, 33, arrested for allegedly operating the meth lab, remains in custody at the York County Jail. Buxton Police Department via AP

The discovery of the meth on Dec. 5 shocked the community and garnered national headlines. Nearly two weeks later, the small church in a rural corner of Buxton is closed, displacing the congregation of 94 members until dangerous chemicals are removed.

While the Methodist church is decontaminated, services are being held at a nearby church, toys donated for Christmas have to be replaced, and children will perform their Christmas pageant in makeshift costumes because their originals are inside the closed building.

“It’s a challenging time for the church and the congregation,” said Beth DiCocco, spokeswoman for the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church. “I think the church is doing what the church has always done, which is pull together and find the best way forward. They’re doing what they need to do and are being supported by each other.”

The Rev. Lynn Briggs, the Buxton church’s pastor, declined through DiCocco to be interviewed. In a letter to the congregation obtained by the American Journal, Briggs said that every space in the church will be tested at a potential cost of $5,000 to $6,000.

“The insurance company may not pay for this, but it is the only way we can be certain that our church family and the public will be completely safe,” Briggs wrote.

Briggs said in an interview with NECN that closing the building until it is decontaminated “was heartbreaking.”

The range of emotions “has been horrible,” she told the news station.

Briggs told NECN that Anderson was discovered cooking meth in a bathroom across the hall from the playroom and a substance was found in a bag in a closet in the children’s area. She also said the congregation is focused on compassion rather than blame.

Last week, the North Congregational Church took up a special collection during its annual Christmas concert to help defray the cost of that cleanup.

“It is such a violation to have your church broken into,” said the Rev. Dr. Cathy Genthner from the Congregational church. “To set up a meth lab just really surprised and saddened everyone that a house of worship would be used for such a thing.”

Anderson, the man arrested for allegedly operating the meth lab, remains in custody at the York County Jail and through his court-appointed attorney declined to be interviewed.

Anderson previously worked as a general laborer but was injured last summer, according to court records.

Court records shed little light on how the meth lab was discovered or why Anderson was allegedly in the church. He is the nephew of Henry Anderson, who is head of the church’s administrative board.

“Henry Anderson and all of the church’s leadership have fully cooperated with the police in their investigation,” DiCocco said. “These are volunteers, and they have been working diligently to address this situation so the church can reopen.”

Hiram Davis, a member of the church’s administrative council, told the American Journal the suspected activity was a “one-time incident” and said Matthew Anderson must have known the code to the church security system. He described Matthew Anderson as a polite Bonny Eagle graduate who grew up in the church and attended services sporadically.

DiCocco said church leaders decided not to distribute toys that had been collected for the Buxton Toy Box, a local program that provides Christmas gifts to families in need. The church is working to replace those toys, she said.

“They want the community to be assured that all the items they will distribute are completely safe,” she said.

Today, most at-home methamphetamine production requires about eight chemicals that are relatively easy to obtain or are sold as components of other products. For instance, the lithium used as part of the meth-making reaction is relatively safe when sealed inside batteries, but the substance is highly reactive with water if it is extracted and improperly handled.

Other ingredients, such as anhydrous ammonia, can burn and scar the lungs if inhaled in high concentrations. Altogether, the process produces corrosive gases and flammable or even explosive byproducts.

Damage to the surrounding room or environment where the methamphetamine is manufactured depends on the method used and how many times meth was produced in one location, said Matt Cashman, a Lewiston police officer assigned to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency who has helped respond to meth labs for 17 years. And even the terminology is misleading, he said.

Few, if any meth “labs” discovered in Maine resemble a place where science would take place.

“A lot of people when they hear about these meth labs, they think ‘Breaking Bad,'” Cashman said, referring to the former TV series on AMC. “We don’t have Walter Whites in the state of Maine. We have people who learn from other cooks or chemists.”

The warrant that Matthew Anderson was originally arrested for stemmed from a failed attempt to make methamphetamine in a vehicle in Standish on Aug. 1 that resulted in the car burning to the ground, Cashman said.

The production of methamphetamine involves dangerous chemicals that can remain in the environment long after a lab as been shut down. The church has hired 24 Trauma, the firm that handled the Boston Marathon bombing cleanup, to assess and clean up the church, according to the American Journal. That process is expected to begin this week.

The discovery of meth labs in Maine has been on the decline, due in part to the rising importation of high-quality methamphetamine manufactured in Mexico and shipped to the United States by drug cartels. But Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officers still find dozens  home-brew labs each year.

MDEA agents responded to 126 meth labs or meth lab dump sites in 2016, the highest number recorded in a single year. In 2017, agents found 58 labs, and in 2018, the number declined to 52 labs, according to the drug agency. So far this year, MDEA agents have responded to 34 labs and are tracking toward another annual decline.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: