“Breaking Bad”, The Aftermath: Meet The Team That Cleans Up Meth Labs

With TV’s best show blessedly returning to our sets, Maxim takes a look at what happens to real meth labs when they’ve been shut down… and the family that gets paid to deal with the mess.

“They’ve got junkies out there who are so desperate they’ll come back and lick the walls,” says Rick Held of Crisis Cleaning as we wade through a room filled with a sea of garbage—a mirror to someone’s worst moments spilled out all over the floor. I pick up a book among the used syringes on the coffee table. The title reads Know the Word of Jesus in 30 Days. Into the trash it goes. “That high is never duplicated,” Rick continues. “I know this is gross, but they will even try to get it out of their own urine. It’s sick.” 

Death and Meth

Photographed by AJ Mast | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: A crew member cleans the living room; the coffee table was littered with dirty syringes.

That toothless smile you see in some rural areas now is, in all likelihood, due to meth addiction. In both production and use, Indiana is the third largest meth capital in America, right behind Missouri and Tennessee, and in this small town just 25 miles southwest of Bloomington, it’s Breaking Bad for real: a depressed heartland community with dilapidated houses, welcoming churches, and large ‘Stop Abortion’ signs.

The drug is known for destroy­ing communities, but one local family-owned business has found a new meth­amphetamine-based vocation during these hard times. “We do death and meth,” says Donetta Held, who, alongside her husband, Rick, runs Crisis Cleaning, the top meth lab cleanup company in Indiana. Essentially, when cops shut a lab down, the Helds come in and detoxify the place. Since 2007 the demand for their services has dramatically risen. It’s a sad barometer of our economic climate: Meth is the drug of the poor, manufactured with common items found at Walmart, such as sulfuric acid, lighter fluid, and pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in common cold medications. Mix it all up in a soda bottle in the “one pot” method and you’ve got instant crank.

“Meth is the biggest type of cleanup we have right now,” says Donetta, whose family construction company, when it started back in 1955, dealt mostly in fire and water damage. Police started approaching them at trade shows, asking if they did meth lab cleaning. Of the transition to their current focus, she still expresses disbelief. “They were asking for help! When I was a little girl working for my dad’s construction business, I never thought I’d end up in meth.”

Standing in front of a low-rent brick apartment complex on the edge of town, in which one apartment was recently raided by the cops after being exposed as a lab, Donetta, age 51, reflects on how much has changed in the years since her grandfather launched the family business. “We’ll go through periods where we get daily phone calls,” she says.

Photographed by AJ Mast | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: Team Crisis Cleaning goes to work at a former meth lab in rural Indiana.

Cleaning meth labs isn’t an easy job, I’m told. If certain volatile chemicals are inhaled without a mask, they could burn your lungs, to say nothing of the potential kidney ailments and respiratory problems. And those are just the medical issues: Those who cook meth sometimes booby-trap their houses, pouring gasoline into light bulbs so that if the police bust the place and flip a switch, the light fixture will explode. “Assume everything is booby-trapped,” says Donetta grimly. “You never know what you’ll find!”

Enough small talk—it’s time to go in. Looking like a crew entering a Chernobyl reactor, we step over a large patch of dead grass, and through the front door.

Bullets and Paranoia

Photographed by AJ Mast | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: The kitchen, where the meth was cooked. 

Meth cleanup is traditionally covered by insurance: It’s considered a pollutant or act of vandalism, so the landlord gets paid for lost rent. But insurance companies have started to put methamphetamine exclusions in policies. After the police confiscate the lab equipment, they notify the local Health Department. Following this, the property has to be decontaminated by a state-certified company and test below a level of 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters of meth residue.

Exploring inside, it’s like being trapped in a manic guy’s crazed head during his spiraling descent into the abyss—a forlorn legacy left behind in a roach-infested pit.

“It’s almost like Hoarders,” Rick, age 49, says as we sift through trash. “You just don’t know what you’re going to find. I once kicked a guy by accident. He was lying on the floor coming down from meth, and I didn’t see him.” 

Remnants of a distant past life tell a twisted story: a family photo album, foster parent papers, an American flag laid out across the bed. Rick picks up a handful of bullets, which are scattered all over the floor. “They’re paranoid, they think everybody’s after them,” he says. “I’ve been in homes where they literally had guns everywhere—it’s incredible! It’s interesting what you go through. They do odd things—definitely odd things.”

Photographed by AJ Mast | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: Scrubbing down the living room.

“What kind of things?” I ask, throwing a diploma for completion of an anger management course into an industrial-size garbage bag. “Just weird things they get into because they’re on meth. Their brains are like Einstein’s—they’ll get crazy smart.” He pulls out a box of wires and electronic parts kept in a bin and points to the set of hand tools scattered on the stained mattress. “Notice the tools? Their brains are working so hard,” he says. “They’ll take apart a DVD player and put it back together again, then ask, ‘Why did I do that?’” He seems to show a strange admiration for these amateur scientists. “The police are two steps behind them because their brains are going so fast.”

As we talk, the residual chemicals make their way inside my nose and eyes. A layer coats my teeth, creating meth sandpaper, and a metallic taste lingers in my mouth. Rick points at a large hole in the living room wall. “The police found some meth here; the American flag was over the hole—that’s where he kept his drugs.”

The five blue-suited workers continue stuffing garbage into large black trash bags—used aluminum foil, empty Mountain Dew bottles for shake-and-bake creations, pills. From under the couch, Rick pulls out a wad of foil dotted with a large blob of gray ash. “Here’s your meth.” Looking around at the sea of shit that became one man’s life, Rick summarizes: “They’re high, the highest high ever. They’ll never be that high again, and they’re locked into it.”

Shake-and-Bake Explosions

Photographed by AJ Mast | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: Loading the cleaning chemicals to detox the house.

There are three key signs that a place has been used as a meth lab: dead grass where the chem­icals were dumped, a big burn pile in back, and stains on the tub and sink where chemicals were poured out. To an astute observer, the clues are as subtle as a rocket launch—syringes lying in back by the shed next to circles of lifeless yellow grass, a large propane tank, and a bucket with a hole burnt through the bottom from pouring out test cooks. 

“The average person buying property doesn’t think to look for these signs,” Donetta explains. “People have bought property and only later found out that a meth lab was there.” 

Even though a place has been aired out and slapped with a new coat of paint, that doesn’t get rid of the fumes from the smoking and manufacturing. A house can sit for 20 years and still be contaminated. Problems arise. Residents get headaches; small children develop skin rashes. Respiratory problems are common. 

“I would be scared to buy property in Greene County without testing it first,” Donetta says. “I’d say 25 percent of the vacant homes are former meth labs.”

“Why is meth so popular in Indiana?” I ask while a crusty, dun-colored couch is removed from the apartment. 

“It’s rural,” Donetta says. “It’s also easy to make. You don’t have to buy your drugs from anybody. If you want it, you can just go buy the ingredients.”

One packet of Sudafed will make 10–20 milligrams of meth. Throw in a cold-compress pack, a bottle of lye, two AA lithium batteries, some Coleman fuel, iodized salt, sulfuric acid, a couple of empty 20-ounce bottles, some coffee filters, a funnel, two pint-size mason jars, and you’re ready to go. 

Around here 75 percent of meth labs are “shake-and-bake” for individual use—the lowest level of production. All the components are simply mixed up in a plastic soda bottle, which, when shaken up, crystallizes instantly. The downside is it’s extremely volatile. The mixture could explode instantly, like a bomb.

“These guys aren’t chemists—they’re not doing it right,” Donetta sighs. Rick takes a break and adds, “A guy was doing shake-and-bake in his car. It blew up, and the windshield shot back and killed him.”

Neighborhood Watch

Photographed by AJ Mast | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: General filth.

Late model vehicles drive by and slow down. Several front doors are opened in the apartment complex, and neighbors watch as men in blue biohazard jumpsuits begin to carry garbage to a large metal Dumpster. 

“Maybelle! Maybelle!” a neighbor screams from behind a screen door. 

A dog jumps at me, and I maneuver over to her owner, Carol, a heavyset woman with hard-life tales etched on her face. Apparently, she knew the man next door. 

“He started out when he and his girlfriend broke up,” Carol says. “You would hear the water running all night long. And when he answered the door, he was always wearing rubber gloves. I thought that was weird.” 

Around Christmas time the putrid, ammonia-like smell was so pungent that residents started complaining. “When the police went to see him, it was so strong the cop was just wiping his eyes,” says Carol. Looking around the yellow patches of dead grass, she picks up Maybelle and adds, “I’m glad the guy’s in jail because my headaches have gone down. I used to get real bad headaches.”

Back in the apartment, we check out the kitchen, the worst room yet. A 0.5 level registers as contaminated. The kitchen clocks in at 9.73.

“They cooked it here and poured it down the drain,” Rick says as we waddle through a mound of discarded blue rubber gloves. “Every time he cooked, it was a new pair of gloves; looking at those gloves, he was doing it for over eight months.”

Photographed by AJ Mast | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: The bedroom, which was full of glass pipes and bullets.

Meth fumes have caused streaking in the paint in the living room, now a bare shell. Once the carpet is ripped out—and all the garbage and syringes are removed—the deeper cleaning process can begin. The air duct system is fogged. Crystal Clean, a foam developed by the government to kill anthrax—anthrax!—is sprayed on the walls, ceilings, and floor; the chemicals bubble up, neutralizing the toxins. You let it sit for an hour, rinse it off, and you’re done. No fuss! No muss! No more meth!

Although it gets all the contaminants out the first time, Indiana state law requires that four alcohol swabs need to be taken from each room to test the levels in order for the home to be certified. The swabs are put into a vial and overnighted to a lab in Washington state; the results are returned in three to five days.

So if this is how meth addicts live, why the hell do they start smoking it in the first place? “There are good people out there, and they’re not thinking,” Rick says. “Eighty percent of them try it and get addicted. Part of it is they’re depressed at what’s going on in their lives. I feel sorry for them, I really do. But there are other ways to deal with it. You’re just screwing the whole purpose of life.”  

Photos by AJ Mast